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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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?
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.
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?”
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.
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?
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)
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.