Behavior & Communication

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The wikispace CommunicatePA will be retired on July 15th. Check out our new resource repository at | <span style="color: #222222; font-family: verdana,sans-serif; font-size: 27.3px;">You can easily share content, submit a listing in our directory and more! | Defining Behavior & Communication | Analyzing Behavior & Communication | Supporting Behavior & Communication | Resources

Defining Behavior & Communication

Behavior IS Communication

People's actions are expressing something. They could be using many forms to communicate a message.

“I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk.I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out,so I would just scream.”
-Temple Grandin-
Consider how each of the following could tell you: "I want to stop"
  • Verbal words "I want to stop"
  • Throwing body on floor and kicking
  • Gesturing "STOP" (as a police officer does when directing traffic)
  • Sitting down and crossing arms
  • Yelling loudly while pushing away nearby people or items
  • Walking out of the room
  • Pressing a button on a communication device that plays a recorded "I want to stop" message
  • Using American Sign Language to sign "all done" or "I want to stop"
  • Crying and hitting self in head with palm of hand

Some of the above means of expression are acceptable in our culture. Others are labeled as "inappropriate behavior." But ALL are spreading the message "I want to stop."

  • “Careful attention to communication reveals that behaviors that on the surface appear to be
    random, maladaptive, or challenging,
    are purposeful
    • Olney, M. F. (2001). Communication strategies of adults with severe disabilities: Supporting self-determination. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 44, 87-95.


View this presentation on the Behavioral Impact of Effective Communication in the classroom. Save paper by downloading the handout (PDF file).

Analyzing Behavior & Communication

Behavioral psychology has identified procedures for helping determine the conditions that surround (and may cause or contribute to) people's behaviors. Some techniques include:

Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA):

Observing a student can allow us to determine why a student is engaging in a challenging behavior. This will help us know how to best intervene.
  • This system considers the Antecedent - Behavior - Consequence (ABC) of the situation. Consider what is happening before the action, during the action, and the responses that follow the action. This approach will ensure a complete assessment of the situation.
  • Example: Student screaming at the teacher when asked to complete an assignment. During an FBA, we may determine that the student is exhausted due to a lack of sleep and is rewarded by the teacher sending him to the office after yelling, since he doesn’t have to complete the assignment then. The best intervention, then, is that the teacher might require the student to complete the assignment and offer to allow the student to rest at a later point in the day/after completing the assignment.

Supporting Behavior & Communication

Prevention through Teaching - Positive Behavior Support (PBS)

Visual supports can provide a form of communication that is more acceptable than "behavior." By teaching the appropriate response (e.g., communication via a book, chart, device), the behavior can be prevented from occurring.

Visual supports for communication include:

  • Social stories
    • Narratives written from/by the person's perspective
    • Describe socially appropriate feelings and behaviors for situations

topic starter.JPG
Conversation Starter Example - Click to open PDF file.

  • Conversation starter
    • Visuals to help organize thoughts or provide topics
    • "About Me" book to inform partners of favorite topics
    • Example made in Powerpoint - click here to download the editable file.

  • Problem-solving Charts
    • Options for open-ended questions or situations
Problem Solving Chart - Click to open PDF file

Visual supports for behavior include:

Example of Token Board

  • “First-Then” Board (2 pictures to represent the current activity and the reward for completing it)
    • Click here to open a picture example
    • For example, “First Magnetic Numbers, Then Ball Bounce" or "First green beans, Then dessert”

  • Token board (includes the "First-Then" from above, but adds "tokens" [like pennies, bingo chips, or stickers] that move after each trial to show how much of the current activity has been completed
    • Click here to open a blank, printable example
    • For example, "First 6 more 'work,' then Reward" or "First 3 more math problems, then recess"

  • Visual schedule (symbols representing each activity throughout the timeframe – these can be removed and placed in an “All Done” pocket as the schedule proceeds)
    • Click here for a link to download a free, interactive "Visual Timetable" program for the computer. It has pictures and clocks to make and print a schedule.
    • More information about using visual schedules can be found in the article "How to Use Visual Schedules to Help your Child Understand Expectations," written by Alyson Jiron & colleagues from the University of South Florida. The article explains the benefits of using visual schedules and explains that they will "bring you and your child closer, reduce power struggles, and give your child confidence and a sense of self control." Read the article in its entirety here:

  • Visual rules (images that represent expected behavior)
    • Classroom Rules
      • Post in visible places
      • Can make a portable size so rules stay consistent across settings (e.g., library, hallways, etc.)
      • Example of Kindergarten classroom rules
    Example of Visual Rules. Click to download PDF file.
fold up pic.jpg
The Fold Up - collection of visual supports all-in-one! Click for link.

5 point voice.JPG
5 Point Scale for Voice Loudness. Click to download PDF file.
countdown clock.JPG
Picture of "Countdown Timer" website.

