Behavioral Contrast: You’re not imagining it!

Published June 30, 2022
the same child expressing two opposite emotions

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • He does a great job following directions in Ms. Brown’s class, but when he goes to Ms. Smith’s class, he needs redirected constantly 
  • When she is with her grandparents she is SOOOOO well behaved, but when she is with her aunt…look out!
  • He is a better listener with babysitter Mary than with babysitter Jane. OMG!

As a parent, teacher, or caregiver, these situations can make your head spin. They are  common, but can leave you feeling flabbergasted. There are some easy things you can do to help your child be more balanced across people and places. 

First of all, we have a term for this in the ABA world: Behavioral Contrast. 

Definition: The phenomenon in which a change in consequences increases or decreases the rate of responding in one situation, which is accompanied by a change in responding in the opposite direction when the consequences remain the same in another situation.…WHAT?

In other words, when the expectations or consequences are different from situation to situation you will see different or contrasting behaviors in those two situations. It is as simple as that! Good with her grandma, wild with her aunt.

If you think about it, this makes total sense!  

At grandma’s house, candy is always available and your child gets candy whenever they are good. But you try to keep candy out of YOUR house and give out high fives instead. The consequences are different. Do you think your praise and high fives means as much to your child as a snickers bar? It could, but probably not. (We can work on that too!) 

Fear not, we are not advocating to always give your child candy. Here are a few tips that may help minimize the impact of behavioral contrast.

  1. Consistency: Do your best to keep the consequences consistent. 
  2. Reserve the best things for really great behavior: When your child has good behavior, make sure they have access to some of their favorite things. If they start some less desirable behaviors, remind them of what they need to do to earn back those favorite things. Keep in mind that the more a child has access to an item, the less fun it becomes, so save their absolute favorite things and use them only sparingly. This could look like coloring instead of Playdough. For older children they can start to earn things at a later time/date.
  3. Prime your child: Prepare them for a change in expectations. It is natural for expectations to be different from one place to another and from one person to another.  Discuss the differences  and make sure they are reinforced for meeting your expectations in all places and with all people.
  4. Teach replacement behaviors: Our lives don’t always go as planned. We know this, but our children are still learning how to express their frustration. Teach your child what to do when things don’t go as planned. Examples could include, counting to 10, asking for help from a trusted adult, or choosing another activity.

With all of these tips, you have to keep in mind what is developmentally appropriate for your child. Consider how many words you are using in your sentences, the pace of your speech, and how many choices you are offering. If your child is escalated or slightly escalated, consider waiting to talk to them about the situation until they calm down. For more information about what is considered developmentally appropriate for your child check out this website: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html 

Mom, Dad, teacher, babysitter – you’ve got this! Change can take some time, but the principles of ABA always work! Hang in there!


By: Courtney Vaughan, M.S., BCBA, LBA

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

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