The Four-Term Contingency of Advocacy for Children with Special Needs

Meghan Cave, M.Ed, BCBA

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed, BCBA

Guest Authors

In keeping with our practice, we begin this article in true behavior analyst fashion by providing you, the reader, with an operational definition of the target behavior you will be able to demonstrate a short two pages from now. For those new to this, an operational definition breaks down something a person does into an observable and measurable description that can be agreed upon with little to no subjectivity. This is crucial in developing common and clear goals amongst people. So, by the end of this article, it is our goal that you will be able to operationally define what is often referenced in the ABA world as the four-term contingency and recognize its relevance to the challenges that exist when advocating for students with special needs.

Although this term sounds like highly technical jargon that warrants dusting off your good, old-fashioned dictionary, you actually encounter four-term contingencies constantly throughout your daily life.  This phrase simply refers to how motivation (motivating operation) affects a person’s behavior in the presence or absence of certain cues (antecedents) and the environmental changes (consequences) that occur as a result.

Let’s start with motivating operation.  Motivating operation, aka “MO,” in layman’s terms is defined as the set of circumstances you find yourself in at any moment in time that alter your predisposition to behave in certain ways, in response to a variety of stimuli. From the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep, a variety of circumstances impact our motivation to do (or not do) certain things.  As our motivation changes, the likelihood of our behavior having reinforcing or punishing consequences varies as well.   For example, consider a new mother tending to a waking infant throughout the night.  Several cups of coffee later, she continues to be sleepless and tired, which greatly increases the reinforcing nature of taking a nap and the aversive nature of staying up past her bedtime to catch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Next, let’s review term two: the antecedent.  An antecedent is something in the environment that occurs right before a behavior and may actually trigger a behavior.  For example, along your drive, the traffic light turns red.  This is an antecedent, as it results in your pushing your foot on the brake to slow down.  Likewise, your alarm clock rings promptly at 6:00 am.  In response, you stretch your arms and get out of bed. Both environmental changes occur directly before the behavior and cue it to occur.

Term three, behavior, represents the component in which we are most aware.  Behavior is anything a person or living thing does. Typing on a computer is a behavior, as is doing the dishes or reading a book. Sometimes, people synonymously use the word “behavior” to mean problem behavior they want to get rid of, for example, “he has such bad behavior” or “he’s constantly having behaviors.”  But, it’s important to note that not all behaviors are bad.  For example, running on the treadmill when you want to lose weight is a wanted behavior we’d like to increase.

This leads us to the final term in the four-term contingency, the consequence. The consequence is any event that follows a behavior that affects its future occurrence. In everyday use, the term consequence is accompanied by a negative connotation, but this is actually a gross misunderstanding of the definition, according to the field of ABA. We automatically assume that a consequence equates with a punishment for bad behavior, such as the classic time-out procedure, issuance of fines, or loss of privileges. However, a consequence is not necessarily a bad thing; it is simply a change in the environment that occurs as the result of a behavior. Reconsider the car example mentioned previously. The light turns red (antecedent), you push the brake with your foot (behavior), and you avoid crashing into the vehicles that have now entered the intersection (a very desirable consequence).

The four-term contingency described above has been applied effectively to improve many different fields, from animal science to healthcare to environmental sustainability.  Most commonly, it has been applied to the improvement of education for children with special needs.  Although we are quick to consider the relevance of ABA to the students we support, we often forget that these same principles would prove beneficial to us as advocating adults.  Here, we review how the four-term contingency applies to the interrelationships between professionals and caregivers, namely school staff, administrators, advocates, lawyers, and parents, all of whom share responsibility for advocating for children with special needs.

The Impact of Motivating Operations

First, we must keep in mind that we are all subject to the power of motivating operations, which may have an impact on the reinforcing or punishing outcomes of our behavior.  Motivating operations change the way parents, advocates, lawyers, and school staff interact with each other. It is imperative that we consider how such circumstances make the consequences of our behavior more aversive or more rewarding.  For example, if a parent receives a daily communication log from staff, she may be less motivated to make a FERPA request for documents, as she is already in constant direct contact with the school.

