Many young people I have taught have found efficient and effective ways of communicating a need or a want at some point in the past that then becomes their primary way of communicating. Unfortunate as they grow and develop into young adults this communicative behaviour becomes a barrier to so many aspects of life. What was once the easiest way to get a need met becomes a behaviour that challenges both those supporting the young person their friends and family.


I work with a number of young people that communicate in ways we struggle to interpret and understand. A high priority for all those who work with and raise young people who communicate differently should be to teach them ways to communicate that increase their independence, and ultimately raise quality of life. Challenging behaviour is the primary reason for young people being excluded from school. From my experience it is the reason for many students with SEN losing or not being accepted into adult placements.

What we need to do, and this is often a long term goal is to introduce alternative behaviours. This is not a “how to” guide as each young person needs an individualised plan based on the function of their behaviour etc etc. The only advice I would give is – build a trusting and positive relationship first and foremost.

This is an outline of 5 criteria the alternative behaviour must meet. 

Simple: The alternative behaviour (AB) must be easy and have as few steps as possible. For example an AB for asking to leave the room must be easier or as simple than screaming loudly.  For example tapping a symbol, or pressing a big mac.*

Effective: The emphasis is put on those supporting to immediately acknowledge the AB once used. In the example above screaming gets your attention immediately. Staff must be vigilant in noticing and reacting to the tapping of the symbol when used or it will fail.

Clear: The meaning of the AB must be obvious to all those supporting the young person. At home, at school, in the residential provision. Even better if peers can respond to it as well (do not underestimate the power of a communicative partner of the same age).

Exclusive: In a busy school or home environment this is tricky, a behaviour is likely to be used to meet more than one need when teaching an AB I believe that you need to focus just on that behaviour initially. If a kicking the door is used both to go to the garden and the toilet I would say focus on the toilet first (a symbol by the door is simplest) the introduce the garden symbol or object later.

Compatible: The chosen technique must fit in with both the young persons level of understanding and the ethos of the placement – if you don’t use symbols don’t introduce them for this. If you can’t easily produce images or keep objects of reference on hand choose a different strategy.

On a final point as with any behaviour support strategy ensure it is used consistently over at least a few weeks. It should be the priority over curriculum or anything else during this time.


*Now you may ask why not PECS? at this stage we need as few steps as possible for some a high level of PECS use will be part of their communication plan but at this point we want immediate recognition with minimal input – the task of finding the symbol and exchanging it may be too much at this stage.