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Frequently Asked Questions

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCERTS MODEL
ORIGINS AND USE OF THE SCERTS MODEL

How did the SCERTS Model evolve? Was it developed only in recent years?

Is the SCERTS Model only for children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (or pervasive developmental disorder)?

In what settings is the SCERTS Model designed to be implemented?

Is the SCERTS Model applicable to children or individuals beyond the elementary school years?

Is the SCERTS Model appropriate for preverbal children who do not speak, as well as for very verbal, talkative children?

Can the SCERTS Model be used for children in more restrictive settings as well as in more inclusive settings?

How can the SCERTS Model be implemented in an inclusive classroom without detracting from the needs of typical children and while providing individualized attention to students with autism spectrum disorders?

Do you think that it is most beneficial for children with more extreme developmental challenges to be taught in inclusive classrooms or in special education classes? Why?

IMPLEMENTATION OF THE SCERTS MODEL

Can the SCERTS Model be implemented by a professional who works in private practice, or is it only a team model?

Does a child need highly structured one-to-one skill-based training to teach readiness skills such as eye contact, paying attention, and imitating before he or she is ready to benefit from the SCERTS Model or any other approach to education?

Do I need to implement all aspects of the SCERTS Model faithfully, including the SCERTS Assessment Process and the model’s process for creating an intervention plan for a child? Or can I pick and choose what will be most helpful to me in my setting?

Can children recover from autism spectrum disorders by using the SCERTS Model?

DETERMINING EDUCATIONAL PRIORITIES, AND THE CONTINUUM OF EDUCATIONAL APPROACHES

How is the SCERTS Model consistent with recommended practices for educating children with autism spectrum disorders?

How does the SCERTS Model compare with other models and approaches?

What gaps do you see in other educational practices developed for children with autism spectrum disorders that the SCERTS Model is able to address successfully?

Isn’t the SCERTS Model just an eclectic approach that has been given a fancy name?

How do you respond to parents who insist that only one-to-one applied behavior analysis teaching will work for their child and that research proves it? Is this a problem for the SCERTS Model because it advocates use of a variety of grouping (one to one, small group, large group)?

THE SCERTS MODEL IN PRACTICE: ASSESSMENT

Can the SCERTS Assessment Process be used for diagnosing children?

Does the SCERTS Assessment Process yield quantitative data such as percentile ranks, IQ scores, or developmental ages or quotients?

Why is it necessary to observe children across a variety of settings and partners in assessment?

How does the SCERTS Assessment Process address initial and ongoing assessment and data collection to ensure systematic application of the model and monitoring of progress toward goals and objectives?

THE SCERTS MODEL IN PRACTICE: PROGRAM PLANNING AND INTERVENTION

Social Communication

Social communication is one of the three main domains of development that the SCERTS Model addresses and is the one with which children with autism spectrum disorders typically have the most difficulty. What do you see as the key factors for forming a relationship with a child with an autism spectrum disorder given such challenges in social communication?

Does SCERTS deemphasize one-to-one teaching in favor of only social group teaching? What is the SCERTS Model’s position on this?

Do you directly train language comprehension in the SCERTS Model?

Do you believe in withholding food or other reinforcers such as a favorite toy to get a child to speak?

How are significant oral-motor and motor speech challenges addressed in the SCERTS Model?

How are play and communication with peers addressed in the SCERTS Model?

In the SCERTS Model, you emphasize teaching multimodal communication. If a child learns to use pictures, gestures, or sign language, won’t this have a negative impact on motivation to learn to use speech? If we accept nonverbal communication (e.g., conventional gestures) from a child who speaks, won’t we just be reinforcing less desirable ways to communicate?

You emphasize teaching children to have social control. Teaching a child to reject, to protest, or to request a break with “all done” or “no” seem to be important goals in the SCERTS Model. What happens if the child says “no” or “all done” all of the time or requests breaks persistently?

In the SCERTS Model, at what point do you think that children who are noncommunicative in any manner except for basic gestures should be discharged from direct therapy services (e.g., for students who are close to age 10 and have had many years of therapy but who have limited communication skills)? Is it possible that such students have most likely reached their potential for communication and should receive a consultant level of speech-language services?

Emotional Regulation

How do you help children learn to cope with an unexpected event?

How do you tell the difference between problem behaviors and sensory processing problems?

How does the SCERTS Model deal with noncompliance?

In the SCERTS Model, do you try to stop self-stimulation?

How is the focus on emotional regulation in the SCERTS Model different from what has been referred to as behavior management?

If a child is dysregulated, won’t we just be reinforcing “bad behavior” or problem behavior if we attempt to support the child through mutual regulation? We frequently hear that it is best to ignore a child’s behavior when he or she is crying and is having difficulty, yet it is so hard to do this, especially for a parent. What is the SCERTS Model’s approach to dealing with dysregulation?

Transactional Support

In the SCERTS Model, what do you do if you make suggestions to parents to support carryover of skills from other settings to the home but the parents do not carry through with these suggestions?

Does the SCERTS Model deemphasize academic and self-help skills to focus primarily on abilities in social communication and emotional regulation?

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCERTS MODEL
ORIGINS AND USE OF THE SCERTS MODEL

How did the SCERTS Model evolve? Was it developed only in recent years?