  • Visual timer (with the designated time shown in a colored segment that gets smaller as time runs out)
    • Click here for a link to download a free "Visual Timer" program for the computer (Windows or Mac).
    • Click here for a web-based free "Countdown Timer."
    • Click here for a link to the "Activity Timer" app for Android (phones, tablets)

    • Click here for a link to the "Time Timer" product (physical clock, or iTech app) available for purchase.
    • Search for "Joseph Joseph" brand "PIE Kitchen
      unnamed (1).jpg
      Picture of Joseph Joseph PIE Kitchen timer.

      timer" for a portable version of a visual timer.

Changing Behavior through Teaching

Training techniques can be distinguished by the theory on which they are based. Many curricula or strategies may share a similar view of behavior and communication. Others will approach training from a different perspective.

Based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis is a science based on measurable and observable actions (called “behaviors”). ABA analyzes the factors (called “variables”) that influence behavior, and then use strategic and systematic plans to support learning new or desired behaviors.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a broad term, with many specific types of intervention based on these principles (e.g., Early Intensive Behavior Intervention - EIBI, Discrete Trial Training - DTT).

7 dimensions of ABA (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968):

Baer, Wolf, and Risley's 1968 article[23] is still used as the standard description of ABA.[24] It describes the seven dimensions of ABA: application; a focus on behavior; the use of analysis; and its technological, conceptually-systematic, effective, and general approach.
  1. Applied - Significant to the individual or society (not just research)
  2. Behavioral - Address and change measurable and observable actions (behaviors)
  3. Analytic - Data and/or research indicate changes to the behavior (i.e., the behavior is under the "control" of the intervention)
  4. Technological - Well defined and able to be repeated
  5. Conceptually Systematic - Based on principles from evidence / research-base (e.g., NOT trial and error or try and 'hope')
  6. Effective - Treats the specific behavior targeted
  7. Generality - Extends across settings, partners, conditions (e.g., generalize or "carryover")

Functional Communication Training (FCT)
Teaching an acceptable alternate or replacement behavior can serve to reduce the undesired behavior. Provide the person a way to communicate the same message and reward the new "appropriate" response (instead of the negative or "problem" behavior).

  • Example: Student is being disruptive during circle time because they are unable to focus and need a break. Student can be taught to ask for a break (e.g., vocally, with “Break” card, using sign language) to regain their focus. Then they will learn that “asking” is an easier way to get a break than being disruptive.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT) or Direct Instruction
Breaking a skill down into steps (called “trials”) and teaching each step separately while rewarding (called “reinforcing”) the student for their learning. Direct instruction is teaching each simplified step to gradually reach the final skill acquisition. Initially, the student most likely will requiring help (called “prompting”) to successfully complete the “trial.” Eventually the prompting will fade as the student learns the appropriate skill through the use of multiple trials and reinforcement.

Example Video:

Natural Environment Training (NET)
Direct instruction for targeted skills is provided in the natural environment and less-structured settings. Treatment involves "pairing" for instructional control (e.g., the training is motivating and fun so that the child enjoys the teaching itself vs working for a reward or break). Key aspects involve errorless learning so that a multi-step skill is modeled and chained so that the learner is successful. Data may also be tracked through probe data by recording performance during random moments instead of tracking each trial or question.

Verbal Behavior (Skinner)

May also be called "Applied Verbal Behavior" or AVB. A breakdown (analysis) of language, based on Applied Behavior Analysis. Skinner separated verbal skills by their purpose (e.g., asking=mands, comment=tacts, answering=intraverbals). This may help plan how and when to teach certain skills. Connecting the words with their function may increase the student’s motivation to use language to obtain goals.

Example Video:

Based on Psycho-Social

Psycho-Social theories are based on developmental stages of learning. They integrate environmental and personality factors to support learning.

Social Skills Training

Teaches verbal and nonverbal behaviors of social interactions (e.g., “small talk,” eye contact, and picking up on cues from others) through specific explanations of how and why to interact socially. Teaching may include modeling the desired skills, role-playing, and providing the student with feedback.

Example Video of Modeling:

DIR (Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship & Affect) - Floortime

—A framework for a comprehensive, developmentally based approach to working with children with special needs. —Takes into account the child's feelings, relationships with caregivers, developmental level and individual differences in a child's ability to process and respond to sensory information.
—Pioneered by Drs. Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder. For more information, see

RDI (Relationship Development Intervention)
—A family-based intervention that focuses on social connections and emotional relationships, as developed in a gradual and systematic approach. Six objectives of RDI are: emotional referencing, social coordination, declarative language, flexible thinking, relational information processing, as well as foresight and hindsight. Developed by Dr. Steven Gutstein. For more information, see



Information about how and why to use visual supports:


A presentation on the use of visual supports for communication and behavior. View below, or click here to see handout (PDF file).


Resources for making or buying visual supports:

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