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Functional communication training in the classroom: a guide for success

Mancil, G. & Bowman, M. (2010). Functional communication training in the classroom: a guide for success. Preventing School Failure, 54(4), 238-246.

Objective: This article explores and discusses functional communication training (FCT) and its effectiveness in improving communication for people on the autism spectrum.   The researchers outline steps required to complete a functional behavior assessment that can later be used to develop intervention plans utilizing FCT.  In addition, several step for successful intervention were outlined.  

Functional Communication Training description:  When designing a communication intervention for people with autism, a three step process is completed.  This process consists of: (1) conducting a functional assessment, (2) identifying a communicative response that matches the identified function, and (3) identifying a communicative behavior that is used to replace the problematic behavior.

In addition to completing the FCT steps above, the following components should also be addressed when implementing a treatment plan:

  1.  Data-collection procedures- Data should be collected before intervention begins to determine a baseline of the skill to be taught.  In addition, data should be collected as the skill is being taught.  Data can consist of levels of prompting need for skill independence as well as frequency of appropriate and inappropriate responses.
  2. Seizing the Environment – Special consideration should be made to identify naturally occurring situations when communicative opportunities can be “captured.” In addition, the environment can be set up or manipulated to “contrive” communicative opportunities.
  3. Generalization – People with autism tend to demonstrate difficulties in generalizing skills to other people, settings, and materials.  As interventions are created and implemented generalization across are three areas should be considered and systematically planned for. 
  4. Prompting – For some students with autism prompting may be necessary to initially teach the skill.  Prompts can take many forms depending on the skill level of the student.  In all cases, prompts should be systematically faded or removed so that the student is able to demonstrate the learned skills with independence.
  5. Reinforcing – When teaching a new skill reinforcement strategies are of the utmost importance.  Motivators should be delivered immediately contingent on the desired behavior and individualized to the learner.
  6. Extinction – Extinction refers to the individual not receiving attention or reinforcement for the undesired behavior.  Reinforcement is only given for the desired behavior.
  7. Shaping – This principle of behavior reinforces approximations of the behavior until the behavioral target is demonstrated fully and with independence.  Communicative skills should be matched to the child’s ability level and must be realistic and obtainable.
  8. Fading – All prompts and teacher/peer assistance should be faded or removed allowing the student to demonstrate the communicative skill independently.
  9. Delay – Allow the student time to make the communicative response, and require that the student travel distance to find a communicative partner.
  10. Data collection – When looking at student performance data it is essential that the practitioner ask themselves questions that pertain to the above nine steps.  This will help to ensure successful instruction/acquisition of the desired skill. 

Conclusion: FCT has been shown to be an effective approach to teaching communicative requests and exchanges in people with autism.   Researchers and practitioners have shifted instruction from the clinical or analogue setting to naturalistic settings in order to promote generalization of learned skills.  FCT has been shown to be effective in reducing problematic behaviors while increasing desirable behaviors.


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