The Importance of Teaching Functional Communication

A Teaching Aside

This post is a culmination of this year’s experiences working in classrooms with escalated students. Regardless the school team’s preconceptions of the behavior, I have had the same solution. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And it works!

Teach the student how to ask for [whatever they need].

Really, Teach them to Ask?

Yes. I teach them to ask. In some cases it is to ask for help. For others it is asking for space. For some it is asking to use the restroom. Asking for assurance. Asking for ear plugs. Asking for a fidget. Asking for time to stim. Asking for a break. Asking for escape. Asking for freedom by saying, “No Thank You”. Asking. Ask.

The more difficult task has been teaching teachers to respond appropriately. The only way this works is if the adults around the student respect the communication and reinforce to the student that their words are important.

The Plan

Two separate autistic students at two schools will be my examples, and I will call them Chip and Dale. They are both perpetually in trouble for extreme behavior. In this case it ranged from tantrums to eloping to chucking things at people (kind of like Chip and Dale messing with Donald Duck as seen in the cartoon below – one of my personal favorites).

In all cases, extreme behaviors happened after the student was given a task demand, no matter how small. Even as small a demand as opening a book or not talking over the teacher. A side comment, you can learn so much from the video…if the teacher escalates and gets made, the students will just continue to escalate and in the end the students always win! Always. Whole behavior management can be summed up watching Chip and Dale. Back to the real discussion…

I saw this as an opportunity to teach the school teams a functional communication training protocol (I talked a bit about this in my IISCA post here). This is a procedure associated with ABA, but I do not approach it the same way most ABA practitioners do – I just cannot escape the procedure’s name and recent history.

In short, I teach the student to ask, rather than use behavior, to get their needs met. I do this by reinforcing communication to show the student their communication is valued by adults around them.

I have a protocol that I have written up that I apply with varying degrees of modification to virtually all students I encounter as a first pass intervention. I know it is never a great idea to use a canned procedure, but in this case teachers tend to forget to teach and reward effective communication, so I err on the side of empowering students before I move on to more restrictive interventions.

Note: In all cases there was NEVER any punishing stimulus applied or pleasant stimulus removed for refusing to request a break, only a 30 second period prior to me repeating prompting the student to take a break. I chose 30 seconds simply because it is a practical amount of time between attempts, there is no scientific basis, just a practical one. This is where I deviate from traditional ABA-flavored protocols as they add in punishment contingencies to ensure high levels of expected responses. Go watch the Chip and Dale movie to reinforce why punishments will only backfire…

My simplified  general protocol is simplified below (it is changed to cater to the needs to each individual student based on an observational functional assessment):

  1. The student is started with what I call an ad libitum access to breaks upon request. This means they can have wall to wall access to breaks if they want them. They only need ask. And at this phase I provide as many prompts to the student to take breaks as possible.
  2. Once the student masters asking for breaks whenever they want, we move them to a more contingent break (e.g., Student does some kind of work or compliance with teacher requests for X minutes and then they can ask for a break).
  3. …and so on until the student is able to function in a typical classroom setting with minimal to no behaviors.

Yes, this seems simple. That is because it is. Painfully so. That is why it works. I don’t over complicate things. I make the kid feel valued and listened to, then I let them solve their own problem. I invariably start with 100% reinforcement for communication and slowly reduce the reinforcement level until the student is able to tolerate delay (e.g., work for 2 minutes before you ask for a break) and perhaps not having 100% of the breaks they request (though I never go below giving them 70% of the breaks they ask for. Not because it is ineffective, but because I would rather err on the side of having the student trust me and know most of the time they will get what they ask for).

In Practice

So, what does this look like. Both Chip and Dale received identical plans, so I will cover them together. Both of them were using extreme behaviors to get out of work that they were easily able to complete. They were just sick of schoolwork. They were chucking pointy things at teachers, running out of classrooms, screaming, swearing, and generally using violence and destruction.

