How to Take Family Conversations from Painful to Pleasant

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By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer, and your “Behavior BFF”

A parent writes:  “My son likes to talk about the Octonauts (Cartoon). If I hear one more thing about Kwazii the cat, I may stab myself in the ear. Help!”

I think so many parents can make this exact statement, just change out Octonauts for whatever your kid is into right now: Santa, trains, Frozen, the weather, a book, the number four, whatever! But please refrain from injuring your own eardrums. There are positive behavior supports to employ before resorting to anything extreme! 

Let’s get technical for a minute. Have you ever heard of DRL: Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates? If you are an ABA nerd like me, the answer had better be yes. If you are a mom (also like me), the answer is probably now. With DRL, you provide reinforcement for responses that are lower than a criterion you set.

How many times a day does your child talk about (insert preferred and rather annoying subject here)? Let’s say 20. Set a number lower than 20. Your child can talk about that subject 15 times tomorrow to earn positive reinforcement.

You set a number that is acceptable to us and achievable to the child. You can’t go from 20 times a day to 5 times a day. That may be acceptable to you, but will your child ever get to earn that positive reinforcement? Doubtful.

A structured way you can set this up in your family is to create a behavior contract (aka contingency contract). This is a physical document that outlines the exact behavior that must be completed to earn a specified reward. It also includes a place to keep track of that behavior & reward. It needs to be specific.

Write down the exact task to complete. The task in this situation would be talk about ___subject____   no more than __number___ times. 

Specify the reward. If this contract is going to last all day, the reward had better be pretty good — what is the reward, when will it be received, how much of it — be precise!

And finally, include a task record. This means you write down whether or not they achieved it that day. You could put some tally marks down to show the number of times your child talked about that subject. Or you could just put a check mark or happy face on days when the reward was earned.

What’s the purpose of documenting this? So you can review it again with your child and show them the progress they are making!

What if the contract isn’t working? If they aren’t making progress, then revisit your criteria. Do you need to raise the number of times they talk about Octonauts a little? Is the reward not awesome enough? Do you need more options? Is a whole day too long? Do you need to do a reward opportunity for the morning and the evening? There are options here! Step away from the silverware — do not stab yourself in the eardrum!

The physical visibility of the contract can be a helpful cue or response prompt to remind your child how many times they have left to talk about Octonauts or it may be a visual reminder of that potential reinforcer coming their way. Hang it on the fridge or some other prominent spot to serve as a helpful tool in and of itself!

Over time, you should be able to lower that daily goal. From 20 times a day, to 18 times a day, to 15 times a day, to 12 times a day, etc. Don’t go too fast. Let your child be successful at each level a few times before lowering that number of allowed times they can talk about their favorite thing. And don’t go too low. I don’t want my daughter to think I never ever want to hear about what she is into. I do, however, want her to learn some balance and variety when it comes to conversation topics.

If your son’s conversations about Octonauts are decreasing, does he know what else to talk about? You need to teach him some other replacement topics that are appropriate and interesting to him. We aren’t going to jump from Octonauts to the Blacklist or Grey’s Anatomy, but maybe he can talk about books instead of just his favorite TV show. How about talking about experiences he’s had? Making plans for the future? Give him some choices of topics and model those conversations. Encourage and provide positive reinforcement when he uses any different appropriate topic of conversation.

Here it is in a nutshell:

Set a reasonable & doable number of times your child can engage in that behavior (talking about Octonauts). Provide positive reinforcement when he stays at or under that level. This is called DRL: Differential reinforcement of low rates of responding.

Formalize it with a behavior contract. Be specific. Hang it where it can be seen. Document progress. Revise as needed.

Teach your child a replacement behavior. What CAN he talk about instead? Make it appropriate for your child, for the situation, but make it something he is interested in. Maybe he doesn’t love these other topics as much as Octonauts, but pick some interesting topics to keep him engaged.

And most importantly, don’t stab yourself in the ear!  Find a way to make pleasant conversations in your home possible.  No, more than just a possibility, make pleasant family conversations a regular occurrence. You can do it!

Unfortunately, none of these are my original ideas that I can lay claim to. No fame and fortune for me, but I will share good research with you on these topics.

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed.). Columbus: Pearson.

Dardig, J.C., & Heward, W.L. (1981). Sign here: A contracting book for children and their parents (2nd ed.). Bridgewater, NJ: Fournies.

DeMartini-Scully, D., Bray, M.A., & Kehle, T.J. (2000). A packaged intervention to reduce disruptive behaviors in general education students. Psychology in the Schools, 37(2), 149-156.

Malott, R.W. (1989). The achievement of evasive goals: Control by rules describing contingencies that are not direct acting. IN S.C. Hayes (Ed.) Rule-governed behavior: Cognition, contingencies, and instructional control (pp. 269-322). Reno, NV: Context Press.

Ruth, W.J. (1996). Goal setting and behavioral contracting for students with emotional and behavioral difficulties: Analysis of daily, weekly, and total goal attainment. Psychology in the Schools, 33, 153-158.

Do you have questions for Behavior BFF? Leave a question here in the comments, email the writer, or check out any bSci21 social media outlets to leave your question or problem scenario!  Also be sure to subscribe to bsci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at lpagebcba@gmail.com.

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