The SCERTS Model is derived from an integration of more than 2 decades of empirical and clinical work and is consistent with recommended tenets of evidence-based practice espoused by researchers and clinical scholars focusing on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and related disabilities (National Research Council, 2001; Prizant & Rubin, 1999). It was developed in response to encouragement and feedback from researchers and clinicians in the field of ASD, as well as from parents who were familiar with our work and desired an alternative to educational approaches currently available. More specifically, the developmental, social-pragmatic focus of the model has been the hallmark of our work for many years (Prizant, 1982; Prizant, Schuler, Wetherby, & Rydell, 1997; Prizant & Wetherby, 1985, 1987; Wetherby, Prizant & Schuler, 1997; Wetherby & Prutting, 1984) and has been influenced by other developmentally based communication intervention models outside of the field of ASD intervention (Bricker, 1998; Bricker & Cripe, 1992; McLean & Snyder-McLean, 1978; Pretti-Frontczak & Bricker, 2004). The model reflects and integrates our previous empirical research and clinical investigation in understanding conventional and unconventional communication in ASD, including communicative functions and intentions of behavior (Prizant & Duchan, 1981; Prizant & Rydell, 1984; Prizant & Wetherby, 1987; Rydell & Prizant, 1985; Schuler & Prizant, 1985; Wetherby, 1986; Wetherby & Prutting, 1984) and is philosophically consistent with tenets of recent work in positive behavior support (Fox, Dunlap, & Buschbacher, 2000; Koegel, Koegel, & Dunlap, 1996; Lucyshyn, Dunlap, & Albin, 2002). The model also is built on our work addressing the relationships among communication, social-emotional development and emotion regulation (Prizant, 1999; Prizant et al., 1990; Prizant & Meyer, 1993; Prizant & Wetherby, 1990) and is consistent with the work of Rogers and Lewis (1989) and Greenspan and Wieder (1998, 2000) addressing social-emotional factors and the work of DeGangi (2000) and Tronick (1989) addressing arousal modulation and emotional regulation.

The SCERTS Model also integrates person-centered philosophies in practice. For example, we draw heavily from contemporary understanding of the learning style of individuals with ASD as addressed in our previous work (Prizant, 1982, 1983; Prizant & Wetherby, 1989; Wetherby, Prizant, & Schuler, 1997) and as reflected in the current emphasis on the use of visual supports in educational interventions (Hodgdon, 1995; Quill, 1998). We attempt to understand individual differences in communication and social-emotional development (Prizant, 1983; Prizant & Rydell, 1993; Prizant & Wetherby, 1987, 1990) and look at relative strengths and motivations for an individual as well as the challenges and needs of the individual as part of the SCERTS Assessment Process. Finally, the family-centered philosophy espoused in the model draws from the work of Bailey and Simeonsson (1988) and Dunst, Trivette, and Deal (1988) and has been influenced by the Hanen Early Language Centre Model for supporting parents of children with language disabilities (Manolson, 1992) and children with ASD (Sussman, 1999). Our previous work that addresses our interpretation and application of family-centered research and practice, both within and outside the ASD literature (Prizant & Bailey, 1992; Prizant & Meyer, 1993; Prizant, Meyer, & Lobato, 1997; Prizant & Wetherby, 1993), is infused in all aspects of the SCERTS model.

Thus, the SCERTS Model clearly is consistent with or has been directly influenced by the contemporary practices and education/intervention approaches just noted. We believe, however, that the SCERTS model offers an important and novel contribution to available approaches by establishing clear priorities in the areas of social communication, emotion regulation, and transactional support in a manner that addresses the complex interdependencies among these most crucial areas. The model thus reflects a new conceptualization of education/intervention that most closely addresses the core deficits observed in ASD and therefore represents an example of what we believe to be the “next generation” of intervention approaches for ASD.

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Is the SCERTS Model only for children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (or pervasive developmental disorder)?

Not exclusively. The model was designed to focus on children with significant challenges in social communication and emotional regulation who need transactional supports throughout the day. These needs are shared by virtually all children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, due to the nature of the challenges associated with the disability of ASD. However, many other children with similar challenges, including children with developmental disabilities, communication disorders, and sensory processing disorders that result in primary difficulties in social communication and emotional regulation, would potentially benefit from the SCERTS Model.

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In what settings is the SCERTS Model designed to be implemented?

The SCERTS Model is designed to be a comprehensive framework that supports a child’s development of social-communicative and emotional regulatory abilities. Within the SCERTS Model, the facilitation of these core capacities through the implementation of transactional supports is viewed as essential for supporting a child’s active learning. Because the SCERTS Model is based on research on typical child development and social learning theories, it is critical that developmental goals and objectives for the domains of Social Communication and Emotional Regulation be addressed across a child’s educational, home, and community settings to successfully promote the child’s generalization of learning within natural activities and functional routines.

The overriding goal of the SCERTS Model is to enable children to participate more successfully in developmentally appropriate activities with family members, adult partners, and peers in a variety of settings. Therefore, to ensure social success from the onset of educational programming, transactional supports must be implemented not just across settings but also across all partners within a child’s life. The model works best as a team approach, as the expertise of professionals from different disciplines in partnership with families is viewed within the SCERTS Model as the most effective and efficient way to best support a child’s development across a range of settings and partners.

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Is the SCERTS Model applicable to children or individuals beyond the elementary school years?

For the SCERTS Model manual (Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, Laurent, & Rydell, 2006), we have focused on children in the preschool and elementary school years. However, many professionals and parents have noted that because social communication, emotional regulation, and transactional supports are life-span issues and needs for most people with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities, the model certainly would be applicable for children and individuals beyond the elementary school years, into adolescence and even adulthood. The curriculum itself is relevant for children who fall developmentally between 8 months and 10 years of age. Thus, it would be applicable for individuals who continue to have developmental disabilities through high school and into adulthood.

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Is the SCERTS Model appropriate for preverbal children who do not speak, as well as for very verbal, talkative children?

