Functional Communication Training (FCT)

Functional communication training = a teaching strategy used to teach the child an appropriate communicative response to have their needs met in a specific context.

Ok, in plain English; it’s teaching your child what they should be saying instead of moaning, groaning, kicking, shouting etc to get what they want. There are 2 golden rules when teaching FCT; the response you teach must serve the same purpose as the problem behaviour and be more appropriate and ‘functional’.

If you’ve identified that the function of your child’s problem behaviour is to get what they want, then the most effective solution is to stop giving them access to what they want when they ‘misbehave’ and instead, teach them an appropriate communication response.

Remember, your child’s behaviour serves a function/purpose e.g.:

  • To get out of something,
  • To get attention,
  • To try and get/keep a preferred item,
  • Because it’s automatically reinforcing.

Let’s check out some examples;

A child may hit others because he wishes to get out of situations, such as leaving the dinner table or his classroom.  This behavior is very communicative – you know what he’s trying to say! But it is an inappropriate way of asking for a break….?? Can you think of alternative options?

For pre-vocal kids: sign language or picture icon of ‘break’

For vocal kids: use their words by telling an adult they need a break.

Communication doesn’t just mean using your words, for our pre-verbal children and infants we can use some different types of communication strategies including:

  • Gestures
  • Signs
  • Words
  • Picture exchange or augmentative devices

Let’s look at another example; Ella screams at her mum in a fast food restaurant after finishing her fries. In order to teach her a more appropriate behaviour to replace the screaming we would first have to figure out what this behaviour is attempting to communicate. Is it her wish for more French fries, to leave the restaurant, to get her mums attention as she is attempting to finish her meal, or to get sensory feedback from the scream itself?! We need to know the specific function or purpose of the screaming to know what we should be teaching Ella to replace it with.  If we know Ella’s screaming serves to communicate her wish for more food, we might teach her to hand her mum a picture of French fries. If she can do this, she no longer needs to scream to meet this need.  If we know Ella is screaming because she wishes to leave the restaurant, we might teach her to say “go to the car”. If Ella wishes to get her mums attention, the replacement behaviour might be to say “excuse me”. If the goal is sensory, the replacement behaviour might be to teach Ella to request her headphones that will provide auditory feedback.

So what are the specific steps involved in teaching FCT successfully?

  1. The replacement behavior should work quickly for the child.  Sometimes a child learns to persist with a problematic behaviour, e.g. whining for parent attention, before the parent responds. if the child learns to use a more functional way of asking for attention (e.g. a pat on the shoulder) and the parent responds quickly, the child learns that patting = quicker way of getting mums attention.  This will increase the likelihood that he will use the strategy again over whining in the future.
  2. The replacement behavior should work every time for the child especially in the beginning.  The new replacement behaviour should be responded to EVERY time the child uses it; in all situations and with all adults working with the child.
  3. The chosen behaviour should require less effort than the challenging behaviour. Throwing a tantrum requires a lot of time and energy on a child’s part. If he can get the same needs met by handing a parent a picture/using certain phrase to communicate, this requires much less effort and it easier way to get his needs met. While any replacement behaviour may take practise before it is learned and used in appropriate settings, we want to set your child up for success. Think about your child’s current skill sets and think about how the new replacement behaviour fits within that. It is most helpful if the replacement behaviour includes skills already mastered.

My last top tip would be not to wait for naturally occurring situations – be proactive, take the time and make the effort to contrive situations to increase practise opportunities so your child can learn quicker.


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