Function Over Form: Functional Communication Training

Behaviour is communication.  It is our students’ way of telling us how they feel or what they need. Behaviour can have many different forms but what it looks like is not as important as what it’s trying to tell us.  The function of the behaviour is the part that tells us WHY the behaviour is happening.  Sometimes, the form of the behaviour looks different but the function is the same.  A child who is trying to say, “I don’t want to do this” might hit, throw, or scream depending on the situation.  Alternatively, behaviours that have the same form (i.e. they look the same) might actually have different functions (i.e. be saying different things).

As Behaviour Analysts, we look to take a function-based approach in reducing negative behaviour.  This means that instead of just eliminating behaviours that might be inappropriate, we try to get to the ‘why’ of the behaviour.  Looking at behaviour as communication gives us a way of understanding our students and helping them express themselves even better.

Reinforce the Communication

If it was determined that a behaviour should be reduced (see When is Behaviour Worth Targeting?), then it is our responsibility to teach an happropriate replacement behaviour.  Since behaviour is communication, then one of the most important replacement skills is communication. If we can decode the function of the behaviour, then we can find a more appropriate, functional phrase to teach the student.  Communication can be verbal, using sign language, or exchanging a picture.  We can change the form of a behaviour with traditional means (like extinction) but without replacing the ‘why’ of a behaviour, a different form will pop up in its place.

When you’ve chosen a functional phrase to teach the student, it’s important to reinforce the phrase each and every time the student uses it INSTEAD of engaging in negative behaviour.  If we’ve determined that the function of the behaviour is such a powerful motivator, then that’s exactly what we should use to reinforce the communication!  If the child wants escape, teach the child to ask for escape and then reinforce with…ESCAPE!  If the child wants attention, teach the child to ask for attention and then reinforce with….ATTENTION!

Steps to Teaching Functional Communication

  1. Determine the targeted behaviour. Example: A child’s negative behaviour is self-injury when presented with a task demand.
  2. Complete a functional assessment to determine the function of the behaviour. Example: FA determined that the “why” is escape from demand.
  3. Choose an alternative, functionally equivalent phrase to teach the child. Example: Teach the child to say, “I don’t want to” either verbally or with pictures or signs.  Prompt this if necessary to make it errorless.
  4. Practice and reinforce. Example: Each time the child uses the phrases, “I don’t want to” when presented with a task demand instead of self-injury – reinforce with escape from the task (for a few minutes).
  5. Once the child is using it spontaneously and independently, you can begin to teach the child tolerance and delay (i.e. when the answer is “no” or “not now”).

Teach Advocacy

A traditional approach to reducing negative behaviour (especially when the function is escape) is to use escape extinction.  This creates a situation where children become accustomed to doing things that make them uncomfortable or that they don’t want to do.  When reducing a behaviour that is escape-related, it is even more important to teach our students an appropriate way to protest something they don’t want.  We want our kiddos to feel like they can voice their opinions, that they are heard, and that sometimes they have to do hard things anyway.


All problem behaviours have a related communication alternative.  For some ideas on phrases to replace them with, see below:

Related Communication Alternatives to Problem Behaviour

  • “I need help” –> attention/tangible
  • “I don’t like this” –> escape
  • “I would rather be doing that” –> tangible
  • “Hey, over here” –> attention
  • “I don’t understand” –> attention/escape
  • “You’re standing too close.  Please move” –> tangible/escape
  • “Its way too cold in here today” –> tangible/sensory
  • “I don’t feel well” –> tangible
  • “You’re supposed to do it this way” –> tangible
  • “This is so boring” –> escape
  • “Who are you?” –> tangible
  • “What’s in it for me?” –> attention/tangible
  • “I can make my own choices thank you” –> escape
  • “It’s been a rough morning and I really just need a break” –> escape
  • “Can I have a taste of that lasagna?” –> tangible
  • Etc.

Contrive and create as many opportunities as you can for your student to practice using the functional communication phrases. As you teach, monitor the frequency of negative behaviour – hopefully as the frequency of FCT increases, the frequency of negative behaviour decreases!

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