The SCERTS Model is applicable for a very wide range of individuals with very different profiles of strengths and needs. By organizing goals and strategies into the developmental stages of Social Partner, Language Partner, and Conversational Partner, we have ensured an individualized approach that can address the overriding goals of helping a child become an increasingly competent, confident, and active participant in social activities. This includes communicating and playing with others in everyday activities and sharing joy and pleasure in social relationships. Although learning supports (e.g., signs, pictures, written language) are often implemented to encourage a child who is preverbal to develop speech and a child who is verbal to use more creative language, multimodal communication is valued and targeted in educational efforts. That is, it is most desirable for a child to have a variety of ways to communicate, so that if one strategy does not work (e.g., speech), a child may shift to another (e.g., gestures, pictures, other forms of augmentative and alternative communication). In fact, a high level of communicative competence is defined by flexibility in the means a child has available to communicate.

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Can the SCERTS Model be used for children in more restrictive settings as well as in more inclusive settings?

The SCERTS Model favors having children learn with and from children who provide good social and language models; thus, we have a bias for more inclusive settings and learning opportunities. The degree of inclusion for a specific child, however, must depend on the child’s challenges and abilities in emotional regulation and learning. The model also can be implemented for a child in a more restrictive school setting, when such a school placement best meets the child’s needs, and the model can be used in individual therapy. However, because Social Communication and Transactional Support goals address learning and playing with peers (referred to as LAPP in the SCERTS Model), less inclusive settings and some individual therapies would limit full implementation of the model because it may not be possible to address the full range of goals and teaching strategies.

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How can the SCERTS Model be implemented in an inclusive classroom without detracting from the needs of typical children and while providing individualized attention to students with autism spectrum disorders?

In the SCERTS Model, a child’s individualized education program and educational placement are based on many factors. First and foremost, the child’s individual strengths and needs are considered with respect to his or her social-communicative abilities and emotional regulatory capacities. In addition, the family’s priorities, as well as the demands and resources of the available educational programming options are considered. Regardless of the child’s educational placement, individualized transactional supports aimed at facilitating the child’s attainment and maintenance of a well-regulated state, a state which supports the child’s ability to learn, pay attention, and fit in, are essential components of the child’s educational plan. In an inclusive classroom, these supports may consist of both interpersonal supports (e.g., communicative style adjustments) and learning supports (e.g., environmental and curricular modifications). The implementation of these types of individualized supports within the natural routines and activities of a classroom fosters the child’s attainment of developmental objectives in the Mutual Regulation and Self-Regulation components of the SCERTS Model. The child’s resultant expanding repertoire of regulatory abilities enables the child to be a more active and engaged member in the inclusive classroom setting. As an active participant in the classroom activities and routines, the child is an integral part of the classroom community, enhancing rather than detracting from the learning environment.

Likewise, many of the transactional supports implemented by partners, such as environmental accommodations (e.g., reducing extraneous stimuli) and other learning supports (e.g., schedules, visual organizers) may be of benefit to many of the child’s peers within the inclusive classroom.

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Do you think that it is most beneficial for children with more extreme developmental challenges to be taught in inclusive classrooms or in special education classes? Why?

In the SCERTS Model, an appropriate educational setting is not a prescription based on the level of severity of the child’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Determination of social learning contexts must be a flexible process that is dependent on a child’s learning strengths and needs, the family’s priorities, programs that are available to support the child’s development, and the demands of the child’s natural routines and daily activities.

The SCERTS Model provides a framework for determining a continuum of semistructured to more natural social activities that are the most conducive to addressing educational priorities. These priorities must address 1) goals for the most functional abilities in social communication and emotional regulation, 2) goals that directly address family priorities, and 3) goals that are developmentally appropriate. Because participation in one learning context, either entirely inclusive or entirely self-contained, may not fully address these priorities, it is more common that a child will participate in a range of social learning settings throughout his or her day.

Therefore, interactions with children without special needs and children who could provide good social and language models in more natural activities and routines are viewed as an essential part of supporting communication and emotional regulation for children participating in a SCERTS Model program. In more natural learning contexts, there are numerous opportunities for developing functional communication and social problem-solving skills. These opportunities may also help typical children and other more adept partners to become more sensitive and supportive partners by developing a greater understanding of how to adapt to and develop relationships with children with developmental differences, thus promoting growth in both the child with ASD and the typical children or other children who provide good language and social models.

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Implementation of the SCERTS Model

Can the SCERTS Model be implemented by a professional who works in private practice, or is it only a team model?

The SCERTS Model works best as a team approach, as we believe that input and decision making by family members and professionals from a variety of disciplines best addresses a child’s needs in everyday activities. The SCERTS Model can be implemented by a professional who is not a part of a school team; however, greater efforts would need to be made to coordinate efforts with other service providers and family members.

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Does a child need highly structured one-to-one skill-based training to teach readiness skills such as eye contact, paying attention, and imitating before he or she is ready to benefit from the SCERTS Model or any other approach to education?

We do not believe that training “readiness skills” through drills apart from most meaningful activities is a prerequisite for a child to participate successfully in activities. There is no evidence that training readiness skills in this manner is a requirement for children with autism spectrum disorders to develop and learn. In the SCERTS Model, goals in the domain of Emotional Regulation are set and the necessary supports are provided from the beginning of a child’s program to foster attention, engagement, and availability for learning. In this way, we support a child’s ability to most ready for learning and relating.

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Do I need to implement all aspects of the SCERTS Model faithfully, including the SCERTS Assessment Process and the model’s process for creating an intervention plan for a child? Or can I pick and choose what will be most helpful to me in my setting?

The SCERTS Model has been designed to be integrated and comprehensive, with a sequential and logical process to move from assessment to educational programming and from less sophisticated to more sophisticated goals for a child. Thus, we believe it is best practiced using all components with fidelity. However, we also recognize that practitioners and parents may wish to use selected components of the model, especially as they are becoming familiar with the model, rather than the full model. If and when this approach is taken, we would refer to this practice as being influenced by the SCERTS Model, or using the model as a resource in developing a child’s program, rather than using the SCERTS Model per se. Therefore, we support use of the model that best fits a child’s setting and the wishes and priorities of the family and service providers, as long as the programming is consistent with the guidelines put forth by the National Research Council (2001; see also Chapter 6 in Volume I of the SCERTS Model manual, Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, Laurent, & Rydell, 2006). However, we strongly encourage movement to implementation of all components of the model if possible, as “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts!”

