What is your child trying to tell you?


Many children with language delay will communicate what they want and don’t want using challenging behaviors. As such, it can prove difficult at times to determine what it is exactly that your child is trying to communicate. Are they having a tantrum because they want something? Are they having a tantrum because they don’t want something, or perhaps don’t like something? If we view a child’s challenging behavior as a form of communication, it becomes easier to determine what it is exactly that they are trying to tell us.


For example, if you could put words to your child’s behavior that would make sense in that context, it will help you to understand what they are trying to telling you. Let’s say your child sees a soda bottle on the counter and starts reaching for it while fussing. In this scenario we could assume that your child is saying, “I want soda.” Or perhaps you tell your child that it is time to do their homework and they begin to cry and throw their pencil. We could presume that your child is saying, “I don’t want to do my homework.”


You then can teach your child a better way of communicating their messages to you using functional communication training (FCT). Functional communication training is an evidence-based intervention that aims to replace challenging behaviors with more common forms of communication which could include words, pictures, signs or a speech generating device.



The key to FCT is to identify the communication message that matches the function of the challenging behavior. For example, for the child that wanted soda, we would teach her how to make requests. For the child that did not want to do their homework, we might teach him to request for a “break” or ask for “help.”


The replacement behavior should be simple enough (a) to be taught in a short amount of time and (b) allow the child to quickly acquire the behavior and gain access to the reinforcement. If children are asked to produce a complicated replacement behavior, they may revert back to the undesirable interfering behavior.


Once you know what communication skill that you are going to teach (replacement behavior), you are ready to go! The best method is to teach the response through a series of steps that provide repeated practice. For the child that wanted the soda, you would start by providing repeated practice of asking for soda by modeling a picture exchange, a sign, or the spoken word and then pausing to allow the child to imitate you. Once the child emits the desired behavior you would reinforce by giving them a sip of soda for example. You would then continue to practice while you slowly fade out your prompts until the child is either exchanging the picture, emitting the sign or saying the word independently.


Now that your child has another way to communicate their wants/needs, it is important to ensure that you do not provide reinforcement for the challenging behavior, but rather prompt your child to use their new form of communication when not doing so independently.


Speech-Language Pathologists along with Board Certified Behavior Analysts can assist with determining what form of communication training will make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time for your child.