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Functional Communication and Children

Boy having conversation with father.
Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 08 Aug 2022
Published 14 Dec 2021

What are Functional Communication Skills in Childhood?

Functional communication in childhood is the ability to clearly state one’s own wants and needs. 

When your child communicates in this way, they are showing they know you can’t read their mind. They can ask you and others to help them meet their needs. 

Symptoms of Functional Communication Issues in Children

  • Struggling with self-advocacy: Having trouble asking for help
  • Squirming in the seat: Dancing around or peeing pants instead of asking the teacher for a bathroom break
  • Tantruming: Crying and deliberately falling on the floor instead of asking for a cookie
  • Yelling: Screaming ‘Milk!’ instead of saying, “Momma, I want some milk”?
  • Behaving poorly: When a child isn’t sure how to communicate their wants and needs, they can become very upset. A child may have severe behavior issues due to challenges expressing needs and emotions. Examples of these issues include throwing fits, hiding, running away, or becoming aggressive. 

Some children do not have age-appropriate functional communication. This style of communication is practical and serves a function in daily life. Someone with an extensive vocabulary may not necessarily have functional communication. Being able to tell others your wants and needs is a building block for later skills, like emotional regulation, coping skills, and various aspects of daily living. 

A challenge with functional communication can be evident from an early age. For example, from age two or three, your child might struggle with functional communication if they tend to throw a tantrum instead of asking for something they want or need. Teaching your child to communicate their wants and needs is a key part of developing strong parent-child communication. 

Causes of Functional Communication Problems in Children

Functional communication is the skill of communicating information that serves a purpose for that person or meets a need. This communication also needs to be appropriate for the situation. 

Classroom examples of good functional communication include:

  • Telling a teacher that, “I didn’t understand the directions.” 
  • Saying, “I haven’t finished my work yet.” 
  • Going to the teacher privately and saying, “I need a bathroom break.”
  • Asking to visit the nurse and telling the teacher, “I’m feeling sick.”  

This type of communication asks for the help or understanding of others. Functional communication might be a concern if your child rarely asks for help or tends to assume that others should know what they are thinking or feeling.

What to Do About Functional Communication Issues in Children

Children with challenges in functional communication may have solid rote language skills. These rote skills can include naming items, speaking well, or having a big vocabulary.

It can be helpful to provide opportunities for your child to work on social language and conversation. Supervised activities, such as art classes, cub scouts, or rec center gymnastics can be good places to practice social language. Make sure that the facilitator knows your child is struggling to communicate effectively. Explain that you request some extra help from the instructor. You want to ask them to remind your child to ask for help when they need it. Examples of that kind of help include asking for a drink of water or a bathroom break. 

At home, it is important to prompt your child to make requests.

DO wait for your child to make requests: If your child is whining for a cookie or screaming and pointing to an item just out of reach, give your child the words to say. As a parent, you can prompt with a phrase like, “Say, I want a cookie,” or “Please help.” If your child attempts to make the request, give the child the cookie right away. 

DO expect more as your child gets better: As your child improves, you might pull back a little on giving your child the words to say. You might start with providing your child a prompt like, “I want…” so your child needs to only say “truck” or “cookie”. Next, you can say, “tell me what you need.” Finally, you can stand and wait expectantly for your child to ask for the item. As soon as your child asks nicely, provide the desired item if you can.

DO understand that behavior problems may be the result: functional communication issues are the root cause of a wide variety of challenging behaviors. So much so, in fact, that as psychologists, we often look first for communication issues when we hear a parent’s concern about bad behavior. To reduce challenging behaviors, the first thing to do is try to understand what your child wants to communicate. The next thing to do is to find a way for the child to get what they need without doing the bad behavior to get your attention.

DON’T give a screaming child a reward: If your child is throwing a tantrum at Target for a toy, do not give it to them. Calmly wait for your child to ask nicely or to stop yelling for the toy. At that point, you can either comfort your child or give them what they want. Through these situations, your child will learn that the best way to get their needs met is to ask in a calm way for what they want. 

DO teach feeling words: One way to help your child learn how to communicate feelings is to use feeling cards. You can make cards for sad, happy, mad, and worried, using faces depicting each emotion. Have your child and siblings make these faces for the camera so the faces depicted can be familiar. Allow your child to use these facial expression feeling cards to share with you how he or she is feeling.

DO give downtime: At the end of a long day, give your child some downtime before having to talk or share much. This way, he or she can regroup from the day and can relax before working on something that is hard for him or her.

DO help your child share experiences: To describe the school day, give your child specific questions with prompts. Have the class picture on the fridge. Then, use prompts like, “Today, I played with…” or “I had lunch sitting beside…” or “In math class, we…” Starting with these direct statements can help your child to share more information. This strategy is sometimes referred to as “scripting.” You are essentially giving your child a script for social exchanges.

When to Seek Help for Functional Communication Problems in Children

If your child continues to have difficulty, consider direct speech and language therapy. Look for a therapy with a focus on pragmatic communication. Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy is an in-home therapy. ABA therapy uses behavioral strategies to increase pragmatic language (social language) and functional communication. This therapy may not be available under insurance coverage unless your child has a formal diagnosis.

Further Resources on Functional Communication Issues in Children

  • ABA therapist: to increase adaptive skills and improve communication. ABA treatment plans make addressing social and conversation skills easier. This therapy is often covered by insurance for Autism Spectrum Disorders but can be helpful for other diagnoses as well
  • Functional analysis: to understand the causes of your child’s behavioral or communication challenges. Behavior Analysts have expertise in doing functional analysis to understand the reason or function of a child’s behavior. Then, children are taught in therapy to use a replacement behavior to meet the same need. For example, if your child grunts and jumps up and down for a toy on the shelf, you would not give the toy. Instead, you would teach your child to point to the item, say “please” or say “Can you please hand me that toy.” Even children with very few words can be taught to use a more appropriate behavior to communicate wants and needs
  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to examine possible symptoms in mental health or behavioral contexts
  • Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms as needed; to work on social skills via a social skills group or CBT interventions
  • Speech therapy (speech-language pathologist): to treat language deficits. In combination with ABA, this approach may be most effective for children with Intellectual Disability or Autism

Similar Conditions to Functional Communication Issues

  • Social skills: socializing is an adaptive skill that requires functional communication. Most children learn to interact with one another, share toys and make friends as a part of typical development. If concerns are present, they may need therapy to get back on track
  • Communication skills: functional communication is a foundational skill for other forms of more advanced communication. Trouble with communication impacts a child’s ability to develop conversation skills and to engage reciprocally with peers
  • Intelligence: general intelligence is required for functional communication. Difficulties with thinking and reasoning can cause global delays that would encompass areas like communication
  • Motor challenges: motor impairments are a component of adaptive skills, particularly in younger children. Some children who have difficulties with functional communication may also struggle to crawl and move about the environment. Being able to grasp items, turn the pages of a book, and draw and write have an impact on learning
  • Inattention: attention is a foundational skill that impacts functional communication and may also cause challenges with receptive and expressive language

References for Functional Communication Issues in Children

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Bell, Nanci (2005). Talkies visualizing and verbalizing for language comprehension and expression. 

Bernstein, Deena K. & Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third through Sixth Editions.

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Preparing for Life. 

Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation

Newman, Barbara M. & Newman, Phillip R. (2014). Development through life: A psychosocial approach

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