You attend a teacher-parent conference meeting, and the teacher is telling you about how well your child is with reading, participating in group, and answering questions. You wonder silently to yourself, my child goes straight to his room, and he doesn’t answer questions consistently. Or maybe it’s the other way around; your child does really well at home, but he does not perform as well in school. Does that sound familiar?
This is explained in Applied Behavior Analysis, and the term of the day is “Behavioral Contrast”!
“Behavioral contrast” occurs when the child’s behavior changes if there’s difference in location (e.g., home versus school), people (e.g., parents versus teachers), or both! In everyday language, it is due to the rules and consequences being different, which means that the child’s behavior may be rewarded, punished, or ignored depending on where they are, or who they are with.
For example, if a child asks for a cookie at home, and he is told “no”, he might accept it, and move on. However, if he is in the store, and he is told “no”, he might not accept it and engage in the tantrum behavior. The likely reason behind this is probably related to how many times a child is told “no” at home versus in the store, in addition to the parent’s ability to ignore tantrum behavior at home versus the store.
So, what do we about this? Quite a bit. Consistency and practice across different environments and/or people are key components in reducing behavioral contrast. If the response (how you respond) to the child is consistently the same across environments and people, then that can minimize the contrast quite a bit. Additionally, it is important to program a response that people in the child’s life can implement, whether they are at home, school, or a location in the community.
Sometimes, things happen, and the program/plan is not followed. That is completely ok! That’s why it is important to communicate and collaborate with the people who work or live with the child. This is necessary to maintain consistency as much as possible and give the child the opportunity to learn the skills in different environments/people.