I pulled them aside (note, these students were at 2 schools 17 miles and we chatted 3 months apart, so these were definitely separate conversations) and had a conversation about what they wanted to accomplish by acting out (I always tell them that the extreme behaviors they are using is “acting like a punk”, I find colloquialisms and subtle silliness help in times of stress). Chip and Dale both told me that they were, “done with work” or that the teachers were “unfair”, “mean”, or “don’t listen” to them.

I said, “okay, thanks for telling me”. I never have a discussion or ask follow ups at this point, I just want to get them talking.  I validate their feelings and emotions, but then I explicitly outline the deal. I  give them a data sheet that is designed to collect the data required to assess the fidelity of the behavior plan and tell them how to fill it out for themselves. I level with them so they know exactly what the plan is. I figure kids hate not knowing what is going on, so I inform them.

In both cases, I told each of the students that all they had to do was either ask for a break verbally, in writing, or else touch a break card and they would immediately get a 5-minute break. I explain to them that the 5 minute break is simply just a break from doing work and that they cannot go disrupt the rest of the students. I let them know they can take a break as often as they like.

Student 1

Chip was able to realize I was serious, and learned the contingencies to get access to breaks in under 2 days. The first day he did not believe me and tried to test the waters, a lot. Regardless his behavior, I gave him a break every time he asked for it, but kept school work demands on when he tried to use behavior instead to escape. In other words, rather than backing off and reducing my demands I would hold my ground and keep pressure on if they tried to misbehavior instead of asking for a break. Even if Chip was misbehaving at the time that he asked for a break, I gave it to him and told him I was giving him a break because he asked, not because he was being a punk. At the end of the day we talked about the day; focusing on what he learned and what I learned from the day.

On Day 2 he just asked for breaks any time I got near him. And I granted them. ALL. OF. THEM. Every single one. The school team was not happy because I was giving him what he wanted (“But you are just giving into him”, “He is manipulating you”, and so on…). I told them to have faith in the plan. What they were missing was the most important data: HE LEARNED. HE WAS COMPLIANT. HE WAS ASKING FOR BREAKS. No one got hurt. No pencils or number cubes were flying around the classroom. Chip was socially engaging with adults and peers. No fighting. No yelling. No swearing. No tantrums.

After a week I started to slowly (I cannot over emphasize the slowly) added work expectations (i.e., student must work for 2 minutes) before the student could ask for a break. Here’s the important part, I gave the student a timer, so they knew exactly how long they had to work . It again took 2 days to truly believe me, but Chip went with it. We had 2 days of gently butting heads, but the skirmishes were at most minor. Another week down and virtually no behavior problems outside the first 15-ish minutes of each day.

The next week it was a random 5 to 15 minute work period before a break. I also started to drop the break from 5 minutes to 2 minutes. The student adopted this immediately – after making a deal that I leave the timer in plain sight so Chip knew I wasn’t cheating. I set it and left it on the other side of the room and never approached it. Chip got it. I backed off and left the plan to the team and headed out.

Now, I have not mentioned how Chip was doing academically. That was intentional because this is the part I love most about functional communication training. Increased work completion is entirely a beneficial side effect of functional communication.

The first week he went from literally ZERO ( 0 ) work completion before I got there to 25% work completion when breaks were available. The team was still expressing frustration with me for gleefully granting him 75% escape, but in my not-so-humble-opinion, increasing from 0 to 25% work completion is a staggeringly large improvement. During week 2 it went up to 55-60% completion. During the final week I was there, Chip was at 85% work completion, which is pretty much the goal for a general education classroom. Aggressions were down to virtually nil, with only typical grade school playground rough housing gone too far comprising the reports of aggression. Chip also stopped picking fights with teachers to get out of work. Chip just started asking for breaks when feeling overwhelmed.

Worked like a charm.

Student 2

For Dale, it was a slower learning curve but a similar pattern. Day 1 was hard. Dale DID NOT want to ask for breaks or even touch a break card. Mainly because Dale did not want to comply with my instructions. His attitude at school pretty much is summed up by Bobby Knight in the GIF below.