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Can children recover from autism spectrum disorders by using the SCERTS Model?

We certainly acknowledge and have observed that with an appropriate, comprehensive program, a child’s behavior may change positively to such an extent that the child’s behavior may no longer meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We have and currently consult to children for whom this has happened. However, for the majority of children who make such wonderful progress, this does not necessarily mean that challenges in social communication and emotional regulation are completely remediated. Therefore, we continue to view ASD as a lifelong developmental disability for the majority of children, which means professionals must continue to be vigilant about providing supports for children and their families regardless of whether a child “moves off the spectrum” of ASD. It is important to note that this is consistent with the beliefs of most experienced practitioners and researchers.

In some approaches, “recovery” from ASD is stated as a viable goal, which often becomes the standard against which all progress is measured, whereas in others, including the SCERTS Model, ASD is considered to be a lifelong developmental disability for the great majority of children. In the SCERTS Model, the goal is helping a child reach his or her maximum potential and improving quality of life for the child and the family. Although actual practices may not be affected by this difference, families and parents may be greatly affected. For example, parents may select an approach on the basis of whether “recovery” is stated as a viable outcome, and their perception of success may be moderated by the degree to which a child’s behavior approximates that of a typical child of the same age. We believe that it is most important for each child’s progress to be carefully tracked (and celebrated!), with the development of functional skills in social communication and emotional regulation being the most important measures, rather than comparison to a hypothetical “normal” child.

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Do I need to implement all aspects of the SCERTS Model faithfully, including the SCERTS Assessment Process and the model’s process for creating an intervention plan for a child? Or can I pick and choose what will be most helpful to me in my setting?

The SCERTS Model has been designed to be integrated and comprehensive, with a sequential and logical process to move from assessment to educational programming and from less sophisticated to more sophisticated goals for a child. Thus, we believe it is best practiced using all components with fidelity. However, we also recognize that practitioners and parents may wish to use selected components of the model, especially as they are becoming familiar with the model, rather than the full model. If and when this approach is taken, we would refer to this practice as being influenced by the SCERTS Model, or using the model as a resource in developing a child’s program, rather than using the SCERTS Model per se. Therefore, we support use of the model that best fits a child’s setting and the wishes and priorities of the family and service providers, as long as the programming is consistent with the guidelines put forth by the National Research Council (2001; see also Chapter 6 in Volume I of the SCERTS Model manual, Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, Laurent, & Rydell, 2006). However, we strongly encourage movement to implementation of all components of the model if possible, as “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts!”

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Can children recover from autism spectrum disorders by using the SCERTS Model?

We certainly acknowledge and have observed that with an appropriate, comprehensive program, a child’s behavior may change positively to such an extent that the child’s behavior may no longer meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We have and currently consult to children for whom this has happened. However, for the majority of children who make such wonderful progress, this does not necessarily mean that challenges in social communication and emotional regulation are completely remediated. Therefore, we continue to view ASD as a lifelong developmental disability for the majority of children, which means professionals must continue to be vigilant about providing supports for children and their families regardless of whether a child “moves off the spectrum” of ASD. It is important to note that this is consistent with the beliefs of most experienced practitioners and researchers.

In some approaches, “recovery” from ASD is stated as a viable goal, which often becomes the standard against which all progress is measured, whereas in others, including the SCERTS Model, ASD is considered to be a lifelong developmental disability for the great majority of children. In the SCERTS Model, the goal is helping a child reach his or her maximum potential and improving quality of life for the child and the family. Although actual practices may not be affected by this difference, families and parents may be greatly affected. For example, parents may select an approach on the basis of whether “recovery” is stated as a viable outcome, and their perception of success may be moderated by the degree to which a child’s behavior approximates that of a typical child of the same age. We believe that it is most important for each child’s progress to be carefully tracked (and celebrated!), with the development of functional skills in social communication and emotional regulation being the most important measures, rather than comparison to a hypothetical “normal” child.

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DETERMINING EDUCATIONAL PRIORITIES, AND THE CONTINUUM OF EDUCATIONAL APPROACHES

How is the SCERTS Model consistent with recommended practices for educating children with autism spectrum disorders?

In 2001, Educating Children with Autism was published by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences and is now regarded as the most authoritative source on recommended practices for preschool and young school-age children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The volume was written to determine effective practices in the education of children with ASD, by referring to the extant body of research available, and to make recommendations for future educational programming and research. It was researched and written by an expert committee of 12 professionals appointed by the NRC who represented a variety of disciplines and a range of philosophical orientations (e.g., applied behavior analysis, developmental orientations) to the education of students with ASD. This committee reviewed 20 years of educational and clinical research to draw conclusions and made recommendations regarding educational interventions for children with ASD from birth to eight years of age. Dr. Amy M. Wetherby, a co-author of the SCERTS Model, was one of the 12 experts serving on this committee.

Based on its review of the research, the committee (NRC, 2001) identified a number of critical features that were characteristic of effective interventions and, on the basis of these findings, made a number of recommendations that are consistent with practices in the SCERTS Model. These findings are discussed in further detail in Chapter 6 of Volume I of the SCERTS Model manual.

Entry into intervention services as early as possible: The SCERTS Model advocates for the commencement of services at the point of early identification, with the first priorities being enhancing abilities in social communication and emotional regulation, with comprehensive family support.

Active engagement in intensive instruction (at least 25 hours a week, 12 months per year): The SCERTS Model supports an intensive level of service to children and families. Because of the emphasis on supporting children’s development in everyday activities and routines, there are likely greater opportunities to provide this level of service across settings using the SCERTS Model as compared with approaches that rely on teaching sessions conducted by professionals in more restricted contexts.

