One of the biggest obstacles that some IEP students have is lack of appropriate, functional communication. A lack of functional communication is often one of the biggest barriers to independence.

If a student is non-verbal or has limited communication skills, undesirable behaviors may emerge. That’s why it’s essential to have meaningful functional communication goals on an IEP.

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Functional Communication is essential for social relationships.

Functional Communication Goals

From as early as possible, these skills should be practiced and encouraged. I remember a few months ago, I was assisting Kevin on to his special education van in the morning. There were 3 boys already on the van. That particular day, Kevin had a new toy with him, one that he hadn’t brought on the van before.

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As soon as the boys saw the new toy, their AT devices all started going off at once, “I want. I want. I want.” It was really cute and funny. And, an example of appropriate functional communication.

A woman is helping a young boy with a tablet to achieve his functional communication goals.
Many students with the inability to speak will use an AAC device to communicate.

Functional Communication

Pushing a button on your talker device to say “I want” is not only functional, but it’s also appropriate. Less appropriate would be one of the boys grabbing it out of Kevin’s hand.

It sends the same message, “I want that toy.” But in a less desirable way. That’s why you often hear those of us in the special ed advocacy world say, “All behavior is communication.”

Having inappropriate functional communication is one of those things that really ostracizes our kids and makes them targets for bullying and exclusion.

We went through a phase at meals, where if Kevin didn’t like what I served him, he would throw it on the floor. That is functional. Appropriate? Not so much.

But, we could use that information. We knew that he could distinguish between food he likes and food he dislikes, and he could demonstrate that dislike. Then we just had swap out the undesired behavior with a desired one, a replacement behavior.

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Students who have difficulty developing language or using speech use speech-generating devices.

What is Functional Communication?

Functional Communication is how a person independently communicates his/her wants and needs and socializes with others.

This communication can occur through a variety of forms, including:

Eliminating Ableism from Functional Communication

I hesitantly put some of the goals on this list. Particularly some of the goals that say “respond appropriately.” I think we spend a TON of time teaching kids, particularly those with autism, how to communicate with others appropriately or what is socially acceptable.

We do not spend enough time expanding our definition of what is socially acceptable. And that can be very ableist.

Sometimes our kids (I know mine does!) makes noises or hand movements that most kids his age do not do. However, as long as he’s really not hurting anyone, I don’t stop it. When a person with autism is happy, it is ok to flap or let out a squeal of happiness.

We need to get better at teaching non-disabled students that the way some of their classmates communicate is different, but it’s not bad.

Back to the example above, the talking devices on the van. What would your non-disabled child do if a child approached him with a talker and it was saying “I want.” We need to teach NTs to respond appropriately too. Which doesn’t always happen.

A reminder that all IEP goals need to be plugged into the IEP Goal Formula to be quantified and therefore measurable. I specifically just listed a skill or task for the student to achieve.

Functional communication goals worksheet.

IEP Goals for Functional Communication

I have tried to separate these functional communication goals into a mini IEP Goal Bank, or a functional communication goal bank.

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Functional Communication Goals for Non Verbal Students

Yes, I put the word “nonverbal” in the heading. I know that many prefer the word “nonspeaking.” But, online searching has not caught up yet, so I post what people are looking for.

Here are 10 functional communication goals for non-verbal students:

  1. Using alternative communication methods: Goal to teach the student to effectively use alternative communication methods, such as sign language, picture communication systems (PCS), communication boards, or speech-generating devices (SGDs), to convey wants, needs, and preferences.
  2. Expressing basic needs: Goal to enable the student to communicate basic needs such as hunger, thirst, pain, and discomfort using their chosen communication method.
  3. Initiating social interactions: Goal to help the student initiate social interactions with peers and adults using their communication system, including greetings, asking questions, and making comments.
  4. Requesting items or activities: Goal to teach the student to request desired items, activities, or events using their communication method, fostering independence and autonomy in making choices.
  5. Responding to questions: Goal to facilitate the student’s ability to respond appropriately to questions from others using their chosen communication method, including answering yes/no questions and providing simple responses.
  6. Participating in classroom activities: Goal to support the student in actively participating in classroom activities, such as following directions, completing tasks, and engaging in group discussions using their communication system.
  7. Expressing preferences and opinions: Goal to enable the student to express preferences, likes, dislikes, and opinions using their communication method, promoting self-advocacy and decision-making skills.
  8. Asking for help or assistance: Goal to teach the student to ask for help or assistance when needed using their chosen communication method, fostering independence and problem-solving skills.
  9. Initiating and maintaining conversations: Goal to help the student initiate and maintain conversations with peers and adults using their communication system, including taking turns, asking questions, and sharing information.
  10. Using communication to solve problems: Goal to support the student in using their communication method to solve problems, resolve conflicts, and negotiate with others effectively in various social situations.

Functional Communication Goal Bank

Here is a list of functional communication goals that will apply universally to most settings.