I am patient, so I waited him out. When Dale fought back, I simply ignored the behavior and waited 30 seconds to offer the break opportunity again. From raw annoyance at having to constantly use increasingly escalated behaviors to not comply and me not falling for it, Dale relented. (The GIF below is what I look like when students are attention seeking using behavior)

We got a nice learning curve across the day from complete belligerence, to having to be given hand over hand help to touch a break card, to a verbal reminder, to independent requests when Dale felt I was going to ask them to do something. And unexpected/aggressive behaviors dropped to virtually zero in direct proportion to increasing functional communication.

The next day started tough with a 30-minute long defiance bout of not wanting to touch the card. Then 100% breaks independently requested. The rest of the week followed the same pattern.

Monday of the next week was tough as Dale was having none of my – as he loudly called it – “Work for 5 minutes before breaks bullshit”. Again, half of the day was tough, but after that it was easy the rest of the week.

Week 3 was cake. Dale learned communicating with words or a card was easier than fighting. And it got him what he wanted. A Break. Also, bonus, it got me to walk to the other side of the room and log onto my computer; thus not paying attention to what Dale was doing. I think getting me off their case was the greatest reward for them. And frankly, it let me get some work done.

Again, aggression was only high the first 30 minutes of each day before Dale got into the groove of asking for breaks, then incidences fell to virtually zero. Work completion went from 0 to 75% by the end of week 3. Interestingly, as early as during week 1, Dale got bored with repetitive breaks and started requesting work, which he was given. He often then promptly asked for a break from this work when he got sick of it, which was granted. And so on. A delightful virtuous cycle.

Communication. He got it. He used it. He understood.

What am I actually teaching them?

Yes, students that I am training for functional communication get out of work for a time. A lot of work. They escape from a TON of work. I am willing to patiently grant escape for the better part of a month.

But honestly, most of these students are either on task reduction anyway or else they have the system completely gamed and working in their favor, and are thus not completing any assignments anyway. So I bide my time until they start working. They always come around eventually.

What I hope to be teaching them during this time they are not focused on academics is that communicating their intents and desires to others in a way that is easy to understand gets their needs met. Plain and simple. Ask and you shall receive. In fact, during the first phase of any good functional communication protocol, ANYTHING appropriate the student asks for, they get. 100% of the time. No questions. No haggling. No delays. I think this is the part of the training that often gets under appreciated. Most of this post is talking about how I, the teacher, got a student to communicate, but in reality it is about showing the student that they can trust adults to listen when they talk.

I REWARD ALL COMMUNICATION for that first week. Otherwise there are problems. Moving forward, I would use explicit instruction to teach the student what the next phase is going to look like: Work for reward.

Most importantly, I teach the student to use a form of communication that requires little effort but is socially appropriate. They can type, write, talk, touch, sign, or even do an interpretive dance for all I care – I will reward them. They learn to move beyond unexpected, dangerous, or otherwise maladaptive behaviors to get their needs met. They grow up a bit. I show them the easy way to get their needs met. Once they learn, they readily continue using communication rather than extreme behaviors. It is easier. And kids are lazy. No need to waste energy trashing a room if all they have to is touch a break card.

And so on…

Note: I will gladly provide digital copies all my FCT materials, all you have to do is shoot me an email. I will giddily send you everything I have. We can also chat by phone, text, or email as needed to help implementation fidelity if you find any hiccups along the way.

If you have an ABA/BCBA background, I recommend Greg Hanley’s website for protocols and specific methods for building in delay tolerance during initial FCT. Mine are not ABA sanctioned and I have tweaked the reward contingencies from the accepted norms.

At this point, it is incumbent upon me to say that I do not explicitly endorse Hanley’s or any other FCT protocols that allow for the application unpleasant stimulus (positive punishment), or else removing reinforcing stimuli during failed FCT attempts as a negative punishment. I consider these punishments unethical and abusive to the child. Regardless the ethics, it is just bad practice that makes FCT MUCH less powerful and breeds distrust from the student toward the teacher.

