TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #30: Behavior is Communication

TIES Center, TIPS Inclusive Practice Series.


How would you communicate your needs if you did not have the words to describe what you wanted or what you were feeling? Typical responses might be tapping on someone’s arm to get their attention, pushing someone away, or running towards what you want. Similarly, students who need or use communication support exhibit communicative forms or behaviors, but often they are not understood as communicative. These behaviors are perceived as annoying. They may cause safety concerns such as tantrums, running away or leaving without permission, fidgeting, or repeating words. These may be referred to as ‘stimming’. In addition, some students may appear to injure themselves, referred to as self-injurious behavior (SIB), by hitting, biting, or scratching a body part. Occasionally, a student may hit, push, or bite another student or an adult. This TIP provides helpful hints for school teams to identify and replace these behaviors with appropriate and understood communication.


Behaviors often are attempts at communication or the result of failed communication when the communication partner fails to respond communicatively. The National Joint Committee of the Communication of Persons with Severe Disabilities (NJC; 2016) notes that Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) interventions effectively reduce the incidence of challenging behaviors. In addition, when AAC is combined with a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and a Positive Behavior Support Plan (PBSP), understood communication increases and challenging behavior decreases (Reichle & Wacker, 2017; Walker & Snell, 2013). Team planning and problem-solving also play an important role in identifying the communicative functions of challenging behavior. Indeed, many ‘challenging behaviors’ serve a communicative function. Identifying the purpose or function of the behavior and teaching an appropriate communicative response using AAC that achieves the same purpose as the challenging behavior often results in an increase in appropriate communication and a decrease in the behavior (Reichle & Wacker, 2017; Walker & Snell, 2013, Peckham-Hardin 2015 ).

Implementation Steps

1) Convene the Team – This first step improves outcomes for students in an inclusive class because when all the team members understand and respond to the behaviors, reframed as communication, in the same way, the effectiveness of the intervention improves. Ensure that the team is interdisciplinary to increase the perspectives on the possible intents of the behavior. For example, a team could include the general education teacher, special education teacher, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, and behavior specialist. In addition, family involvement - either by attending the meetings or providing input - is important.

2) Describe the behavior – Next, use observable and measurable terms to describe the behavior. A tantrum may be described as sitting on the floor and crying. A self-injurious behavior may be described as hitting the head with a fist, or elopement as running out the door. Ensure the description allows the behavior to be measured in terms of the number or frequency of occurrences, duration of occurrences, and/or intensity of occurrences.

3) Conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment – Determine why the behavior is occurring or what function the behavior is serving for the individual. This generally involves an interview with key individuals in the student’s environment (teachers, paraprofessionals, related service personnel, family members) and an ABC analysis: Antecedent - what happens before the behavior occurs; the intensity and duration of the Behavior itself; and the Consequence or results of the behavior.

4) Review the data- The team reviews the data resulting from the interviews and the ABC observations and analysis to determine a hypothesis about the FUNCTION (or purpose) of the behavior–that is, What message may the behavior be communicating? It is important to consider first the communicative function of behavior especially if the student is non-speaking and is learning to use AAC.

5) Teach a communication replacement for the behavior – Keep in mind that the new communication behavior must meet these three important features:

  • achieve the same communicative function of the behavior it is replacing;
  • be as effective at achieving the same communicative function as the behavior;
  • and be at least as efficient in achieving the same communicative outcome.

Interventions should prevent the challenging behavior by; anticipating triggers, providing gentle teaching – no forcing or distress, and engaging the individual by considering preferences and age-appropriate strategies. Acknowledging the behavior as communicative and modeling an alternative might provide a simple intervention. For example, the student repeatedly pushes a button on his device. The response “Oh, you are telling me that you ____________”, then model “I think you mean_____________. Let’s see if we can do that.”

6) Monitor the intervention - Lastly, monitor the fidelity of implementation and the outcomes so that the data can be used for continual problem-solving. Fidelity of implementation means that everyone – teachers, related service providers, and paraprofessionals – teaches and responds consistently. Convene the team to review the data and problem-solve as needed to make adjustments to the plan

Case Example

See this animated video highlighting the importance of teamwork in solving the communicative function of challenging behavior for a student who uses an AAC device.

What Behavior Communicates

Video from the Web version of this publication:

TIES What Behavior Communicates: https://www.youtube.com/embed/pF9Og4GRXWY

What Behavior Communicates (Audio Description)

Video from the Web version of this publication:

TIES What Behavior Communicates (Audio Described): https://www.youtube.com/embed/pChm-K_ki7I


Behavior IS often an attempt to communicate. Behaviors that are challenging often result from communication failure. Reframing what is viewed as an interfering behavior to be a student’s attempt to communicate, provides more positive options for intervening by teaching the student more effective means to communicate their wants and needs.


  • Brady, N. C., Bruce, S., Goldman, A., Erickson, K., Mineo, B., Ogletree, B. T., Paul, D., Romski, M., Sevcik, R., Siegel, E., Schoonover, J., Snell, M., Sylvester, L., & Wilkinson, K. (2016). Communication services and supports for individuals with severe disabilities: Guidance for assessment and intervention. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 121(2), 121–138. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-121.2.121
  • Peckham-Hardin, K. (2015). The relationship between communication and challenging behavior. In Downing, Handreaddy, & Peckham-Hardin (Eds.), Teaching Communication Skills to Students with Severe Disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Reichle, J., & Chen, M. (2016). Challenging behavior and communicative alternatives. In Romski & Sevcheck (Eds.), Communication Interventions for Individuals with Severe Disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Reichle, J., & Wacker, D. (2013). Functional Communication Training for Problem Behavior. New York: Guildford Press.
  • Walker, V., & Snell, M. (2013). Effects of augmentative and alternative communication on challenging behavior: A meta-analysis. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 29(2), 117–131. https://doi.org/10.3109/07434618.2013.785020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Kearns, J. (2022). Behavior is Communication (TIPS Series: Tip #30). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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