Repeated, planned teaching opportunities with sufficient individualized attention daily: The NRC (2001) committee concluded that a low student–teacher ratio was one of the characteristics of effective interventions allowing for repeated planned teaching opportunities and individualized attention. The SCERTS Model is, by its very nature, an approach that develops learning opportunities and goals based on individual differences in children, including learning strengths and needs. Social contexts for educational programming are chosen largely on the basis of which ones best support the development of capacities in social communication, emotional regulation and functional skills.

Systematically planned developmentally appropriate activities aimed toward identified objectives: In the SCERTS Model, activities are chosen and/or developed based on the assessment of children’s developmental capacities across a variety of domains, including social communication, emotional regulation, cognitive, sensory, and motor. Activities are planned to simultaneously address identified objectives across a variety of developmental domains, rather than artificially isolating skills in learning activities.

Inclusion of a family component: The Transactional Support domain of the SCERTS Model specifically addresses the provision of educational and emotional support for family members. Using a family-centered philosophy, services are not imposed on families. Families are offered services and supports from a menu of possibilities, and therefore, the best match may be made between a family’s needs and family members’ ability to gain access to and benefit from specific support services. Therefore, when a SCERTS Model plan is developed for a child and family, the support to families component of the Transactional Support domain is addressed with great specificity and tailored to each specific family.

Ongoing assessment of a child’s progress, with adjustments in programming at least every 3 months: The SCERTS Assessment Process (SAP) consists of multiple levels of assessments, including direct observation in a number of contexts and reports from and interviews with caregivers. Initial and ongoing assessment data can be entered into a database for monitoring short- and long-term progress and making informed programmatic decisions. This systematic process provides objective data for a child’s team to make program adjustments and modifications.

Specialized instruction in settings that permit ongoing interactions with typically developing children to the extent that the interactions lead to specified educational goals: Programming in the SCERTS Model requires identification of learning opportunities across home, community, and school settings (when relevant). Progress is measured across these settings to assure that efforts are resulting in meaningful and generalized changes in a child’s life. One aspect of such programming is providing opportunities for a child with ASD to learn with typically developing children and with other children who can provide good language and social models when such objectives are identified as part of the child’s educational plan. This is addressed in the Interpersonal Support component of the Transactional Support domain of the model.

In addition to the recommendations just listed, the NRC (2001) committee identified six instructional priorities, all of which are consistent with SCERTS Model priorities.

     

    Functional, spontaneous communication: The Social Communication domain of the SCERTS Model is defined by parameters of spontaneity and functionality, in contrast to focusing on training vocabulary and grammatical forms in repetitive practice outside of social contexts. The development of functional, spontaneous communication has been a focus of the work of the SCERTS Model collaborators for well over 2 decades, and the model has been built on this foundation.

    Social instruction in various settings: The SCERTS Model recognizes that different social settings offer different learning opportunities for children with ASD. Therefore, exposure to social learning opportunities in a variety of settings is a basic tenet of practice, requiring that activities be designed to enhance generalization of social-communicative skills and understanding of different social events. When specific abilities are being worked on, ongoing monitoring of progress also occurs across a minimum of three settings.

    Teaching of play skills, focusing on play with peers and appropriate use of toys: In the SCERTS Model, the Symbol Use component of the Social Communication domain specifically addresses the development of play skills at a level developmentally appropriate for a specific child. Furthermore, social communication, by definition occurs with a variety of partners; therefore, learning and playing with peers (referred to as LAPP in the SCERTS Model) is seen as a necessary transactional support for enhancing social-communicative abilities and relationships.

    Instruction leading to generalization and maintenance of cognitive goals in natural contexts: With a focus on functional activities as primary contexts for learning, the SCERTS Model prioritizes functional goals in a variety of developmental domains, including cognitive, social, and communicative, depending on priorities set for an individual child. Therefore, the SCERTS Model focuses on conceptually based understanding when the focus is on teaching cognitive skills, whether such skills involve reading, number concepts, or more general problem-solving abilities.

    Positive approaches to address problem behaviors: In the SCERTS Model, problem behaviors are considered within the broader developmental domains of social communication and emotional regulation. They are addressed in a preventative manner by prioritizing social-communicative skills development that allows children to exert social control through socially acceptable means (e.g., by teaching acceptable ways to protest, to make choices, or to request breaks from dysregulating circumstances). Infusing emotional regulatory supports in activities across a child’s day and supporting an optimal state of arousal also address prevention. The Emotional Regulation domain of the model also identifies specific strategies to support a child after he or she has already become dysregulated, including help with recovery from extreme states of dysregulation. A novel contribution of an emotional regulatory approach to problem behavior is that the SCERTS Model addresses all problem behaviors relative to a child’s emotional state and physiological arousal, with the ultimate goal of helping a the child develop a broad range of initiated mutual regulatory capacities and independent self-regulatory capacities.

    Functional academic skills, when appropriate: Once again, functionality and meaningfulness of activities and skills are basic tenets of the SCERTS Model. In developing goals and activities to address those goals, service providers must be able to answer the following question when targeting skills within activities: “What difference will this activity or these skills make in this child’s life?”

Other priorities: Finally, the committee (NRC, 2001) also recommended that educational approaches should address the core deficits core challenges faced by children with ASD and that meaningful outcome measures must address the following two areas:

     

    Gains in initiation of spontaneous communication in functional activities

    Generalization of gains across activities, interactants (adults and peers), and environments

How the SCERTS Model Addresses the National Research Council Recommendations:

     

    Priority goals are established to address the core challenges of ASD, building on a child’s capacity to initiate communication with a presymbolic or symbolic communication system and to regulate attention, arousal, and emotion.