Teachers Should Lift Up Disabled Students, Not Hold Them Down

A Teaching Aside

So, every once in a while I help out families that have to navigate the educational system with disabled children. Most often autistic or fragile X kids (once again this is a good time to note I am not a proponent of person first language). These phone calls tend to be very similar each time, and I find that sad. The school team is telling parents their children cannot succeed in anything other than a highly restrictive environment. Life skills classrooms rather than mild/moderate classrooms, self-contained rather than resource. Behavior units rather than a compassionate behavior plan… The school’s showing a complete lack of faith and belief in a child’s ability; contrasted with frustrated parents trying their best to advocate for their child’s abilities.

The theme of many of these phone calls are boiled down in this tweet:

This is what I am going to address in this post: How should schools approach the educational placement of disabled students.

Least Harmful Assumption

My approach in special education is to always favor what I call the least harmful assumption. The definition of least harmful assumption is as follows (paraphrased from this piece by Anne Donnelian and this conceptual extension from Zach Rossetti and Carol Tashie):

The Least Dangerous Assumption is the premise that, in the absence of evidence, we believe we have not yet found a way to make it so a child or adult with a disability can [learn], instead of believing he or she can’t [learn]

More colloquially, it is less harmful to the student to assume they can be taught how to succeed rather than assume they will never be able to accomplish.


(from Rossetti and Toshie – emphasis mine)

An example particularly applicable to my life (fishing)

…If I were to go fishing for a week and not catch any fish, there would be two assumptions that could be made.

First, I could say “there are no fish in the lake since I did not catch any, and I know what I am doing.”

Or, second, I could say simply that “I did not catch any fish that week, and I will keep on trying.” The first assumption seems rather arrogant, while the second one is more realistic and respectful.

(There is a third assumption that I could make which would be that I am not a good fisherman, but we won’t go there).

An example for disabled students in a school setting

Imagine a child who does not talk with the spoken word and moves around using a wheelchair. Her teachers have worked with her for a month and have not yet seen any evidence of what she understands. In fact, they wonder if she knows or is aware of anything at all.

These teachers can make one of two assumptions. They can assume that “what you see is what you get” and that this child does not know anything, that her brain is as empty as that lake. As such, they can educate her in a way that reflects those assumptions (perhaps segregated classes or regular classes with low or no expectations). Now imagine her as she graduates and uses a communication device to say, “Why did you treat me so poorly?!! I am smart and you wasted twelve years of my life!” A very dangerous assumption was made, with results that none of us would desire.

Now, consider the second assumption. These same teachers can recognize that her movement differences are differences and not deficiencies. They can assume that she knows lots and just isn’t currently able to show what she knows. Her brain is as full of knowledge and potential as that lake is of fish, but they just have not been able to reel anything in yet. As such, her schooling would reflect these high expectations and she would be considered and respected as a valued member of her school and classes. Now again, imagine her twelve years later at graduation, using her communication device to say, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of my teachers who believed in me and made me feel as if I truly belonged and treated me like all of my classmates.” This is the least dangerous assumption, one that results in a young woman who can celebrate her full and fulfilling life.

But consider a third scenario as well. What if we never come up with a way for this young woman to communicate her intelligence? What if, after twelve years as a valued and respected student in all general education classes, we still do not know exactly what she has learned and knows? What harm was done? What was lost? Nothing. And that truly is the least dangerous assumption.

Lifting Up vs. Punching Down

When we look at a disabled individual, we have two choices. We can focus on their abilities and work on a plan to help them shine, or else we can prejudice ourselves and find ways to make sure our preconceptions are validated. In other words, we can lift them up and give them the chance for success, or we can punch them down and make sure they remain unable to do things.

This can be thought of as a form of Pygmalion effect, as diagrammed below. If we believe in them, they will conform to our belief and rise up. The same works if we constantly express a belief of inability. The student will conform to our expectations.

My approach in special education placement is to assume the student is able or can be taught to do whatever they need to know. I prefer general education over resource, resource over a self-contained special classroom, and I prefer a mild/moderate over severe/profound special classes, and I favor anything to a special school.

