Reading 2.3 – The problem with problem behavior as communication

Chapter 2 – It’s Just Verbal Behavior

Reading 2.3 – The problem with problem behavior as communication

In common parlance, it is natural to talk about someone’s actions as communicating something. We take note of something that someone does and infer what the person meant by it. So, if our friend Jeannie always seems to bring the conversation around to herself in some way, we might say that she is trying to get attention. We see her actions as communicating that she wants attention, perhaps more than her fair share.

This tendency to interpret behavior as communicating something is especially common with individuals who lack effective verbal skills and therefore are not able to simply say what they want. Some people with developmental disabilities face this challenge, of course, and caregivers are understandably looking for meaning in an individual’s non-verbal behavior that might inform how they react to the person’s actions.

This interpretation of non-verbal behavior as communicating meaning is hard to resist when considering problem behavior. When an individual who is intellectually disabled and has limited verbal skills acts out in some way, we naturally look at the consequences that flow from their behavior. If their acting out often results in attention from others, it is easy to infer that their behavior is communicating a desire for attention.

This way of talking about behavior might seem innocent enough from an everyday perspective and maybe not so bad in a professional context. After all, isn’t this what we’re doing when we conduct a functional assessment? When we try to identify the functions that particular behaviors serve in the person’s repertoire, isn’t it implicit that we are concluding that their actions are communicating a desire for attention, or to escape from a certain situation, or get access to some reinforcer, and so forth? Is this the kind of inference we should be making?

Is “communicating” a behavior?

What is communication anyway? Is it a behavior? In everyday dialect, it sure seems to be. Behavior clearly underlies vernacular references to communicating, but there are good reasons why behavior analysts avoid using colloquial terms and phrases for scientific and professional purposes. Determining whether communicating is a behavior it is important to keep our scientific labels for particular response classes as narrow and descriptive as possible so as to avoid confusion. Were we to say that oral verbal behavior (talking) is the same as communicating, for example, we would begin sliding down a slippery slope. How would we then distinguish the behavior of talking from the behaviors of signing or writing? Would we lump them together as the behavior of communicating? What problems would ensue from not distinguishing among these similar but different kinds of behavior? True, a label for a response class is just a bit of verbal behavior, and we can use any label we like for a behavior as long as our scientific and professional colleagues agree. As a label for a response class, however, communicating is too broad and vague and non-descriptive, especially given its colloquial history and conceptual implications (see below). It just doesn’t work very well as a label for a distinct form of verbal behavior. We already have established labels for the broad classes of behavior we consider verbal, and they are at least somewhat descriptive in everyday usage. Communicating is not an additional or unique form of verbal behavior.

A result of behavior?

Might we instead talk about communicating as the result of verbal behavior? Would it be useful to say that communication is an outcome or consequence of talking or signing or writing? This view is another implication of vernacular references to communicating. We understand that communication can’t happen unless someone emits verbal behavior in some form and a listener is present. The implication would seem to follow that something is then communicated, almost like the talking passes something from the speaker to the listener.

This view raises the question is what is it that is being passed on or communicated, and the usual answer revolves around the notion of meaning. The idea is that the speaker communicates some meaning, which may then affect the behavior of the listener. Of course, the meaning that is supposedly communicated is nowhere to be found as a physical phenomenon. It “exists” only in a nonphysical or mental domain and requires mental processes at both ends to create and to decode this meaning. Matters go downhill from there, as discussed in Chapter 2.

Together, these radical behavioristic niceties suggest that talking about verbal behavior as either the act of communicating or as having the effect of communicating isn’t a very good idea. As colloquial references, they are too broad and vague for scientific usage, don’t fulfill any particular scientific needs or resolve any problems, and invite serious conceptual misunderstandings. As with many everyday terms (including language, for example), communication is best left out of our technical vocabulary.

Back to problem behavior as communication

References to problem behavior as a way of communicating buy into the above problems. This interpretation of problem behavior is a colloquial way of suggesting that a particular behavior – head hitting, for example – is a way of asking for a certain outcome, such as attention. Although head hitting may indeed sometimes be maintained by attention, describing the behavior as communicating is conceptually sloppy, as suggested above. You might feel that there are worse sins, but let’s take this a step further.

