FCT: Functional Communication Training

Resource: Carr, E., & Durand, M. (1985). Reducing Behavior Problems through Functional Communication Training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18, 111-126

Functional Communication Training is one of those ABA teaching methodologies that everyone should know about, whether you are a parent or professional. Parents and teachers sometimes naturally implement FCT without realizing they are using an ABA strategy. I find that to be true with many things teachers or parents of children with Autism do.

FCT is used to teach and establish replacement behaviors for inappropriate or harmful behaviors such as aggression, escape/elopement, non-compliance, etc. When a child is regularly engaging in disruptive, challenging behaviors that is ALWAYS a form of communication. Even for a verbal child, but particularly for a non verbal child, behavior is a way of communicating wants and needs. My non verbal kiddos are usually the most aggressive kiddos, because they have learned that hits, kicks, and pinches get people moving. They get people doing what you want them to do.

The way FCT works, is it is a strategy used within a comprehensive ABA program. The target behavior is selected and defined, and then through careful observation and data collection a communication deficit is discovered. Then a hypothesis is created in order to select more socially acceptable and appropriate ways for the child to communicate that will also contact naturally occurring reinforcement.

I know that just sounded super technical, so here is a real life example to help explain this a bit.

I had a client a few years ago, lets call her Tiffany. Tiffany was 2 years old, nonverbal, and had some aggressive behaviors. Tiffany communicated mainly through tantrums, leading, or hitting. If Tiffany wanted to eat, she would scream and hit the refrigerator with her fists. If she was tired, she would bang her head on the floor.  Get the picture? After conducting a FBA, and observing the dynamic between Tiffany and her family, I determined that the function of her behaviors was primarily Positive Reinforcement (access to something she wanted).  What I also made very clear to the family was that without a reliable system to communicate her wants and needs, Tiffany had created her own system. The family and I may think the system isn’t acceptable, or label it “maladaptive” but it’s really not. Tiffany’s system was quick, relatively low effort, and it got the job done. People would come running from all over the house once Tiffany started head banging, and when she pummeled the refrigerator a snack would magically appear in about 10 seconds. So how did we teach Tiffany to stop engaging in these challenging and harmful behaviors? With FCT. We taught Tiffany to communicate her wants and needs and then --and here’s the critical part-- we made sure that language contacted reinforcement and behaviors did not. So Tiffany learned that if she slammed her head into Mom’s stomach, Mom would just block the behavior and ignore her. However if Tiffany signed to be picked up, Mom would immediately pick her up and lavish her with attention. That’s FCT in a nutshell: replacing problem behaviors with communication.

When implementing FCT it is important to decide on a communication system that works for the child, and that caregivers will accept. This could include vocal language, PECS, sign language, or a speech generating device. It just depends on the child. Once a communication method has been determined, it is very important to no longer reinforce the problem behaviors. To do so would only undermine the effectiveness of FCT.

Reinforcement and Prompting will be key in teaching the new behavior, as well as keeping the child successful.
The problem behavior must be put on Extinction  so that the child learns that only communication gets needs and wants met. Depending on the child, this can be done with Antecedent interventions or Consequent interventions. Antecedent just means before, so this would focus on preventing the behavior from even occurring. Consequence just means after, so this focuses more on what to do when the behavior occurs.  No one wants to engage in a behavior that doesn’t contact reinforcement-- thats  Operant Conditioning 101.

The last thing I want to emphasize about FCT is it’s important to select reinforcement that is most likely to occur across environments, and in various social settings. In the Carr & Durand article, the researchers taught the children to say the phrase “I don’t understand” to replace problem behaviors during difficult tasks, such as academic work. I love that! Multiple people, whether they are familiar with the child or not, would know how to respond to this phrase. 
What I see happen much more commonly, is the therapist will teach the child to say “Help me”. Here’s my problem with “help me”: the child doesn’t normally receive help, instead the adult does the task for them. I see this all the time, and I have been guilty of this as well. A child who only has a few words walks up to you with their pants half zipped and says “Help me”. Usually, you are so excited that they are talking that you happily reinforce the language and then zip up their pants all the way. The problem with this is that over time, the child is learning that “If I say "help me", then somebody will do this for me”. Whoa, see what happened there? That is not what you want to teach. We want to teach the child to request assistance, not to get out of the task.

I am not saying to stop teaching your child to say “help me”. Just be sure to provide partial help, and not allow the child to escape the task completely.

**More Reading on FCT:

Fisher, W.W., Thompson, R.H., Bowman, L.G., Hagopian, L.P., & Krug, A. (1999).  Facilitating tolerance of delayed reinforcement during functional communication training. Behavior Modification.

Shirley, M. J., Iwata, B. A., Kahng, S., Mazaleski, J. L., & Lerman, D. C. (1997). Does functional communication training compete with ongoing contingencies of reinforcement? An analysis during response acquisition and maintenance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30, 93-104.

Carr, E.G., & Carlson, J.I. (1993).  Reduction of severe behavior problems in the community using a multicomponent treatment approach.   Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 157-172.


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