Don’t You Understand What I Am Saying?
(Functional Communication Training)

Behaviors exhibited by students with severe disabilities, such as aggression, can be confusing and often misunderstood. However, there is more often than not a reason for such behaviors that a functional behavioral assessment can help to elicit. Frequently, behaviors of non-verbal students are for the purpose of communication. And, in reality, these behaviors are effective because the students usually get what they want (or else they would not continue to use them). Sadly enough, it may be true that no one "listens" unless the person uses inappropriate behavior (Mirenda, in press).

How can educators use the link between behavior and communication to change behavior without a burden of added work and time? As a team, we can define the purpose of the behavior, determine a more appropriate means of communication, and begin instruction in a relatively short time. One commercially available and easy-to-use resource is the Motivational Assessment Scale (Durand & Crimmins, 1992).

The first step in changing behavior is identifying the specific behavior to be changed. For example, "Karen bites the staff" is more specific than "Karen is aggressive to the staff". Identifying the specific target behavior helps the team know exactly what behavior to monitor.

After determining the target behavior, a team must gather more information in order to determine the child’s intent or function of the behavior. For example, after interviewing the staff and family, the teacher identifies that Karen’s biting happens with only the educational staff after ten minutes of group work. In this instance, the function of the biting behavior may be to escape group work, possible because she has a difficult time working past ten minutes.

After hypothesizing about the intent of the student’s behavior, we can then determine the intervention. This intervention will be an alternative way to communicate what the aggressive act of biting has communicated. For example, if Karen’s communicative intent is to escape group work after ten minutes, then the communication message she needs to learn is "stop".

The intervention plan would create a way for Karen to say or indicate "stop" or similar other statement that will achieve the desired outcome. When determining the new message, it is important to keep in mind that the message should be as easily communicated as the undesired behavior. If it is easier for Karen to bite then it is to reach for a switch, than it is more likely that Karen will continue to bite to communicate "Stop". The message should also be staff friendly. In other words, the statement should be easily interpreted and responded to by the staff. It should also be easily obtainable. For example, "can I sit beside you" will more likely be implemented than "Can I play". Why? Because in the realm of a classroom, it is easier to place a child beside you than it is to stop what you are doing and play with a child each time he may want to play (Mirenda, in press). Finally, the student’s motivation to communicate (Drasgow, et. al., 1996) and the staff’s willingness to implement the plan is vitally important (Meyer & Evans, 1995). If the staff and student are not motivated and the staff do not respond to the alternate communication planned, then the intervention will not be successful.

Implementing the intervention into the daily classroom routine is the most challenging step of the process. However, the steps are already familiar to special educators. Techniques such as massed trials, prompting, overcorrection, reinforcement, or extinction are second nature to teachers of students with severe disabilities. The use of a combination of techniques is recommended for optimal learning (Scotti, et. al., 1996). Also, implementation of the intervention is recommended in a naturalistic setting to increase generalization and learning.

Changing a student’s behavior by introducing functional communication is only one step in making a permanent change in the life of a student with severe disabilities. Using a complete package of positive behavioral support that includes a change in the quality of life for a person with disabilities is current best practice.

If you would like more information on behavioral intervention, functional communication training, or positive behavioral support, please contact the T-TAC ODU office, check the web-site (, or see the resource list below.


Drasgow, E., Halle, J. W., Michaelene, M. O., & Harbers, H. M. (1996). Using Behavioral Indication and Functional Communication Training to Establish an Initial Sign Repertoire with a Young Child with Severe Disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education. 16, 500-521.

Mirinda, P., (1997). Functional Communication Training and Augmentative Communication: A Research Review. Aug. and Alt. Comm. In press.

Meyer, L.H., & Evans, I. M., (1995). Nonaversive Intervention for Behavior Problems: A Manual for Home and Community. (pp.117) Baltimore: Brookes Pub.

Scotti, J. R., Ujcich, K. J., Weigle, K. L., Holland, C. M., & Kirk, K. S. (1996). Interventions with Challenging Behavior of Persons with Developmental Disabilities: A Review of Current Research Practices. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 21, 123-134.

T-TAC ODU Resources

Communication-based Intervention for Problem Behavior: A User’s Guide for Producing Positive Change. (1994) (BM0104)
Motivational Assessment Scale. (1992) (ABM010)
Nonaversive Interventions for Behavior Problems: A Manual for Home and Community. (1989) (BM0100)
Effective Educational and Behavioral Programming for Severely and Profoundly Handicapped Students: A Manual for Teachers and Aides. (1981) (SD0508)
Collaborative Teams for Students with Severe Disabilities: Integrating Therapy and Educational Services. (1992) (SD0494)
Communicative Alternatives to Challenging Behavior: Integrating Functional Assessment and Intervention, Vol. 3 .(1993) (BM0102)