I have worked with students with Fragile X syndrome, and I have found the following to be true. If you work hard enough and/or give appropriate scaffolds, they can learn how to read. They can do basic math, especially if given a calculator. They can learn routines in a classroom and behaviorally fit in with the other students. They can mainstream for academic and nonacademic subjects. They can learn how to ask for help.  So, why would I immediately place them in a life skills class that assumes they cannot do the above things? Especially if I have a classroom that moved more slowly academically, but still has comparatively high expectations for the student.

With autistic students, I assume they can develop appropriate-enough of social skills to exist in a typical classroom. I assume they can self-regulate. I assume they can take care of their own sensory needs. I assume they can communicate effectively, be it by sign, speech, AAC, PECS, or whatever. I assume they can learn to cope. But they have to be taught. So why would I immediately place them in a classroom that is designed to prevent these kids from having the experiences necessary to learn the above skills? Why would I assume they will not be able to learn?

Later in this post I will give a specific example of a student with cerebral palsy. My assumption for people with cerebral palsy is that they have sharp minds but lack control over many functions of their bodies. Their physical disabilities are not indicative of a weak mind. In fact, the opposite is more reliably true in my experience. So why would I try to assign them to a special school that specializes in physical disabilities, but makes assumptions that include an incapacity for learning? Why would I do that to them?

This can be extended to any student with any challenge or disorder, be it mental, neurological, or physical. The U. S. educational system has a track record of making poor, even harmful assumptions about race, socio-economic status, learning disabilities, medical or psychiatric diagnoses, etc. If we could screw up our assumptions, we did. This was why the idea of a least dangerous/harmful assumption was formalized all the way back in 1984, and we still have difficulties consistently applying it.

My Experiences With a Least Dangerous Assumption

When I was in elementary school, my mother was a 1:1 paraeducator for a young woman with cerebral palsy in the junior high. This young woman used a wheelchair for mobility, required high levels of assistance for personal care, and her speech was very hard to understand. My mother’s job was to help: this student was the one doing all the work for her assignments, tests, etc.

I remember one day this young woman came to our house and was in the kitchen talking to my mother (by now I knew her well enough that I could understand her when she talked). Because I liked her, I drew her a picture of a red barn with a window. It was a typical young child picture of a barn. The perspective was awful, the windows were crooked, etc.

When I gave the picture to her, she commented that the barn would look better if the perspective were fixed and motioned with her arms how this l look. She also gave me a few more notes on how to improve the picture. To me this was not altogether unexpected feedback given her father was an art teacher at the high school.

In retrospect, I realize something  funny. I was not at all surprised that she gave me this feedback and did not even process at the time how some people would not be pleased to receive feedback on an art piece by a young woman with cerebral palsy. I took her notes and improved my drawings. I then sent them to school with my mother to give to her.

Fast forward to a year or so ago.

I worked with a student in 4th grade. There had been discussions by the school team about having this student go to a special school for profoundly disabled students because they have cerebral palsy and required a lot of assistance for their personal and communication needs.

This school had all the students use a computer program called Successmaker as part of their computer time because it gave the teachers data that could be used for progress monitoring. So I had daily data for reading and math for this student.  This student had a head mouse system involving a reflective dot on their nose that was picked up by a webcam on the computer monitor. The student hit a large button (think the “easy button” from Staples) to click the mouse.

Using this assistive technology, this student was consistently getting 60-75% of the grade level questions correct. Seeing this, I wondered why this student was in a full-time special education classroom placement. I felt that was holding this student back. So I made my own assumption and ran with it. I assumed they were a kid with a great brain but a body that was uncooperative.

I started by moving this student into a general education class for whole group reading and math. I figured since the student had a 1:1 paraeducator, they would be able to figure out how to survive the general education classroom. Well, apparently survival was not the question, it was participation. This student was able to complete assignments at grade level without any problems. She used an iPad to point to the numbers that were needed on the assignment and the paraeducator wrote them. With time, the student just got a better iPad program that let them just do the whole assignment themselves.