If it were professionally acceptable to refer to problem behavior as communicating something, it would seem permissible to describe other behavior as a form of communication as well. So, would working steadily at an assigned task be communicating something? How about drinking a cup of tea? What would driving to work communicate? After enough examples, the exercise might seem pointless and raise the question, “Under what conditions would behavior not be communication?” Is one behavior a form of communication and other behavior not? If there is a line to be drawn, where would it be? And why?

If all behavior were to be interpreted as communication, would that add anything to our science and technology? Isn’t this practice just an example of conceptual backsliding, allowing some everyday dialect to slip into professional contexts? Isn’t the notion of behavior as communication just a matter of failing to have weeded out another example of mentalism in professional dialect and practice?

The idea that behavior communicates something seems no more than a vague and risky euphemism for the well-established concept of a contingency between a behavior (response class) and a consequence (stimulus class). However, the definition of a contingency is potentially more precise and verifiable than the notion of a communication, which seems to beg for endless interpretive judgments. A behavior-consequence contingency is a very particular kind of relationship that has been scientifically established as the foundation of how behavior works. It has proven its worth in our science and technology. On the other hand, the implication that this relationship may instead be described as communication forces users to shoulder uncomfortable mentalistic baggage, while offering nothing in the way of recompense.

Then what about Functional Communication Training?

Functional Communication Training (FCT) is an approach to resolving problems with behavior that involves replacing problem behavior with alternative acceptable behavior by establishing and maintaining acceptable behaviors while weakening support for unacceptable behavior. It may be helpful to appreciate that FCT is neither a strategy nor a technique, but a tactic.

This distinction is based on the notion that the overall objective of a behavior change effort is a strategy. Tactics are various ways of going about accomplishing a strategy. Techniques are very particular means of implementing tactics. The concepts are nested like Russian dolls. As an example, possible strategies for addressing an individual’s problem behavior may be to decrease its frequency or to decrease its intensity or to teach caregivers to minimize associated risks. If the selected strategy is to decrease the frequency of the behavior, possible tactics might be to remove the events that seem to lead to the behavior, to weaken reinforcement of the behavior, or to punish the behavior, among other options. If the selected tactic is to weaken reinforcement of the behavior, possible techniques might include extinction, differential reinforcement procedures, and so on.

Given these distinctions, FCT is a tactic that serves the strategy of ameliorating certain types of behavioral problems, particularly in individuals who have limited verbal repertoires. It is one way – there are others – of decreasing the occurrence of target behaviors. Although there is an FCT literature describing particular procedures that might be used to teach appropriate alternative behavior and weaken existing problem behavior, FCT is a label for this tactic, not a particular procedure or technique for implementing the tactic.

Given this clarification, FCT is a perfectly reasonable tactic for decreasing problem behavior, and it is widely used. Labeling the tactic “functional communication training” purchases the conceptual problems already discussed, however. Viewing problem behavior as the act of communicating or as communicating something is a mentalistic distraction from the more conceptually and scientifically sound alternative of focusing on the physically verifiable contingencies between a behavior and its consequences.

The term “functional” is also a bit of a problem in this context, although there is nothing at all wrong with this term in general. In fact, it is so widely used in our field that it sometimes seems to be attached as a modifier here and there merely because of its general “goodness.” What is odd in this application is that the problem behavior motivating the intervention is already functional. Were it not, there would be no problem behavior. That is, the problem behavior serves the function of producing the consequences that maintain the behavior. The behavior may be problematic in some way for the individual and others, but is remains functional for the individual by definition, regardless of the problems it may otherwise cause.

Of course, the idea that justifies the tactic of teaching and supporting an alternative behavior that is more acceptable than the problem behavior – and that might be able to replace the problem behavior in the individual’s repertoire – is that the alternative behavior will also be functional. The notion that it may be able to replace the problem behavior is predicated on the possibility that it may serve the same function as the problem behavior, such as getting attention, but without all of the undesirable side effects. This can work well, as long as the maintaining consequences are themselves acceptable. (See Johnston, 2006, for a discussion of replacing problem behavior.)

So, FCT is not a good label for an otherwise perfectly viable tactic for addressing behavior problems because it encourages misunderstandings ABA could well do without. Couldn’t we just describe this tactic as establishing alternative behaviors, particularly favoring those that serve the same function as the problem behavior?


Johnston, J. M. (2006). “Replacing” Problem Behavior: An analysis of tactical alternatives. The Behavior Analyst, 29 (1), 1-11.