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Work Contracts: Boooooo. Steve Ward, MA, BCBA Whole Child Consulting, LLC. “What do you want to work for?”. Who has heard teachers ask their students this question? So what?

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Work Contracts: Boooooo

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Work contracts boooooo

Work Contracts:Boooooo

Steve Ward, MA, BCBA

Whole Child Consulting, LLC

What do you want to work for

“What do you want to work for?”

  • Who has heard teachers ask their students this question?

  • So what?

  • I wish I could honestly say that you should NEVER use them, but there are some specific circumstances when I may use them. I’m not here to talk about those, though…

Immediate consequences

Immediate consequences

  • What is the consequence of the student’s mand? (Hint: it is not specific to the item named.)

  • Some students, one of whom we worked with, stop manding. Mands tend to weaken.

What if you can t identify a reinforcer worthy of the work

What if you can’t identify a reinforcer worthy of the work?

  • One student literally answered “No” when asked “do you want to work for swing or swimming?” He valued each, but not as much as task avoidance.

  • Of course, this is first an issue of identifying effective reinforcers and making work palatable, but this issue won’t be resolved by asking what they want to work for.

What if they change their mind

What if they “change their mind”?

  • By the end of a work session, students frequently want something different than what they initially manded. This isn’t necessarily problematic, but some teachers will hold them to their original mand. You could make an argument for that. If you’re not going to do that, why bother having them mand in the first place?

What about generalization

What about generalization?

  • Stokes and Baer (1967) discussed, among other things, “indiscriminable contingencies”. Learners who will only cooperate when they clearly know “what’s in it for them” will not be consistently cooperative.

What about renegotiation

What about renegotiation?

  • One of the first students for whom I consulted, on the first visit, was asked to get his pencil. His immediate response was “First pencil, then _____?” He was manding a contract. This is related to the “clarity of contract” issue. The answer to “get your pencil” is not “what’ll you give me if I do?”

More renegotiation

More renegotiation…

  • What’s worse, the teacher’s first offer was “then crayons”, and the student shook his head. The second offer was “then tv”…another head shake. Finally, the teacher said “then whip” (get your head out of the gutter, it was whip cream with extra sweeteners). The student agreed.

What s wrong with that

What’s wrong with that?

  • The student is only responding when something potent is clearly in it for them, and the stingier the student becomes, the more generous the teacher becomes. This is the “slippery slope”. Some teachers spend 30 seconds negotiating contracts for every 60 seconds of work. Sometimes it’s 60 seconds of negotiating for 10 seconds of work. What will they be able to teach?

But isn t it important to motivate your learners

But isn’t it important to motivate your learners?

  • Of course, but there are other ways to do it.

  • And, I think most of us here are loyal to behavior analysis…we need to minimize our contact with the potential pitfalls of poorly planned reinforcement, in part, to minimize the assaults on reinforcement from other disciplines (Danny and the van, Patrick and Pokemon cards)

Contingency shaping

Contingency Shaping

  • Behavior changes as a function of reinforcement, whether or not a contract was spelled out.

Reinforcer sampling

Reinforcer sampling

  • Teaching sessions, particularly for naïve learners, can begin with reinforcer sampling. This involves an investigation of their interests, and they ACTUALLY GET to contact the reinforcers, rather than merely having reinforcers dangled in front of them. Students are happy to do this.

Mand training

Mand training

  • Similar to reinforcer sampling, if your learner has “room for growth” in their mand repertoires, they will likely be happy to do so during their work sessions. If they have other tasks to do, as well, intersperse those in between opportunities to mand. But, REINFORCE THE MANDS!

Condition yourself as a reinforcer

Condition yourself as a reinforcer

  • Spend time engaging your student in activities that are “better with you than without you”. If you become fun, and you can make your sessions fun, your student will be happy to join you.

Demand fading

Demand fading

  • “Demand fading” refers to a strategy in which a teacher introduces small amounts of demands, until a student shows they are consistently willing to cooperate, and then those demands are slowly increased.

Reducing task aversion

Reducing task aversion

  • Well-timed prompts reduce a student’s desire to escape/avoid tasks.

  • Students don’t want to escape fun tasks.

  • Tasks that are clear, and at the student’s level, tend to produce success, and success tends to reduce motivation for escape.

  • Demand fading.

  • Shaping.

  • Schedule of reinforcement.

  • Use the IGLR to identify the variables most-relevant to your student’s cooperation.



  • This doesn’t relate only to the speed of task presentation, but also to the interspersal of momentum-builders with momentum-drainers. It also refers to the interspersal of tasks involving varied learning channels.

Controlling access to reinforcers

Controlling access to reinforcers

  • If most meaningful reinforcers are only available through engagement with the teacher, your student will tend to engage willingly.

Token economies

Token economies

  • For students with some experience, it is fairly easy to establish token economies. Then, rather than talking about potential reinforcers for a lot of cooperation, teachers can deliver tokens for little bits of cooperation. This is effective, and completely avoids the “slippery slope” of renegotiation.

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