Professor’s Research Paper Named One of Only Five Seminal Articles in 50-Year History of Psychology Journal

Professor Durand's research paper that helped transform the treatment of severe behavior problems is one of just five to receive the seminal article distinction; photo by Steven Le.

Professor Durand’s research paper that helped transform the treatment of severe behavior problems is one of just five to receive the seminal article distinction; photo by Steven Le.

(Dec. 18, 2018) – A research paper that helped transform the treatment of severe behavior problems by Psychology Professor Dr. V. Mark Durand has been recognized as a 2018 Seminal Article by the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. The 1985 article, Reducing Behavior Problems Through Functional Communication Training, is one of just five to receive the seminal distinction since the journal was launched more than 50 years ago.

Working with his colleague Dr. Edward G. Carr, Durand developed the treatment called functional communication training (FCT). First detailed in the 1985 paper, FCT has become a world-renowned protocol for treating severe behavioral challenges, often resulting from autism and developmental disabilities. FCT has been recognized as one of 27 evidence-based practices by the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder and has been cited more than 2,250 times in various psychology papers.

“It was a very nice honor,” Durand says, after conceding that the recognition was “a pretty big deal.” The selection was made by the team of editors at the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Applied behavior analysis focuses on using learning techniques to understand and alter the functions of behavioral problems. The principles of this discipline are generally focused on treating autism and developmental disabilities, but can also be applied to fields like pharmacology and addiction studies.

“If you’re trying to teach a child with autism to point to a picture to communicate, there’s a whole series of prompting approaches and reinforcement approaches involved in applied behavior analysis,” explained Durand.

Motivated by a fascination with why people behave the way they do, Durand set out to decode what patients with behavioral problems are trying to communicate when they act out in inappropriate ways. He teamed with Carr – persuading the late psychologist to return to the study of behavior problems – and subsequently developed FCT.

“We developed this treatment, functional communication training, and an assessment to figure out why children and adults were engaging in behavior problems,” Durand said. “Putting them both together, we figured out a way to determine what this person is trying to tell us.

“If, for example, this person is hitting somebody else to get attention, we wanted to teach them to communicate how to get attention in a better way, to teach them to say, ‘help me,’ and with that reduce their behavior problems.”

In short, FCT helps assess why a person is doing what they’re doing and teaches them alternative ways to get what they want. Part of FCT’s breakthrough was to move the focus away from what the patient is doing – for example biting – and towards what the patient is trying to communicate through that action, such as a desire for attention. Once the subject’s intent is determined, FCT then uses reinforcement training to encourage better behavior.

By developing FCT, Durand and Carr made a significant contribution to applied behavior analysis, improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals with developmental disorders. The treatment has been replicated in hundreds of laboratories around the world over the past 33 years.

A wide range of diagnoses have been treated using FCT, including autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity and traumatic brain injury. Among the many behaviors targeted by the technique are aggression, self-injury and inappropriate sexual activity.

Since developing FCT, Durand and his colleagues have combined the technique with other popular therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help families, teachers and patients collectively improve results. He also regularly trains psychologists and social workers locally and internationally on ways to employ FCT in their practice.

Even with the contribution this research has made to the field of psychology and in the lives of many, receiving the designation was a moment of surprise and immense pride for Durand.

“I knew that the article had been cited many times,” he said, “but I didn’t know they were considering it for this distinction. I knew they were using my work but it’s nice to know your colleagues respect your work as well.”