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Six Steps for Setting Up Functional Communication

The primary function of our behavior is to fulfill our wants and needs. Imagine if you were not able to effectively communicate that you are hungry? Or tired? Or that someone is talking too much and you need them to stop?

Often, individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do not have the verbal skills required to appropriately meet their needs, resulting in inappropriate behaviors. Functional Communication Training (FCT) is a research-based treatment approach to reducing inappropriate or undesirable behaviors, by teaching an appropriate communicative response. Research has proven FCT to be effective in reducing a wide variety of problem behaviors ranging in intensity from severe self-injury or aggression, to behaviors like grunting and screaming. This treatment also has the benefit of increasing and improving communicative responses.

There are several steps identified in effectively utilizing functional communication training. These steps include:

Step 1: Identifying the Challenging Behavior

A challenging behavior is something that is impeding the learning or the daily functioning of an individual. The challenging behavior is serving as some sort of communication. Some examples of a challenging behaviors are screaming, flopping to the floor, grunting, running, or self injurious behavior (head banging, bite self). To modify the behavior, you must know exactly what you are targeting. Observe the behavior in mind and come up with a definition that clearly defines what you are looking for in observable and measurable terms.

Step 2: Functional Behavior Assessment

A functional behavior assessment must be conducted to determine why the behavior is occurring (the function). There are several ways this can be accomplished; for example, a functional analysis screening tool (FAST) can be given once the challenging behavior is identified. To complete the FAST, a 16 question document is completed by someone who regularly interacts with the individual and witnesses the targeted behavior. The FAST will determine the function of behavior. The function of the behavior could be one of the following: sensory stimulation, attention, access to a preferred item, or escape. These questions may be better answered if data is obtained. The form of data to be collected is antecedent, behavior, consequence (ABC) data. The antecedent is what you asked the participant to do, or what they were doing right before the behavior. The behavior is what the participant did, and the consequence is how you reacted. Other things to look at when doing a FAST is the environment when the challenging behavior occurs, the surrounding people, and how frequent is this behavior occurring. Once the FAST is complete, a hypothesis needs to be determined of what the participant is trying to communicate. For example, if the antecedent is the student eating something, the behavior is the student screaming, and the consequence is that you gave them a drink which made them stop crying, then a logical hypothesis could be that they were thirsty and wanted access to an item (drink).

Step 3: Identifying the Replacement Communicative Behavior

The replacement behavior that is selected should be a form of communication. The communication that is selected for the student needs to be based on the students’ abilities. Some examples of appropriate communication could be speech, sign language, picture communication systems (PECS), or an augmentative/alternative communication device (AAC); such as an iPad. If there is a speech pathologist that works with you, they would be a great resource in determining appropriate communication responses. The replacement behavior needs to be able to be completed quickly and easily to receive reinforcement (the desired thing). Ideally the replacement behavior needs to be easier and more effective than the inappropriate behavior.

Step 4: Designing the Procedure and Determining Data Collection

After determining the replacement behavior, the design of how you are going to implement the replacement behavior and how will you know it is working needs to be determined. The implementation procedure should be easy to read and understand by all those involved with the individual.  Then determine the way you will collect data. The replacement behavior should be taught in the moment when the other behavior is occurring. For example, when the individual begins to scream to get the drink of water, the implementer, could say, “water”, and continue repeating this until they say it. Once they respond appropriately, give them water. When designing the procedure, it is also important to determine the place where the replacement behavior is going to be taught. The implementer should choose the location in which the challenging behavior originally occurred.

Step 5: Prompts for Replacement Behavior

When teaching the replacement behavior, prompting will typically be used. The forms of prompting typically used are physical guidance, modeling the correct response, gestural cues, visual cues, and verbal cues. The type of prompt needed for each participant will be different, depending on their level of independence. It is important to fade the prompts to ensure the individual does not become dependent on your assistance.

Step 6: Generalization

The individual also needs to practice the replacement behavior in other settings, and with other people surrounding them. Therefore, once the replacement behavior has been used consistently in the primary environment it occurs, move to a new environment, with a new facilitator to work on using the replacement behavior. The goal should be to get the same mastered response to occur regardless of where or who they are with.

Other things to keep in mind include:

Do Not Reinforce Challenging Behavior

When the individual engages in the challenging behavior, do not honor it. Do not give the participant the item, escape, or attention in which they are using the problem behavior to obtain.


Provide the desired item or activity in which the participant is seeking immediately following the replacement behavior that has been taught. Do not delay delivery of the reinforcement.

Shape the Replacement Behavior

In the beginning, the implementer may teach a replacement behavior of a simple word such as “drink”. As this becomes close to the desired level of mastery, the implementer may increase the increase the complexity of the replacement behavior to a simple phrase such as “want drink,” then “I want drink,” followed by “I want a drink please.” Reinforce after any instance of the replacement behavior; however, make the reinforcement greater for the more complicated response. For example, give a little sip of water for “drink,” and increase amount for “I want a drink please.”

Time Delay

In the beginning, deliver reinforcement immediately. Once the data shows the replacement behavior is nearing mastery, implement a time delay between replacement behavior and reinforcement. For example, lengthen the time you respond to a student raising their hand from immediately to 5 seconds, then 10 seconds, and so on to mimic more natural rate of delivery.

Monitor Progress

Data collection through this entire process is needed. This data also needs to be continued after mastery to ensure there is not any regression. Some examples of data collection methods could be frequency data (how often are they engaging in the challenging behavior), duration data (how long it takes them to use the correct replacement behavior), or continue with the ABC data.

Although the majority of research regarding FCT has been directed to participants on the Autism Spectrum, it could be a strong intervention for individuals with any degree of challenging behavior that is serving a purpose of communication. FCT is beneficial for a range of functioning levels and it has room for modification based on the individual’s communication capabilities.


Article written by Kaitlan Collie, M.Ed., BCBA

Kaitlan is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and serves as a Case Supervisor for Including Kids. Kaitlan began her career in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis in 2010, joining the Including Kids team in 2012. She has worked with a wide range of students from the ages of 2 to 22 in the home, clinical, community, and school settings as both a direct therapist and case supervisor. Kaitlan has found her niche working with pre-teen aged students and challenging behaviors.