Shaping Behavior Using Functional Communication

Functional communication training (FCT) happens when we teach our learners how to communicate in place of using maladaptive behaviors. The modality of functional communication is required to be individualized to each learner. This is because communication looks different for all learners. Some examples of functional communication strategies are picture exchange communication system (PECS), Core boards, core vocabulary exchange system (CVES), signing, vocal language with the use of verbal models, verbalizations and approximations, gesturing, and/or the use of a speech generating device. All these modalities of communicating may be used in place of a learner screaming, hitting, or crying to get their needs met.

Where do I start?


When implementing functional communication, my team and I first identify any maladaptive behaviors that are being reinforced as communication. Some behaviors that we may see as communication are self-injurious, vocalizing, reaching, grabbing, whining, and/or crying. To accurately find the function of the maladaptive behaviors, the team must perform an FBA (Functional Behavioral Analysis). When the FBA is conducted, we can identify the antecedents of the behavior and the consequences. We also look at the adults within the environment, any environmental changes, and the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of the behavior (s). After the assessment is done, there is a hypothesized function of the maladaptive behavior. The function will either be one or a multiple of the following: attention, escape, access to tangible, or automatic/sensory.

We have a function


After identifying the function of the maladaptive behavior, the team will work together to identify replacement behaviors that serve the same function as the maladaptive behavior. We keep in mind that the replacement behavior will allow the learner to get what they want just as easily as the maladaptive behavior. We also need to be sure that the replacement behavior serves the same function as the maladaptive behaviors. If the replacement strategy does not serve the same function or if it is more difficult than the maladaptive behavior, the behavior may not decrease. During brainstorming with my team of professionals (speech/language pathologists, social worker, and occupational therapist) we are reminded that it is important that multiple communicative partners recognize the replacement behavior. One example that my SLP shared was that teaching a learner with severely reduced intelligibility (i.e., difficult to understand) to say, “I need help with this,” may not be an appropriate use of functional communication. Using PECS or a device may be easier to generalize across people and environments.

Taking data

When teaching and maintaining any skill, we are always taking data. Meaningful data that shows a decrease in maladaptive behaviors, an increase in communication, and an increase in use of other skills is what we hope to see when implementing functional communication. Reviewing the data as a team helps us see if the communication and replacement strategies are functional and effective in decreasing maladaptive behaviors. Data collection allows all members of the team to determine if the replacement behavior is decreasing the maladaptive behavior. When reviewing the data, the team is also looking to see the effectiveness of the functional communication. We want to see the frequency and if it is generalizing across people and environments, we also want the functional communication to be maintained so that our learners are not going back to using maladaptive behaviors. The data may also show that the functional communication and/ or replacement strategies need some modifications.

Generalization and Maintenance of the Shaped Behavior


After there is consistent data that shows the acquisition of a skill, the team and I plan for opportunities for generalization so that learners can practice replacement behaviors in multiple settings and with multiple individuals. We want our learners to practice learning a skill with many people and include multiple people as communicative partners so that learners become accustomed to interacting with various people. We also want our learners to generalize the replacement behavior across multiple environments. The environments can include different rooms and spaces within a school building. They can also generalize to carry over within the home and various places within the community. When working on functional communication, we are also shaping the maladaptive behaviors to be appropriate communication. Once we teach the skills, we want to expand on their skills. For example, when a learner has generalized giving an icon to multiple adults within the classroom environment to communicate that they want some water, their screaming and throwing a cup has decreased. This does not mean that we as the educational team should stop there. We are going to shape other areas of their communication an expand to longer utterances and requests for more items.


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