Identify the Antecedents

Next, we must make an effort to identify the antecedents that occur directly before a maladaptive change in the behaviors of parents, advocates, lawyers, and school staff. If we can identify causes for our own problem behaviors, we can work together to reduce triggers to the greatest degree possible and replace them with antecedents for collaborative, effective, and teamwork-oriented behaviors instead.  For example, a team member’s unexpected absence from a PPT meeting may cause tension and an increase in behaviors that do not correlate with student progress.  What could we do instead?

Identify our Own Challenging Behaviors

In order to change the way we work together as parents, advocates, lawyers, and school staff for the better, we must also recognize the nature of our challenging behavior.  Simply put, we must describe the things we say and do that directly contradict with effective advocacy for students.  For example, do we overly focus on what went wrong instead of working to find a solution?  Do we place blame on the other side?  If we can identify our challenging behaviors, we can prioritize them for change in order to become more effective advocates, regardless of our role in the case.

Identify the Maintaining Consequences

Perhaps most importantly, we must identify the variables maintaining the target behaviors of school staff, advocates, lawyers, and parents.  If we can gain an understanding of how these behaviors benefit each party, we can develop strategies for effecting behavior change.  More specifically, we must determine what each group gains (or escapes) by behaving this way.  For example, if a lawyer threatens the district with due process, he may gain access to additional services or evaluations, such as compensatory time or an IEE.  Or, if a school staff member does not respond quickly to parent emails, they may avoid confrontation and related stress. By identifying the consequences maintaining our behaviors, we can seek ways to access the same outcomes in a more effective and efficient manner.

In conclusion, applying our knowledge of the Four Term Contingency presents a promising solution to the challenges of advocating for children with special needs. By identifying motivations, triggers, problem behaviors and the consequences maintaining those behaviors, we can understand, prioritize, and seek solutions to repairing interrelationships that optimize the services and interventions our children receive. 


Ignited by a common passion for redefining the way educational professionals, lawyers, advocates, and families, work together to support students with specials needs through the help of Applied Behavior Analysis, Justyna, Meghan and Keri are excited to be collaborating on a new initiative, The ABA Advocacy Project.

Meghan Cave, M.Ed. BCBA, is a former special education teacher turned BCBA who received her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction for Students with Severe Disabilities from Boston College and her post-Masters BCBA certificate from Endicott College. Driven by a passion for empowering others by providing wide-reaching access to the world of ABA, Meghan has extended her role as a BCBA to the public school, home, community, and adjunct faculty capacities. Meghan has experience working with children ages 3-21 with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, emotional disturbance, intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, and deaf-blindness.

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed., BCBA, received her Masters in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University. She has experience working with individuals with Autism and related disabilities in a variety of settings that include private school, public school, and home programs ranging in age from 3-18 years old. She is constantly seeking avenues to disseminate Behavior Analysis in conversation, presentations, and sharing Behavior Analytic content through her BehaviorChik Facebook page. She enjoys learning and discussing the boundless applications of ABA as they relate to all problems that involve behavior.

Together, they seek to use the principles of applied behavior analysis to affect meaningful behavior change within the education system and among professionals responsible for advocating for students with special needs and their families.  By objectively defining goals, referencing real-life examples from their practice, and workshopping solutions rooted in Applied Behavior Analysis, they seek to develop evidence-based task analyses that will unify advocates, lawyers, families, school districts, and related service providers, thus creating an evidence-based forum in which socially significant progress is achieved through collaboration, trust, and science. They welcome you to follow and support The ABA Advocacy Project on Facebook @theabaadvocacyproject or to contact them at [email protected].


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2 Comments on "The Four-Term Contingency of Advocacy for Children with Special Needs"

  1. Kathleen Jaeger | March 14, 2018 at 9:17 pm | Reply

    Well done! Everyone should read this article, especially individuals who interact with other people. I am so proud of what you two women have accomplished! Your Bio’s are impressive! The Norwalk Public Schools is extremely lucky to have both of you, Meghan and Justyna! I am very hopeful that the Administrators and Board of Ed will do everything they can to keep you two interested in working for the district. You are need and are terrific at what you do! Kudos Ladies!!

  2. Kathleen Jaeger | March 14, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Reply

    Well done! Everyone should read this article, especially individuals who interact with other people.

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