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Guest Post: Behavior Plans/Contracts for ADHD at School

Posted Apr 05 2011 6:20pm
by Anna Fambrough

Behavior plans, or behavior contracts, are an invaluable tool for both teachers and parents. Over the past 2-3 years, we’ve had various experiences with them from plans that weren’t implemented consistently to plans that were way too detailed for the impulsive, ADHD child to understand. About a year ago, we developed a plan with input from his teacher and counselor which actually worked and motivated Austin, our six-year-old son with ADHD. The idea behind a behavior plan is to motivate the child to monitor their own behavior and to make the child more aware of their actions and how decisions they make impact them. Plus, it gives the teacher a clear picture if a particular time of day is more troubling than another.

Our initial behavior plan in kindergarten broke down Austin’s day by activity. For each activity he got a smiley face, straight face, or frowny face for the activity. The goal was to both show him his daily schedule and evaluate his behavior during each daily activity. While the idea behind the plan was good, it was too detailed and complicated for a five-year-old to understand.

Developing a behavior plan requires collaboration with the child’s teacher. In the revised plan, we pinpointed three behaviors that were trouble areas for Austin: keeping his hands to himself, using a kind voice, and throwing rocks. Austin would routinely touch other children (hugs, kisses, hitting, etc.). He would also get in other children’s faces and make noises. Throwing rocks on the playground at recess was a huge problem as well. As with most impulsive kids, “I don’t know” was the answer we’d get when we asked why Austin why he was doing these things, and we truly believe that he didn’t know why. Keeping the goals on his chart limited to just 2-3 behaviors kept Austin focused and motivated. Any more than three was overwhelming for him.

After pinpointing the three behaviors, we came up with a rating and points system. Each behavior was broken down by morning, lunch and afternoon. A smiley face equaled 2 points, a straight face equaled 1 point, and a frowny face equaled 0 points. The idea was that Austin could have received a frowny face in the morning for keeping his hands to himself but had two other opportunities to earn points for that behavior that day. Just because there was one frowny face for the day didn’t mean that he’d had a bad day. 

We also set a goal for the day. Initially, we set the goal low (8 points) to get him used to the plan. After a few days, we increased the goal to 10 points and so on until we reached 12 points. If he earned his goal or above, he could go to the counselors office and pick a prize from the treasure box. Austin had spent lots of time during the first few months of kindergarten in either the counselor’s office or the principal’s office, so immediate rewards were especially important in the beginning to reinforce the good behavior.

Austin’s school experience improved dramatically over the course of the year with the behavior plan in place.  He started to see how his behavior could positively or negatively impact him and by the end of the year he wasn’t visiting the counselor or the principal on a frequent basis. The phone calls from the school diminished too, welcome news to us.

At the beginning of first grade, I told Austin that I had given his new teacher his behavior contract from the previous year. His response was “Mommy, I already know the rules.” We tried the first semester without the daily behavior contract. Every day we would ask Austin how his day was and he’d say “Fine.”  A few weeks before Christmas break, on the way to school, he asked if he could start his chart again.  I think this was his way of telling us that he needed it to monitor himself. And he had been having more trouble at school (poking a girl with a pencil, writing on his desk and other children’s things, etc.).  This was the impulsive behavior that we saw in kindergarten. 

Over Christmas break, I worked with Austin’s teacher to identify the three behaviors she saw in the classroom where he was struggling: (1) I’ll keep my hands to myself; (2) I’ll be where I’m supposed to be;  and (3) I’ll follow directions the first time and we came up with a new behavior chart . I sent small rewards for the teacher to give Austin at the end of the day. While we’ve had some ups and downs so far this semester, Austin communicates more with us about his day. He knows that we’ll see his chart and see a frowny face and ask him what happened.  Most of the time he’s forthcoming about it and we don’t have to press him for details.

We’ve always told Austin’s teachers (past and present) that we don’t want to know every tiny detail about his day. And we believe there are certain small things that can and should be handled in the classroom instead of being sent to the principal’s office. In kindergarten, the teacher went overboard with the details and was always sending him to the office for one reason or another. This year, in first grade, we got a teacher who has 20+ years experience and has an ADHD child herself. She knows firsthand how to handle a child like Austin both from personal and professional experience. We’ve received just the right amount of communication from her and Austin’s school experience is going well.

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Anna Fambrough resides in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, almost 7 year old and 2 ½ year old sons, and a new baby girl born in March. Her oldest son was diagnosed with ADHD over a year ago at the age of 5 ½.  Anna works full time in the health insurance industry and since her son’s diagnosis has been researching behavior modifications that may help with his impulsive behavior issues. Follow her family blog, The Fambrough Follies .

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