Does Functional Communication Training work or not?
by Professor Peter Sturmey
ABAC Resident Speaker and Fitzer’s Corner Guest Blogger
Tiger et al. (2008) defined Functional Communication Training (FCT) as “a differential reinforcement (DR) procedure in which an individual is taught an alternative response that results in the same class of reinforcement identified as maintaining problem behavior”. It is one of the longest standing and most researched intervention procedures for challenging behavior, dating back to at least 1985 and many systematic reviews of meta-analyses have concluded that FCT works to reduce problem behavior.
In 1985, Carr and Durand conducted functional analyses of aggression and self-injury and demonstrated that for DR to work the response must match the function of the problem behavior, and a response that does not match the function of the target behavior will be ineffective. Versions of this procedure have been widely adopted. Yet, although research appears to show that FCT is highly effective, in practice the outcomes are varied and sometimes poor. Where is the problem? Does research not really address the problem or does practice not use evidence-based procedures or are there problems in both departments?
Problems in both research and practice for Functional Communication Training
I believe that there are problems in both research and practice. Some of the problems lie with research. Many research studies focus on functional analysis and treatment analysis. Many such studies are done in analog settings such as small quiet rooms in national practice centers by highly motivated change agents such as graduate students working on their thesis or tenure track professors chasing tenure or grant money. Issues such as implementation in real-world settings and by typical change agents over long and meaningful periods of time and multiple settings are rarely addressed or only addressed as an afterthought. (There are some rare exceptions to this!)
Some of the problems lie with practice. Practitioners often fail to adopt research-based practices although they may feel that they are indeed doing so. For example, various forms of FCT involve pertaining of the communication response (even when the person already has that response); fading out of discriminative stimuli for the communication response before FCT begins; extensive numbers of individual teaching sessions when progress is contingent upon learning not time; systematic analysis and programming of generalization and maintenance; and training of natural change agents in multiple environments.
How do behavior analysts and other professionals address these issues?
For two kinds of problems, there are two kinds of solutions. We need more translational research from national centers of excellence that address some of the real-world issues listed above.
We also need better, competency-based training of practitioners both in graduate school and during continuing education. FCT has come a long way since 1985, but there is a long way to go.
To learn more about functional communication training, Professor Sturmey’s ABACLive Webinar on FCT is one of two January 2021 Special Issue Recordings
For more on FCT check out these recent publications:
Reichle, J. & Wacker, D. P. (2017). Functional communication training for problem behavior. London: Guilford.
Tiger, J. H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: A review and practical guide. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 1, 16–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391716