    Individualized intervention is provided based on a child’s strengths and weaknesses and is guided by research in child development and developmentally appropriate practices.

    The SCERTS Model incorporates intervention strategies derived from empirically supported practices of developmental, social-pragmatic approaches and contemporary behavioral approaches.

    Generalization is addressed through transactional supports, and progress is measured in functional activities with a variety of partners across a variety of settings.

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How does the SCERTS Model compare with other models and approaches?

The National Research Council (2001) has recognized that there is no evidence that any one categorical approach is more effective than other approaches and has recognized that approaches are likely to overlap. In fact, in the committee’s report, the committee suggested that the name of the program is less important than how the program incorporates essential teaching practices, learning contexts, child characteristics, and programmatic goals. The SCERTS Model is characteristic of this multidimensional approach and therefore allows for individualization of programming along all dimensions. In addition, because the SCERTS Model is not exclusionary of other approaches, parents and practitioners can continue to use methods or strategies that are associated with other approaches as long as goals reflect clear priorities in the domains of Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support.

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What gaps do you see in other educational practices developed for children with autism spectrum disorders that the SCERTS Model is able to address successfully?

In the SCERTS Model, it is recognized that most learning in childhood occurs in the social context of daily activities. Therefore, efforts to support a child’s development occur with caregivers and familiar partners in everyday routines in a variety of social situations in the home, school, and community settings. As a number of current educational approaches focus on working with a child apart from these settings and social partners, a gap in the provision of support for that child’s partners (e.g., family training, peer training, support to service providers) is often created. In the SCERTS Model, developmental goals and objectives for the child in the domains of Social Communication and Emotional Regulation are addressed not only by focusing on the child but also by measuring the progress of that child’s partners in their ability to implement transactional supports (e.g., interpersonal supports, learning supports) to achieve more successful social exchanges.

The SCERTS Model also has a curriculum-based assessment for families and educators to gauge both a child’s development in social communication and emotional regulation as well as the success of that child’s partners in implementing transactional supports. Most available approaches do not have a curriculum-based assessment that directly informs educational programming.

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Isn’t the SCERTS Model just an eclectic approach that has been given a fancy name?

No. It is far more than a patchwork of different approaches that are put together to make a program for a child. It is an integrated framework that is derived from the most recent research on child and human development and our understanding of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and related disabilities. The perception of SCERTS as an eclectic approach may be due to the fact that one of the strengths of the SCERTS Model is that it is not exclusive of most other approaches and teaching strategies from which children with ASD have benefited. So-called eclectic approaches have been criticized for a lack of an overall logical framework to guide decision making to determine priorities and a lack of consistency in practice. The SCERTS Model provides both a comprehensive framework and specific guidance for translating individualized priorities into attainable and measurable goals for a range of children.

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How do you respond to parents who insist that only one-to-one applied behavior analysis teaching will work for their child and that research proves it? Is this a problem for the SCERTS Model because it advocates use of a variety of grouping (one to one, small group, large group)?

A review of 20 years of educational research by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (2001) concluded that given the current state of research, there is no evidence that any one approach is more effective than other approach. The committee also recommended that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) should learn in programs that provide social instruction across a variety of settings. Other researchers concur with these conclusions and recommendations, as do we. For example, Strain, McGee, and Kohler (2001) stated that there is no evidence that children with ASD need primarily one-to-one tutorial instruction to learn, as long as learning experiences are well designed.

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THE SCERTS MODEL IN PRACTICE: ASSESSMENT

Can the SCERTS Assessment Process be used for diagnosing children?

No. The SCERTS Assessment Process (SAP) is designed to meet the purpose of assessment for intervention or educational planning, not diagnosis. The SAP is an ongoing assessment process designed to 1) establish a child’s profile of developmental strengths and needs, 2) determine meaningful, purposeful, and motivating goals based on a child’s profile and functional needs, 3) select the most appropriate learning contexts and teaching strategies, 4) determine the necessary transactional support (interpersonal support, learning support, support to families, support among professionals), and 5) monitor progress over time. The SAP would only be implemented with a child who has or is suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder or another developmental disability affecting social communication and emotional regulation and who needs an individualized education program or an individualized family service plan. Information gathered during the SAP may be useful for informing decisions about diagnosis, but that is not the primary purpose of the SAP.

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Does the SCERTS Assessment Process yield quantitative data such as percentile ranks, IQ scores, or developmental ages or quotients?

No. The SCERTS Assessment Process (SAP) is a curriculum-based assessment, which means it is a criterion-referenced tool that is linked to the SCERTS Model curriculum, and many of the items on it are based on developmental progressions. Curriculum-based refers to the fact that the focus of what is being assessed is directly tied to a curriculum or a sequence of goals that is developmentally based and that will help to guide a child’s program. The SAP is not a norm-referenced tool. That is, it is not based on comparing a child’s observable behavior with that of a sample group of children selected from a large population of children. Therefore, it is not designed for evaluation, which is intended to provide developmental age equivalents, standard scores, or percentile rankings based on normative data. The SAP is not intended to serve the purpose of determining, based on quantitative data, whether a child has a disability. It is designed for profiling relative strengths, needs, and priorities to inform program development and goal setting and to monitor progress.

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Why is it necessary to observe children across a variety of settings and partners in assessment?

In the SCERTS Model, the primary goal of assessment is to document a child’s profile of strengths and weaknesses for educational programming. Naturalistic observation provides information about a child’s spontaneous communication and emotional regulatory capacities in functional and meaningful situations. Such observations also provide information about motivating activities and transactional supports (interpersonal and learning supports) that have already been implemented across different partners and contexts. The abilities of children with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities are extremely variable depending on differences in settings and partners. Therefore, to develop the most accurate and representative picture of a child’s strengths and needs, such variability must be taken into account.

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How does the SCERTS Assessment Process address initial and ongoing assessment and data collection to ensure systematic application of the model and monitoring of progress toward goals and objectives?