  1. Continue a behavior when praised, encouraged, and otherwise orally reinforced.
  2. Stop an undesirable or inappropriate behavior when asked or warned to do so.
  3. Respond appropriately to oral commands.
  4. Respond correctly to oral instructions.
  5. Ask for clarification and further explanation when needed.
  6. Seek and provide comfort, advice, guidance, and counsel.

Functional Communication Goals for Speech Therapy

Here are 10 functional communication goals commonly targeted in speech therapy. The SLP can help the IEP team refine these to meet the student’s needs.

  1. Improving articulation and intelligibility: Goal to enhance the clarity of speech sounds to improve overall communication effectiveness.
  2. Expanding vocabulary: Goal to increase the number of words an individual can understand and use in everyday communication.
  3. Enhancing sentence structure: Goal to improve the ability to form grammatically correct and meaningful sentences for clearer communication.
  4. Developing conversational turn-taking skills: Goal to facilitate the ability to engage in reciprocal conversations, including initiating, maintaining, and ending interactions appropriately.
  5. Improving pragmatic language skills: Goal to enhance social communication skills, such as understanding and appropriately using verbal and nonverbal cues in social interactions.
  6. Enhancing narrative skills: Goal to improve the ability to tell and comprehend stories or recount personal experiences coherently.
  7. Increasing auditory processing skills: Goal to improve the ability to accurately process and understand spoken language, including following directions and discriminating between similar sounds.
  8. Reducing stuttering or dysfluency: Goal to increase fluency and reduce disruptions in speech, such as repetitions, prolongations, or blocks.
  9. Facilitating alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) systems: Goal to introduce and improve the use of AAC systems, such as communication boards or speech-generating devices, to support functional communication when verbal speech is limited.
  10. Improving functional communication in specific contexts: Goal to target communication skills necessary for specific situations, such as ordering food in a restaurant, participating in classroom discussions, or engaging in telephone conversations.

These goals can be tailored to meet the individual needs and abilities of each client receiving speech therapy services.

AAC Goals for Functional Communication

Here are 10 goals related to Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) for functional communication:

  1. Initiating communication using AAC: Goal to teach the individual how to initiate communication using their AAC system, such as pressing buttons or selecting symbols to convey wants, needs, or initiate interactions.
  2. Increasing vocabulary and symbol use: Goal to expand the individual’s vocabulary within their AAC system, introducing new symbols or words to facilitate more comprehensive communication.
  3. Navigating the AAC system independently: Goal to promote independence in navigating and operating the AAC device or system, including selecting appropriate symbols, changing pages, or adjusting settings as needed.
  4. Using AAC to express emotions and feelings: Goal to teach the individual how to use their AAC system to express a wide range of emotions and feelings accurately, enabling them to communicate their internal states effectively.
  5. Requesting assistance or clarification using AAC: Goal to empower the individual to use their AAC system to request assistance or seek clarification when needed, fostering increased independence and autonomy in various environments.
  6. Participating in social interactions using AAC: Goal to facilitate the individual’s ability to use their AAC system to engage in social interactions, such as greetings, turn-taking, asking and answering questions, and sharing information with others.
  7. Using AAC to engage in academic activities: Goal to support the individual in using their AAC system to participate in academic activities, such as completing assignments, asking questions in class, and engaging in discussions with peers and teachers.
  8. Using AAC in daily routines and activities: Goal to integrate the use of AAC into the individual’s daily routines and activities, such as mealtime, leisure activities, personal care routines, and community outings, to promote functional communication across various contexts.
  9. Developing AAC strategies for problem-solving and decision-making: Goal to teach the individual how to use their AAC system to problem-solve, make decisions, and express preferences or opinions effectively in different situations.
  10. Increasing speed and efficiency of AAC use: Goal to improve the individual’s rate of communication and efficiency in using their AAC system, reducing delays and enhancing overall communication effectiveness in real-time interactions.

Functional Communication Goals: Safety Setting

Here is a list of functional communication goals that will apply to safety settings.

  1. Obey the commands and instructions of others in emergency situations.
  2. Provides assistance to others who request it and ask for assistance when needed.
  3. Inform others when he or she is ill, not feeling well, or in pain.
  4. Internalize and follow activity schedules and obey rules and regulations that have been discussed and described orally and behave accordingly.
  5. Seek and provide comfort, advice, guidance, and counsel.
  6. Comprehend, internalize, and obey the regulations of public and private agencies in the community.
  7. Use a telephone to obtain help during an emergency.
  8. Seek the help of police, special police, and security guards during a potentially dangerous or life-threatening situation or when a crime is taking place or has taken place.
  9. Comprehend and internalize his or her rights as a citizen and special rights as a person with disabilities and make certain that he or she is not denied those rights.
  10. Contact and arrange for needed services, including medical and health services, non-health-related professional services (e.g., attorneys, counselors, and consumer advocates), repair persons, grooming and physical fitness services, and services from private and public agencies and companies.

