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Ways Implementing Three-Term Contingency Can Help

October 9, 2021

We all want to understand why our children behave the way they do. Sometimes we wish to encourage alternative behavior—other times we hope to encourage more of the same behavior. For example, a mother may wish for her child to desist from throwing tantrums in public places. Another mother may be so delighted to hear her child speak, yet the child does not say the word again, perhaps for months.

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Implementing a three-term contingency in your home may help you as a parent. I would love to introduce to you: ABC: Everybody EATS!

It’s a simple explanation that every parent out there can relate to:

A is for Antecedent, meaning what comes before

B is for the Behavior itself

C is for Consequence, as in what happens immediately after the behavior occurs.

This makes sense to all of us. I associate it with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity: every action has a reaction. Below are a few examples of what I swear goes on in every toddlers’ mind!

“If I scream, will Mama give it back?”

“If I drop this, will Daddy pick it up?”

“If I open the fridge, will the sitter give me a snack?”

If we knew why our children did the things they did, couldn’t we alter our behavior to further encourage their development?

Everything everybody does is for one of a selection of reasons and it can all be categorized under the following four incentives:

E is for Escape, an environment or expectation

A is for Attention, positive or negative

T is for Tangible objects, touchable

S is for Sensory, stimulation

In this article I will briefly touch upon why a special needs child may feel the need to escape certain situations or expectations. This theory applies to all children and is actively used in therapy with special needs children today, including but not limited to those diagnosed with autism. In future editions you will find the articles based on the other behavior incentives.

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Ask yourself, why would my child feel the need to escape? What behavior is he/she using to escape? How can I encourage a different form of communication?

Any child may wish to escape an expectation; if you are working with shapes and he/she confuses a hexagon with a pentagon, the game may no longer be fun and therefore create frustration. Perhaps the child will toss the shapes to the ground, or throw his/her head back and howl. Another cause of the desire to escape an expectation is quite simple: basic needs. Hunger, thirst, and sleepiness are the quickest way to end a child’s interest in any activity-even if it’s one he/she enjoys. This can be more of an issue with a child with autism as he/she often has a harder time communicating needs.

Any child may wish to escape a loud or overwhelming environment; this could be a movie theatre or a birthday party. The need for escape could be anything from over-stimulation to simply not enjoying an activity he/she is expected to partake in. This varies from child to child; while all children experience frustration, not all children become environmentally overwhelmed. The latter is definitely more prevalent in children with autism, though even then, every child varies. My son loves loud music and is excited when surrounded by new faces. His only environmental over-stimulation occurs in movie theatres. Of course, he was raised in a loud rambunctious home with lots of siblings and fluorescent lighting.

My son uses screaming/crying as a tool to escape, as well as self-harm. He knows my weak points! The moment I see he is suffering, I back down. I don’t keep pushing, I give him space. Sometimes, that is not what is best for him. When I am doing occupational therapy with him, I am supposed to push him out of his comfort zone. That is how we encourage him to continue to develop. Just a hand over hand technique, or 3-second compliance, and I have accomplished something. Even if he is screaming in my face with frustration!

It is important to recognize the difference between pushing your child out of a comfort zone, and pushing him/her to the point of breaking down. I tend to push my son just enough that he starts to get frustrated. I want him to progress; but if I spend two hours working with him he does get several intermittent two-minute breaks. Rewarding him with a favorite push-action toy or light up ball is perfect for bringing the smiles back! Then he is more cooperative and often completes the task that was asked of him before his frustrations got the better of him.

How does your child respond to being pushed out of his/her comfort zone? Does he/she target your weak points? If you realize it now, you can take steps to work towards a new direction. Surprise your child by not reacting the way you normally do! I love the hand over hand techniques for teaching; whether it’s how to dress, or to pick up what he/she tosses at our feet—it is all gravy!

I cannot promise you results overnight. It can take weeks, months even, to make milestone accomplishments. Consistency is key! For as many months as your child has learned your reactions and how certain behaviors can lead him/her to achieve getting what he/she wants, be ready to spend twice as long working to break those habits.

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One suggestion I would like to leave you with is encouraging you to purchase an egg chair for your child. It provides a perfect escape and can be utilized as a safe space. You can teach your child that when frustrated or overwhelmed, he/she can communicate this to you by running directly to their chair and pulling the canvas down to be enclosed in his/her own little zone. I find this helps especially with non-verbal children. It will also help you to determine if the child simply needs that two-minute break because if he/she is thirsty or hungry the child would be more likely to flee towards the kitchen.

If you cannot afford a chair you may have the ability to utilize government funding to purchase this chair as it is recognized as therapeutic equipment for children with autism. If your child has not yet been formally diagnosed, you may be able to get a chair loaned to you from a local resource room or children’s therapy center.

In closing, I want to encourage you as parents to never give up, and to acknowledge that you are doing the best you can! Your child is a wonderful spirit and though frustrating at times, remember that you are the biggest influential impact your child has. Be brave! Be patient! Love conquers all. Till next time.


  1. Senior Behavioral Interventionist Elizabeth Swarchuck
  2. Intermediate Behavioral Interventionist and Formal British Social Worker Sarah Franklin
  3. Supported Child Development Tanya Garfield

This article was featured in Issue 80 – Conquering Challenges With ASD

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