“Face Sick Help” – Functional Communication at its Finest

by Janet Renda, Teacher, Behavior Specialist, Hawkswood School

Here at Hawkswood School, you’ll hear teachers, aides and therapists talking about “functional” approaches to instruction and learning. But what does “functional” mean? When we think of behavior as a communicative act, we often uncover its “function.”

Some of our students come to us using challenging behaviors as a way to express their wants and needs. The most effective tool in managing and reshaping those behaviors is to first identify and understand the student’s intentions — in essence the “function” of the behavior — and then teach the student a way to get their point across without needing to use less appropriate behaviors such as aggression or self-injury.

In general this requires us to be sensitive and attentive to a variety of internal and/or external factors or conditions (we call these “antecedents” – defined as preceding events, conditions, or causes). By understanding that these antecedents are influencing or prompting behaviors, we can identify distinct opportunities for learning and growth.

So how does this work in practice in the classroom?

On a recent morning, we noticed that one of our students – who is working on developing more language — wasn’t paying attention, and was squinting one eye. Watching further, we noticed he was rubbing his eyes. “Hmmm….,” I wondered, “does he have a headache?” If so, we might be able to provide him a functional way to express what he needs, making this a teachable moment. I directed him to his voice output device, opened the “sick page” for him and handed it to him. He crafted the phrase “face sick help.” So off we went to the nurse where he opened the sick page on his device (by himself!) and told her the same message. Functional communication at its finest. Problem solved…without using aggression or self-injury.


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