Functional Communication Goals: School Setting

Here is a list of functional communication goals that will apply to school settings.

  1. Identify desired objects from the school library and from a school or training-site store or commissary.
  2. Internalize and follow activity schedules and obey rules and regulations that have been discussed and described orally and behave accordingly.

Functional Communication Goals: Workplace Setting

Here is a list of functional communication goals that will apply to vocational or workplace settings. These will be necessary to learn as part of some student’s transition plans.

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  1. Provide assistance to supervisors and co-workers when appropriate and seek the assistance of co-workers and supervisors when needed.
  2. Internalize and follow work schedules and obey work rules and regulations.
  3. Ask for needed work materials and equipment when they are not readily available.
  4. Inform the appropriate individual when he or she will be late or will be absent for work.
  5. Transmit messages to co-workers and supervisors when asked to do so.
  6. Share his or her thoughts and feelings with co-workers in simple conversational exchanges and express to co-workers and supervisors any concerns or grievances about work conditions, including safety and health factors.
  7. Discuss salary, fringe benefits, promotion, and other work related matters with supervisors.
  8. Provide appropriate information, including work history and qualifications, to a prospective employer in a job interview.

Functional Communication Goals: Social Setting

  1. Provides assistance to others who request it and ask for assistance when needed.
  2. Ask for desired object, toy or game and needed instructional materials and equipment.
  3. Reinforce peers and others who are performing or behaving in an appropriate or successful manner.
  4. Indicates desire to free play and other activities, snack preferences, and food served at school breakfast and lunch.
  5. Deliver oral message to others.
  6. Identify desired objects from the school library and from a school or training-site store or commissary.
  7. Share his or her thoughts and feelings with others in simple conversational exchanges.
  8. Internalize and follow activity schedules and obey rules and regulations that have been discussed and described orally and behave accordingly.
  9. Use language courtesies.
  10. Apologize for accidental mishaps and inappropriate behavior.
  11. Join others in singing activities at parties and social events and during religious services, when appropriate.
  12. Request and follow directions and instructions and provide directions and instructions to others upon request.
  13. Seek and provide comfort, advice, guidance, and counsel.
  14. Express needs, feelings, and thoughts and respond appropriately to the expression of wants, feelings, and thoughts of others.
  15. Respond appropriately to oral directions and instructions given by work supervisors and ask for clarification and further explanation when needed.
  16. Continue a behavior when praised, encouraged, or otherwise orally reinforced and stop an undesirable or inappropriate behavior when asked or warned to do so.
  17. Follow instructions for playing with toys and indoor games.
  18. Follow instructions for engaging in outdoor games, sports, and physical fitness activities.
  19. Accept oral invitations form others to participate in various leisure-activities.
  20. Make plans, in concert with others, for various recreational activities.
  21. Invite family members, friends, and neighbors to join him or her in various leisure-time activities, including games and sports, entertainment and sports events, shopping, and social events.
  22. Engage in the communication involved in participating in various leisure-time events, for example, responding to and giving football play information, answering questions in a table game, or discussing items seen on a nature hike or walk.
  23. Purchase needed materials and equipment, including art-and-crafts, hobby, and sports equipment, clothing, and materials.
  24. Make the arrangements for specific recreational activities, including purchasing tickets to and making inquiries about and reservations for sports and diverse entertainment events.

Functional Communication in the Community

These functional communication goals will be necessary if functional independence or independent living is the ultimate goal.

  1. Communicate the needed purchases of food; clothing and household linens; medicines, medications, vitamins, and minerals; grooming and personal hygiene materials and equipment; educational, assistive, and prosthetic devices; household cleaning and maintenance products and equipment; furniture, accessories, and appliances; cooking, serving, and eating utensils; entertainment and other recreational materials and equipment; indoor and outdoor plants; and pets and pet supplies.
  2. Engage in financial transactions with bank personnel.
  3. Rent or purchase suitable living quarters.
  4. Purchase needed insurance from insurance agents or agencies.
  5. Communicate with an appropriate individual for the purpose of completing relevant tax forms.
  6. Negotiate agreements and contractual relationships.
  7. Engage in an investment program with an appropriate investment adviser.
  8. Ask for and follow directions, while traveling in the community, relevant to various places of interest, including work sites, and to businesses and agencies when conducting personal business, whether walking (with or without assistive devices) or using public or private transportation.
  9. Ask for and follow directions to public restrooms, public telephones, drinking fountains, mailboxes, and other public conveniences.
  10. Seek the assistance, when needed, of transportation workers when using public and private transportation.
  11. Ask and follow directions to desired locations in various buildings (e.g., office buildings, museums, and flea markets) shopping centers and malls, and sports or entertainment arenas and stadiums.
  12. Provide directions and assistance to other travelers when requested.
  13. Plan with others for social, leisure, and vacation trips in the community and to other locations outside of his or her immediate community.

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