Functional communication training


What is it?

Being able to communicate everyday messages is crucial to the well-being of all students. Functional communication training is a way of making sure that students who experience difficulty communicating verbally have a way of getting their messages across and a way of understanding messages from others.

Functional communication training (FCT) recognises that students with language support needs often use their actions and behaviour to communicate. FCT aims to teach students a successful system for communicating when verbal language is not always possible.

The type of communication taught will depend on the students' needs. Examples can include:

  • learning a specific sentence that gets the same message across e.g. "I need help" when a student is faced with a difficult task)
  • using a "break" card to get out of a noisy situation
  • requesting using a picture of the item they want.

How do I use it?

Functional Communication Training involves three broad steps: finding out the reason for a behaviour, teaching a new behaviour that the student can use to communicate, and generalisation.

  1. Determine the reason for the behaviour. You need to consider whether the behaviour happens to get or avoid sensory stimulation, attention or activities or items.
  2. Select a new communicative behaviour that can serve the same function as the behaviour of concern (verbal, visual, sign etc.). It is essential that the new behaviour or skill is:
    • easier to do than the existing behaviour
    • easily understood by those in the student's environment.
    For example, it might be too hard and require more effort for a student to use a full sentence to ask for a break when they are stressed. Using a visual support may be less effortful than the problem behaviour and likely to be learned more quickly.  As the problem behaviour begins to reduce, more complex forms of communication might be introduced.
  3. Identify opportunities to practice the new skill. The skill should be taught to the student when they are calm and engaged. The skill should not be taught when the student is already stressed or upset.
  4. Consider how you will prompt the student to use the new skill when they are stressed. See the Prompting factsheet.
  5. Reinforce the use of the new skill. See the Reinforcement factsheet.
  6. Make sure that the student's new communication is honoured – this means, for example, that if they ask for a break appropriately that they get a break from the classroom. The new communication skill must be effective if the student is going to use it. 
  7. Start to teach the student to use the behaviour in different settings and with different people. This is known as generalisation.
  8. Continue to honour the student's requests.

It is important to remember that Functional Communication Training must be carefully matched to the function the student is currently communicating through their actions and behaviour. There are also distinct steps in reinforcement and generalisation that are crucial to the success of Functional Communication Training. Teachers and parents may wish to seek the guidance of school guidance officer/counsellor or speech pathologist to successfully implement the strategy.

Age group

Functional communication training is an appropriate tool to use with all age groups. The techniques used, including the choice of communication form (sign, picture, spoken words or communication device) will be very dependent on the student. Reinforcement will also need to be carefully considered across age groups.

High schoolYes

Where can I learn more?

Related factsheets

Last updated 24 September 2020