Challenging Behavior as Communication

Individuals with severe disabilities frequently demonstrate challenging behaviors that may serve a variety of communication purposes. A robust literature has emerged over the past 30 years demonstrating that Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is an effective method for determining the function of challenging behaviors and treating the challenging behaviors through communication interventions. Challenging behaviors can have the functions of requesting tangible objects, escaping tasks, requesting attention, meeting sensory needs, or combinations of these. Interventions treat the challenging behaviors by either changing the environments or demands that trigger the behaviors, replacing the behaviors altogether with more conventional communication forms, or both. Functional Communication Training (FCT) is most successful when attention is paid to the functional equivalence between challenging behaviors and replacement behaviors, response efficiency, and overall effectiveness.

Goals focused on reducing or replacing challenging behaviors are developed by the team and described in a positive behavior support (PBS) plan that extends across the daily routines and environments used by the individual. The completed FBA will guide the development of the PBS plan. Communication intervention through the use of AAC is often a component of PBS plans.  

Bottom Line: 

Many so-called challenging behaviors actually serve a communicative function. Reducing or replacing the challenging behavior requires teaching an alternative that will accomplish the same function.  


Neidert, P. L., Rooker, G. W., Bayles, M. W., & Miller, J. R. (2013). Functional analysis of problem behavior. In D. D. Reed, F. D. D. G. Reed, & J. K. Luiselli (Eds.), Handbook of crisis intervention and developmental disabilities: Issues in clinical child psychology (pp. 147–167). New York: Springer.

Reichle, J. & Wacker, D. P. (2017). Functional Communication Training for Problem Behavior. New York: Guilford. 


Return to the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities (NJC) topic areas list.

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