Teaching Communication Skills

What are basic steps involved in teaching communication?

  • Review the students major communication skills and how he or she indicates wants and needs from the functional behavioral assessment
  • Choose a communication strategy that will the replace problem behavior
  • Make sure the communication response is as easy or easier to engage in than the problem behavior
  • Identify problematic routines where you will begin teaching communication
  • Observe the student to discover the average length of time between the antecedent (triggering event) and the problem behavior
  • Spend time building rapport by associating yourself with activities, people and things the student values
  • Make sure that when problem behavior occurs it is more effortful and less efficient than the new communication skill
  • Plan to expand the communication intervention across settings and people as part of a long-term plan


Why is important to establish rapport before beginning communication interventions?

It is important to begin communication training by associating yourself with activities, people, and things that the student values because it will make it easier to prompt a communication response when you begin teaching the student. The goal is to reduce the occurrence of problem behaviors to low levels and to build a positive relationship that will facilitate communication between you and the student. Building rapport means that time is spent developing a positive relationship based upon mutual enjoyment of activities and cooperation without high levels of demands or corrective statements. Create opportunities for you and the student to spend time together engaging in reinforcing activities that were identified during the functional behavioral assessment. Rapport building is not a one-time event and should be built into interactions at a high enough frequency to maintain the relationship. Once rapport has been established with the student, you will be able to continue with the communication intervention and shape the student’s behavior by prompting communication during the routines you have identified.

Why is it important to know the length of time between an antecedent (triggering event) and the problem behavior?

It can be helpful to know the length of time between an antecedent (trigger) and the problem behavior because when at all possible you want to prompt a communication response before problem behaviors occur.

How can teaching communication become a strategy for replacing a problem behavior?

Many different types of behaviors can have the same effect or outcome. A student who is trying to tell you that he needs help on a task may yell at you loudly across the room, raise his hand, or put his head down on the desk and refuse to work. Although these behaviors look different, they can result in the same outcome. The goal of this intervention is to identify a communication response that will result in the same outcome as problem behavior. This may mean teaching the student to request a break if she is engaging in problem behavior to escape from a task, ask for assistance during tasks that are difficult, initiate social interactions to obtain attention, or make a request for an item, event, or activity.

Why is it important to consider the efficiency of a communication intervention?

The student will choose to engage in a behavior that is most efficient. If the communication behavior being taught requires more effort, the student may choose to engage in problem behavior. A number of factors should be considered to make sure a communication intervention will be more efficient than a problem behavior. When deciding which communication response to teach, consider how much physical effort the student engages in to achieve the same outcome as the problem behavior. Make sure that the reinforcement a student receives occurs frequently, is powerful enough and is delivered quickly. If a communication intervention is not working well, review these issues related to efficiency and make modifications so that problem behavior becomes inefficient, ineffective, and irrelevant for the student.

How do you make problem behavior more effortful and less efficient?

One way to make problem behavior more effortful and less efficient is to use extinction. When a behavior that has a history of being reinforced no longer results in reinforcement, behavior will decrease. For instance, a student may learn over time that if she cries and screams she will gain access to her favorite game. The student’s teacher can choose to ignore the student's crying and screaming and immediately reinforce appropriate verbal requests for the game. Over time, the student's crying and screaming will decrease and her verbal requests will increase because this behavior is more efficient.

Sometimes when using extinction a behavior may increase for a period of time before it starts to decrease. When extinction begins, the student may actually cry and scream louder and with more intensity before it decreases. This temporary increase in responding that is referred to as an extinction burst.

In certain situations, extinction is not possible, especially if a behavior is dangerous and may lead to safety concerns for the student or others. However, it is still possible to decrease the amount of reinforcement a student receives when engaging in problem behavior. For instance, if a student is pulls a peer’s hair to get attention, the teacher can decrease the amount of attention the student receives by quickly redirecting the peer away from the student and reducing the amount attention given to the student during the event from other adults.

Below are links to tools that can help the student and his or her team think about communication skills.