Communicating Through Challenging Behaviors

by | Jun 29, 2021

We all know that the cry of an infant means they are communicating their wants and needs. Since the infant is not born with the knowledge or ability to speak, it engages in crying behavior to communicate. In reaching developmental milestones, infants learn new and effective ways to communicate and as a result, crying behavior decreases. Over time and across experiences, the individual learns that using their words results in gaining access to wants and needs.

This process is referred to as Functional Communication Training (FCT). In 1985, Edward G. Carr and V. Mark Durand published the first study using FCT which documented how effective it could be for reducing and replacing challenging behaviors with socially appropriate behaviors (i.e., communication responses).

The key with FCT is to identify the function of the challenging behavior. What this means is, we are looking to identify what the individual is looking to access. For some individuals, the challenging behaviors they engage in communicates their wants and needs (like the crying infant example). Applied Behavior Analytic research shows that individuals engage in challenging behaviors to either gain attention (from another person), gain access to an item, or escape something such as a task, person, or location. Sometimes, individuals engage in challenging behaviors because it makes them “feel good” and this is a type of “sensory” function.

Identifying the function of challenging behaviors allows the educator to target and teach specific communication responses that will eventually replace challenging behaviors. By teaching the learner to communicate more appropriately to get their needs met, there is less need to engage in challenging behaviors. This idea of communication through behaviors can be applied across a variety of individuals and scenarios.

Since the publication of the 1985 study by Carr and Durand, FCT has developed into an established and effective evidence-based treatment for improving challenging behavior and teaching appropriate and effective communication skills. Our Safety Care curriculum utilized this type of research in order to develop effective de-escalation strategies for managing challenging behaviors.



Carr, E. G., & Durand, V. M. (1985). Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis18(2), 111-126.

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