In the SCERTS Model, assessment is viewed as an ongoing process rather than an end in itself; therefore, different assessment approaches are used, including interviews and questionnaires, naturalistic observational assessment, behavior sampling, and semistructured assessment. The range of assessment strategies address the following purposes of assessment:

 

To establish a child’s profile of developmental strengths and needs

To determine meaningful, purposeful, and motivating goals and objectives based on a child’s profile and functional needs

To select the most appropriate learning contexts and teaching strategies

To determine the necessary transactional support (interpersonal support, learning support, support to families, support among professionals)

To monitor progress over time

Following initial assessment and implementation of an educational program for a child, the child’s progress on Social Communication and Emotional Regulation objectives is tracked on daily logs, summarized on weekly logs, and updated quarterly. This ongoing monitoring of progress informs the team as to whether changes in programming are needed. Daily and weekly ongoing data collection ensures systematic application of the model and rigorous but nonintrusive data collection. One of the very interesting distinctions between our approach to data collection as compared with other methodologies is that data are not collected primarily in one-to-one “practice” sessions. Rather data gathering is based on a weekly team consensus about a child’s achievements across natural contexts and partners. The SCERTS Assessment Process (SAP) is designed to address core questions about social communication, emotional regulation, and transactional support, which are continually redefined on the basis of overall developmental level, functional needs, and preliminary assessment outcomes. These core assessment questions pertain not only to the Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support domains of the SCERTS Model but also to the interrelationship among these domains so that areas of greatest needs as well as strengths are identified in a comprehensive manner.

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THE SCERTS MODEL IN PRACTICE: PROGRAM PLANNING AND INTERVENTION

Social Communication

Social communication is one of the three main domains of development that the SCERTS Model addresses and is the one with which children with autism spectrum disorders typically have the most difficulty. What do you see as the key factors for forming a relationship with a child with an autism spectrum disorder given such challenges in social communication?

In the SCERTS Model, the Social Communication domain has been designed to address the overriding goals that help a child to become an increasingly competent, confident, and active participant in social activities. These developmental objectives fall under two primary domains, Joint Attention and Symbol Use, in recognition that in addition to symbolic language and play, a child needs to develop strategies for establishing shared attention with his or her partners to ensure successful and mutually satisfying social exchanges and the development of relationships. Because becoming a competent communicator, however, relies on the support of a responsive social partner, the SCERTS Model recognizes that direct instruction focused on the child in socially isolated “teaching programs” does not necessarily ensure positive social-communicative exchanges and development of relationships across a number of different partners.

Therefore, to ensure social success, supports must be fostered across all partners and settings within a child’s life, including family members at home, same-age peers and teachers at school, and those within the larger community. In the SCERTS Model, partner objectives are written to address interpersonal support modifications (e.g., communicative style adjustments) and learning support modifications (e.g., curricular and environmental modifications). Relationships develop when both the child and his or her partners bear some responsibility for change and mutually enjoyable and successful exchanges are achieved.

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Does SCERTS deemphasize one-to-one teaching in favor of only social group teaching? What is the SCERTS Model’s position on this?

The SCERTS Model does not dictate that there should be little or no one-to-one teaching if that best supports a child’s learning. By social communication, we do not refer simply to larger group sizes. One-to-one teaching can be very social or not very social at all (as in highly adult-directed teaching that focuses primarily on child compliance). In fact, we do support the National Research Council (NRC; 2001) guidelines of no greater than an overall 2:1 ratio for many if not most children with autism spectrum disorders. By social communication, we also are referring to an emphasis on child initiation and teaching in more logical social routines and events (social learning) rather than on isolated skill training involving repetitive drills on skills. In fact, this is a more important issue than the ratio, which needs to be selected based on a child’s abilities, active participation, and emotional regulation.

The bottom line in the SCERTS Model when selecting and designing teaching contexts are the opportunities for social communication, the issues related to emotional regulation relative to the challenges in the setting, and the transactional supports needed to foster the child’s social communication and emotional regulation. A child’s program can be skewed to more one-to-one contexts if needed, with transition over time to a larger proportion of more natural supported social learning opportunities, but we would never recommend only one-to-one instruction, as that limits social learning opportunities. This is a position we adopted before the NRC (2001) guidelines came out, and it remains consistent with the NRC recommendations. It is important to note that services provided only through one-to-one teaching or a higher proportion of time spent in one-to-one teaching does not necessarily translate into a higher quality program that best meets a child’s needs. Unfortunately, that is what parents are often told by some professionals, but the fact is, no research supports that contention. It is the quality of staff, quality of the program, a well-integrated team approach, and agreed-on meaningful goals that make sense (developmentally and functionally) for a child that result in a program best designed to address a child’s needs.

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Do you directly train language comprehension in the SCERTS Model?

Language comprehension is considered one goal of the Symbol Use component of the SCERTS Model, and in an activity-based model such as SCERTS, comprehension goals are targeted along with other goals in meaningful and purposeful activities. Many opportunities may be provided for children to connect spoken and written language forms, as well as to link pictures and picture symbols with meaning and concepts. More natural activities rich with contextual cues to meaning supports comprehension development during these opportunities. For example, a child is more likely to develop a richer understanding of action words and object labels when involved in those actions and with those objects in everyday activities, rather than through repetitive practice of labeling. Therefore, comprehension is not isolated as a single skill focused on in an activity designed to address only that one skill.

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Do you believe in withholding food or other reinforcers such as a favorite toy to get a child to speak?