Reading showed similar success. When given choices or time to tap out answers using an adaptive keyboard, we saw grade level reading comprehension, meaning both the student was able to read the material and concurrently understand what they were reading. Now, even a significant number of non-disabled students struggle with this. Additionally, at this point the student also got the burr up their butt that they wanted to write. They wanted to type. They wanted to do the work themselves.  So the paraprofessional let them. For writing, the paraprofessional grabbed a pencil in her fist and stuck a thumb up. This student grabbed the para’s thumb and used it like a joystick to write. The para even would talk to me and actively  not pay any attention to what the student was doing to be sure not to influence any writing. The student also started using the adapted keyboard independently as well, even though it was extremely difficult.

The final hurdle took some more creativity. Communication. This student did not have the ability to speak. They did not have sufficient motor control to form the right sounds. However, this student was a social butterfly. They loved being in groups and always tried to be in the middle of things. We found out one day when there was a scheduling issue that put some physical therapy at the same time as recess. The student tried to communicate their displeasure using the iPad, but was ignored. They tried by yelling, but were ignored. So, to make their point, the student dumped their wheelchair started crawling outside without the para. Point made.

Our communication plan was simple: the student’s mother would program in a set of communication statements on the iPad connected to the button. In the morning, the paraeducator would have a typical beginning of day conversation with the student in the 10 minutes between arriving on the bus and class starting. Then the teacher started joining in. Then peers. After a while we programmed the iPad with some corny knock-knock jokes. It was constrained communication, but it was communication.

We also saw something interesting…the student started to vocalize more in the hallways and class to get our attention so they could communicate.  We even set up a few pre-determined questions for this student to answer so they could prepare and get the communication button set up with the answer during the lesson so the student could hit the button and participate in class.

In the end, by making the least dangerous assumption regarding a student with multiple disabilities, we helped a student succeed. They worked their way out of a special education unit. In fact, they do not receive any kind of academic special education services at all. They just have a 1:1 para for hygiene and mobility assistance.  On year-end testing they received a 3 out of 4 (which is “proficient”) for the English Language Arts testing and a 2 out of 4 (“approaching proficient”) for each the Math and Science testing. This student has friends that walk across the room talk to them and bask in a toothy grin. They hang out with a set peer group at recess. They communicate with teachers in class and in the hallway. They have it all.

All because we made the assumption that this student could do it. We never entertained the thought that they would fail. We challenged ourselves with the student’s success. And the student made it.


Kids can do amazing things if adults believe in them. They are also capable of spectacular failure if adults don’t. So, in a very real and tangible way, their success depends on our belief in their abilities.

To follow the least dangerous/harmful assumption there are things we can do:

  • Focus on who/what students are becoming, not what they are doing at the moment
    • It is the PROCESS, not the PRODUCT that matters
    • That Ah-Ha or Eureka moment may just be around the corner
  • Assume intentionality in communication
    • Always assume they are trying to communicate
    • If nothing else, you will teach them to intentionally communicate
  • See strengths
    • What can they do
    • Shape their strengths to compensate for any weaknesses
    • Always approach with the assumption of competence
  • Wait…Then Wait again
    • Rushing is not an effective way to identify skills and abilities, it often masks them
    • Patience is a virtue (give time for skills to develop)
    • Allow for a longer processing time (Getting the right answer eventually is still getting the right answer)
  • Use the right tools for the job
    • Assistive tech as needed to guide success (earlier post on AAC)
    • Teach how to use assistive tech (Teach them to fish, don’t just give them a fishing pole and walk away)
  • Focus on all pieces of the puzzle
    • Think critically about how to meet needs of the student
    • Treat IEPs and Placement decisions as an opportunity to challenge the student
  • Ignore nay-sayers
    • You do no harm when you make the least dangerous/harmful assumption
    • You may just raise the student up
    • Negative comments or naysayers are not helpful, so they can easily be ignored
  • Never give up
    • Never give up on yourself and your ability to teach the student
    • Never give up on the student’s ability to learn