Author: Ellison Fox, RBT

Reviewer: Amber Music, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA

Editor: Alyssa Palmer

Communication: the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. to someone else.

When it comes to childhood development, being able to communicate is a key skill. Effective communication skills help children express their wants and needs clearly as well as convey their feelings in an effective manner. Additionally, these skills are fundamental when it comes to learning, playing, and socializing. It’s important to cultivate a child’s communication skills so they are better capable of expressing themselves and accessing their desires.

However, communication does not come easy for all children. A neurodiverse child may have trouble expressing themselves or understanding others, needing more support when it comes to communicating their wants and needs. While some children may have very good social and communication skills, others may have difficulty developing and/or understanding language or have no language at all.

When children struggle with communication and language, you may see an increase in undesirable behaviors such as Self Injurious Behavior (SIB), tantrums, or physical aggression. This will most likely occur as a child is attempting to express their needs, feelings, and emotions. Functional Communication Training (FCT) replaces these unwanted behaviors with alternative ways to communicate. Essentially, FCT identifies the purpose of the behavior and teaches the child a more appropriate way to communicate. These alternative methods include verbal communication, pictures and visuals, gestures, sign language, and speech generating devices (SGD). Determining which method to use is based on individual assessments of a child’s communication level and capabilities.

Each child is different. While one child may be able to verbally tell you they need food when they are hungry, another child may only know to cry as a way of expressing that need. This crying may escalate into screaming tantrum behavior, self-injurious behavior (SIB), or physical aggression if others do not understand what is being requested. Using Functional Communication Training (FCT), this child would learn to use visuals (a picture of their lunchbox, favorite food, or the kitchen/cafeteria) or gestures (pointing toward or reaching for food; leading you to desired item or room) to communicate this desire. Some children may need speech generating devices (SGD) or programs in order to effectively communicate their needs. These devices allow a child to touch or click various words to communicate what they need, where they want to go, what they want to do, and more.

How is Functional Communication Training implemented?

1. Determine what the child is trying to communicate with the maladaptive behavior (i.e. tantrum).

The first step is to determine why the maladaptive behavior is occurring, also known as determining the function of the behavior in order to select the appropriate communicative response to teach the child. A BCBA will observe and assess the child’s behaviors they currently use to communicate (typically considered a Functional Behavior Assessment or Functional Analysis), determine the function of their behavior based on their assessment (why the maladaptive behavior is occurring), determine the best replacement behavior and communicative modality for the child (using a picture, sign, spoken language, etc.) and then develop a plan for teaching the replacement behavior into functional and appropriate communication. Also note, it is best to collaborate with the child’s SLP when determining the best communication modality for a child.

2. Develop the individualized FCT procedures. Based on the results of the assessment, a plan will be developed to teach the child new communicative skills that will replace the maladaptive behaviors (known as replacement behaviors), but serve the same function. For example, a child who drops to the floor crying to avoid completing a chore or task could be taught to communicate “I’m all done” or “I don’t want to.” A child who pulls someones hair to gain their attention could be taught to tap the person’s shoulder or say “Look at this, please.” The replacement behaviors taught would be in the way the child can most easily communicate, whether it is verbal communication, pictures or visuals, gestures or sign language, or speech generating devices. A BCBA will develop a program with specific procedures describing how to teach the child to use the replacement behavior, procedures for how to set up opportunities to practice the skill in the natural environment and during typical daily activities, and how to respond to the child when they engage in the maladaptive behavior.

3. Teach the new communicative skill! Reinforce the child when the new replacement behavior is used, rather than the initial maladaptive behavior. When the child uses their new replacement behavior, their response should be honored so they are more likely to use that response again in the future. The goal is to reinforce the child’s newly learned skill so they continue utilizing it, and are less likely to engage in the maladaptive behavior. For example, when the child uses a pointing gesture to communicate “I want that,” the adult provides the item requested. If the child uses sign language for “all done” when they don’t want to engage in an activity, the activity is removed.

4. Prompt the child to use the new skill when appropriate. The child will need lots of practice and reminders on how to use this new alternative method of communication. The more frequently and consistently FCT is used, the more opportunities the child has to practice, and they will learn the new skill more efficiently. Setting up the environment to encourage practice (i.e. placing frequently requested items in a place they need help to access the item) and creating opportunities for the child to practice frequently throughout the day (i.e. presenting activities to the child you know they do not want to do to practice “no, thank you” or “all done”) are great strategies to use to help them learn their new skill.

5. Implement across all caregivers and all settings. Being able to use their new method of communication in different environments, situations, and with different people increases the likelihood the child will be able to communicate functionally and independently in a consistent and reinforcing way! Encouraging everyone in the child’s daily life to reinforce appropriate communication attempts will consistently reinforce to the child their functional, appropriate communication attempts are the best way to communicate!

Remember– Functional Communication Training will take time and involve intensive work. Be patient with the child and with yourself! Maladaptive behaviors can be decreased and functional communication can be taught with consistent support and practice. FCT is an effective, evidence-based method to help children develop appropriate communication skills for a more successful future!


Durand, M., & Merges, E. (2001). Functional communication training: A contemporary behavior analytic intervention for problem behaviors. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 110-119.

Franzone, E. (2010). Functional communication training for children and youth with autism spectrum disorders: Online Training Module. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin, National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, Waisman Center). In Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI), Autism Internet Modules, Columbus, OH: OCALI.

Tiger, Hanely, & Bruzek (2008). Functional communication training: A review and practice guide. Behavior Analyst in Practice, 1(1): 16–23. doi: 10.1007/BF03391716