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Functional Communication Training (FCT) and Replacement Behavior

We have all heard the textbook examples of the toddler having a tantrum in the grocery store check-out for access to candies and chocolate bars. We may have even seen it happen in person. As we put on our behaviour analytic hat we could possibly identify the ABC’s (antecedent, behaviour, consequence) at play and determine the function of behaviour. That child’s behaviour served a purpose, or function – and is strengthened (reinforced) if the parent bought them the chocolate bar to quiet the tantrum and stop others from staring.

Behavior is Communication

The way we express our needs and wants may look different depending on the person, the request, or the audience, but it is always through our behaviour. Behaviour includes vocal communication, body language, alternative communication, or other. It can also take the form of challenging and inappropriate behaviour.

When a learner engages in challenging behaviour, it is typically not because they want to give you a hard time, rather it is because they are having a hard time communicating their needs. Learners may be missing essential skills to express their needs and wants in ways that can be understood by others or in ways that are unsafe.


Why Do Learners Engage in Challenging Behaviors?

These challenging behaviours can be seen as ‘problems’ for others, but as ‘solutions’ for the learner. These behaviours get their needs met. Hitting others has worked in the past, so hitting others will continue to be used because it works.

Communicating in appropriate ways can be difficult, require a lot of time and effort, or not be in the learner’s current repertoire of skills.

How can we teach learners necessary skills to meet their needs?

What is a Replacement Behavior?

A replacement behaviour is a different behaviour that is identified and selected to teach the learner. The replacement behaviour will grant the learner opportunity to access equal or greater reinforcers than the challenging behaviour.


Challenging Behaviour: hitting others
Function: access to tangibles
Replacement Behaviour: requesting

If a learner hits other people to gain access to preferred items or activities, a safer replacement behaviour would be to teach the learner how to request access to those preferred items.

Why Teach a Replacement Behavior?

A replacement behavior is taught to give learners the ability to gain access to items, activities, people, and opportunities they want, while also increasing their chances of being in less restrictive environments.

One goal of Applied Behaviour Analysis is to help learners gain tools to lead successful, less restrictive lives (which will look different for everyone). If a learner is engaging in aggressive behaviours towards others, more limitations can be placed on the environments and activities they can participate in.

What is Functional Communication Training (FCT)?

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is an antecedent intervention, which can be used with all types and levels of communication. An appropriate replacement behaviour would be to functionally communicate needs and wants, which will gain the learner access to the reinforcer.

Once the function of the challenging behaviour is determined, instructors can use a DRA procedure to provide the reinforcer for more socially appropriate behaviour.

In the above example, the socially appropriate communicative behaviour is taught to the learner as the replacement behaviour for hitting others as a function of wanting access to a preferred item.

What Does Functional Communication Training Look Like?

Read our 5 steps to teaching Functional Communication Training.

Functional Communication Training can include vocal communication, such as full sentences “Can I have the car toy?”, or even a single word “car”.

It can also include picture and/or text cues that can be exchanged. Think of handing a picture of a car toy to the other person, so they can identify what item is being requested.

Additionally, using high-tech AAC devices can include pressing buttons to say “I want car” on a speech-generating device is also considered FCT.

Sign language, gestures, pointing, and other forms of non-verbal communication can be taught through functional communication training.

4 thoughts on “Functional Communication Training (FCT) and Replacement Behavior”

  1. Pingback: How to Use a Countdown for Transitions - How to ABA

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  3. Hi,

    This video has answered a very practical question for me; getting people to be able to use the words to ask for what they want has value is and of itself without the person getting that thing (tangible or escape) every time. I’m curious to learn more about teaching someone to tolerate “no” or “you have to wait”. Can you post some links to more information about toleration skills in FCT training? Thanks,


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