Talk the Talk: Functional Communication Training (FCT)

Talk the Talk: Functional Communication Training (FCT)

Welcome back to another exciting post from your Talk the Talk crew!  Today we’ll be doing an overview of a major focus of many behavior change programs, functional communication training (FCT).  As you know, being able to communicate wants and needs is essential for ensuring quality of life.  Therefore, teaching individuals with ASD functional communication should be a priority across clinicians.  

Often, individuals diagnosed with Autism have difficulty communicating their wants and needs to those around them. In these cases, challenging behavior is often reinforced, allowing the learner to get their needs met following such responses.  If early intervention is not conducted, these challenging behaviors that have been reinforced may persist or even increase in intensity over time. 

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is one of the most common interventions used in Applied Behavior Analysis to reduce problem behavior.  FCT is considered a differential reinforcement (DR) procedure “in which an individual is taught an alternative response that results in the same class of reinforcement identified as maintaining the problem behavior” (Tiger, Haney, & Bruzek, 2008).  

To put it simply: FCT is a procedure that teaches more appropriate functional communication in a natural and meaningful way.  It’s typically used in ABA to replace challenging behaviors with a suitable and more socially appropriate communication response. 

How about an example: 

Consider a child that throws the plate off the highchair each time they are done with their meal.  Each time the child threw the plate, the mother picked it up and took the child out of their highchair.  The behavior of throwing the plate has been learned and is being maintained by negative reinforcement in the form of escape from the food and/or chair. 

Being fed up with the constant mess, the mom wants to teach a more appropriate way for the child to communicate they are ready to be done and get up from their chair.  The mom teaches the child to sign “all done” at the end of each meal, and reinforces the use of the sign with immediate escape from the chair.  All other challenging behaviors would not be met with this negative reinforcement, only the appropriate request using the taught sign. 

Another example could be a child having a meltdown in the store when walking through the candy aisle.  In the past, engaging in tantrum behaviors while in the candy aisle resulted in the parent giving the child a piece of candy to calm them down and make the remainder of the trip easier.  

In this example, FCT could be used to teach the child to appropriately ask for the item they want without engaging in tantrum behaviors.  When this same situation occurred again, the parent could prompt a functional communication response such as “Can I have candy,” and provide the candy (reinforcement) following the appropriate request.  No tantrum behavior should be met with reinforcement following the training of the functional communication response.  

So now that you know what FCT is, how can you be sure to correctly plan and implement this useful strategy?  Here are a few useful tips that can help anyone conduct functional communication training: 

Please note that this is a very brief overview of functional communication training and is not an exhaustive teaching resource. You should always consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) prior to utilizing behavior analytic strategies to ensure ethical, effective, and humane implementation. 

1. Conduct observations and an informal assessment to identify the potential function of the challenging behavior 

a. In this step, you really need to determine the antecedents and consequences for the target behavior.  If you need a refresher on the ABCs of data, you can take a look here.

2. Determine which form of alternative communication is most appropriate for your learner. 

a. This could be signs, gestures, picture exchange, vocal words, or others.  Remember, not all communication needs to be spoken words! 

3. Systematically teach the learner the new communication response.  

You can do this by providing an immediate prompt for the learner to emit the new response in the setting in which the challenging behavior is most likely to occur. E.g., when the learner is likely to engage in the challenging behavior, prompt them to use the replacement behavior instead. 

4. Reinforce the learner’s behavior IMMEDIATELY when they use the desired communication response. 

Provide prompts as needed to ensure the learner’s success and the delivery of the reinforcement.

5. The functional communication response is what should be reinforced, not the challenging behavior.   

If challenging behavior is observed, prompt the replacement response and reinforce ONLY that. 

It is everyone’s right as a human being to have a safe, effective, and low stress way of communicating their wants and needs and it’s our responsibility to ensure our learners have that skill. For that reason, functional communication training is something that should be incorporated into the programming for all learners with challenging behaviors or communication difficulties. Appropriate functional communication affords our learners autonomy and dignity as they go about their daily lives and should never be an oversight! 

Until next time, 

The Reinforcers 

Want to learn more ABA terminology? Check out our other Talk the Talk posts here!  



Tiger, J. H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: a review and practical guide. Behavior analysis in practice, 1(1), 16–23. 


Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.