Topics in ABA: Functional Communication Training

Friday December 7, 2018 at 4:09 PM


Functional Communication Training

The ability to communicate our wants and needs to others is something that many of us take for granted. However, for many children with special needs, this skill can require extensive teaching to develop. Building this fundamental communication skill is often a focus of treatment for the children we work with.

In ABA, functional communication training (FCT) is the term used for a common, effective approach for teaching individuals to appropriately communicate their wants and needs. Here’s a list of some important concepts and guidelines related to FCT for parents looking to learn more about this procedure or use these strategies at home:

Thinking about function:

Whenever we’re thinking about behavior, whether it’s a challenging behavior we want to reduce, or a positive skill we want to teach, it’s important to identify the function of the behavior. In other words, what need does the behavior allow the individual to fulfill? For example, a child with communication delays may guide their parent to an item the child wants by pulling their parent by the arm. The child will engage in this behavior consistently if it has been a reliable way of meeting their needs in the past.

Identifying replacement behaviors:

In many cases, children may have tantrums or other challenging behaviors because this has served an important function of allowing them to access their needs and wants. If we are going to effectively reduce these difficult behaviors, it will be essential to teach an appropriate replacement, so the child has a more appropriate way of meeting their needs. This behavior might be in the form of spoken language, but for children who are non-verbal, it could also be through some type of picture exchange communication system (PECS) or an augmentative and alternative (AAC) communication device.

Differential reinforcement:

This concept is at the core of FCT. Differential reinforcement in the context of FCT simply means honoring appropriate requests and not honoring inappropriate requests. For example, we wouldn’t want to give a child their favorite snack if they are having a tantrum, even if we know that’s what they want and not getting it is the reason they are upset. Instead, we want to give the child the tools to communicate their wants appropriately, whether that’s asking for it vocally or exchanging a picture card.

Repetition and consistency:

In the early stages of FCT, we want to positively reinforce appropriate requests as frequently as possible, ideally whenever they occur. This is so it becomes clear to the child that this new behavior (i.e., requesting for things appropriately within the child’s ability) is an effective, reliable way of meeting their needs. Teaching any new skill can require a lot of time, effort, and patience, but with repeated practice and consistency on the part of the parent or teacher, this is an area in which any child can make substantial and meaningful progress.

If you are interested in additional information about functional communication training, feel free, as always, to reach out to your child’s BCBA, who will be happy to provide you with more detailed information and additional strategies specific to your child’s needs. Also, stay tuned for upcoming blog posts, as we will periodically cover additional topics for those looking to learn more about the approach of ABA therapy and its benefits.

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