In the SCERTS Model, we design activities and learning environments to encourage and entice social communication, including speech as one mode when appropriate, so that children can develop their own goals and achieve their goals in communicating. When children are well regulated and motivated, we do believe in “upping the ante” in the expectations for how children will express intentions, moving “up the ladder” to more sophisticated symbolic means of communication (e.g., gestures to pictures, pictures to words, and on to more sophisticated language). However, this is done in a reciprocal and supportive manner with clear models provided by partners. We would never intentionally create a stressful circumstance that would result in a child’s becoming dysregulated, as often is the case when withholding food or desired items is used to elicit speech or when demands are made for a child to speak.

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How are significant oral-motor and motor speech challenges addressed in the SCERTS Model?

It is commonly observed that children with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities often experience co-occurring problems in oral-motor and motor speech abilities. Such problems may range from mild to severe. Mild oral-motor and motor speech problems may affect speech intelligibility to some degree even though speech remains the primary and most effective mode of communication. At moderate levels of severity, speech intelligibility may be compromised to a greater degree, and at severe levels, production of intelligible speech and even volitional vocalization as a means of communication may not be possible.

In the SCERTS Model, oral-motor and motor speech issues are not isolated as separate goals but are addressed within the larger goals in the Social Communication and Transactional Support domains. With the overriding goals of supporting a child’s ability to be a more confident and competent communicator, motor speech limitations are viewed within the context of a child’s expressive communication repertoire for expressing communicative intentions. The SCERTS Model emphasizes the development of multimodal communication, including gestures, signs, non–speech-aided systems such as picture systems, vocalization, and speech. Different forms of vocal communication are targeted as goals in the Social Communication domain, both in the development of vocal imitation abilities as well as in the spontaneous use of vocalization and speech to express intentions. Transactional Support goals include interpersonal support for modeling and eliciting vocal and speech communication. There is an emphasis on providing considerable motor practice within natural activities and routines and as part of a child’s expression of intentions, as motor practice has been shown to support the development of volitional vocalization when motor speech problems are a factor.

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How are play and communication with peers addressed in the SCERTS Model?

The SCERTS Model has a strong bias toward educational programming that provides multiple and regularly scheduled opportunities for learning and playing with peers who provide good language and social models, which we refer to under the acronym of LAPP (learning and playing with peers). Peer support is a considered to be an important aspect of the Interpersonal Support component of the Transactional Support domain. Peer-related objectives are identified under goals in the Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support domains of the model. The SCERTS Model approach to LAPP activities offers a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) a systematic and semistructured means to learn and apply social-communicative and play skills in planned activity routines, engineered activities, modified natural activities, and natural activities. Of primary importance is helping a child learn the meaning of social events to enhance active participation and how and when to use social-communicative skills with peers in those events. We believe that with cumulative, positive experiences with peers, a child with ASD is provided with the foundation for developing emotionally satisfying and trusting relationships with other children, further enhancing motivation to seek out peers for social engagement in everyday activities and events.

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In the SCERTS Model, you emphasize teaching multimodal communication. If a child learns to use pictures, gestures, or sign language, won’t this have a negative impact on motivation to learn to use speech? If we accept nonverbal communication (e.g., conventional gestures) from a child who speaks, won’t we just be reinforcing less desirable ways to communicate?

Research indicates that there is no evidence that acquisition and use of an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system of any kind inhibits or precludes speech development, in nonspeaking or speaking children. On the contrary, there is evidence that the majority of children who are taught to use picture systems or sign language go on to acquire functional speech and often eventually no longer need to rely on AAC systems as a primary expressive mode of communication. From a social-communicative perspective, we believe that success in communication with partners in any modality builds communicative competence and confidence, leading to a further desire to seek out others for social engagement. This increased time in social engagement provides further exposure to speech and more opportunities to learn from partners who use effective strategies to support communication.

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You emphasize teaching children to have social control. Teaching a child to reject, to protest, or to request a break with “all done” or “no” seem to be important goals in the SCERTS Model. What happens if the child says “no” or “all done” all of the time or requests breaks persistently?

We believe that one of the best ways to preclude the development of problem behavior and to support a child’s sense of self is to support the development of communication for social control using socially conventional and acceptable behaviors. Similarly, an important communication skill that supports emotional regulation is the ability to request a break through verbal or nonverbal means. We do recognize, however, that once children realize the power that such communication affords them, they may go through a period of overpracticing the use of such skills. At this point, it is essential to consider whether it is appropriate and acceptable to honor their rejection or refusal and carefully read their emotional regulatory state to determine if they really do need a break. In some cases, such requests cannot be honored and a child’s partners provide the necessary support to help the student cooperate or stay with and complete an activity before taking a break. Interpersonal support and instructional strategies such as providing information or simplifying activities may be helpful at this point. In other words, there are two separate issues here: first, helping the child learn the appropriate means for social control and, second, helping the child learn that expressing rejection or requesting a break may not always result in a partner’s being able to honor such requests.

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In the SCERTS Model, at what point do you think that children who are noncommunicative in any manner except for basic gestures should be discharged from direct therapy services (e.g., for students who are close to age 10 and have had many years of therapy but who have limited communication skills)? Is it possible that such students have most likely reached their potential for communication and should receive a consultant level of speech-language services?

In the SCERTS Model, we do not believe there is a ceiling for progress. We have known many students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have made significant progress in their teenage and even adult years after many thought no additional progress could be made. We believe that all children with ASD can benefit from the input of well-trained speech-language pathologists (SLPs) because the SCERTS Model do not focus just on speech, it focuses on social communication. The real issue is the best way to provide services to be most effective. Children who may not benefit from pull-out therapy as the sole mode of service provision may still benefit from in-class work and regular consultation of the SLP to parents, teachers, and other staff. The potential for growth and change is very real for all children and older individuals.

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Emotional Regulation

How do you help children learn to cope with an unexpected event?

Uncertainty is a major dysregulating factor for many children with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities; therefore, this issue means that there is a need to support emotional regulation throughout a child’s day. In the SCERTS Model, we try to prevent dysregulation when it is possible to reduce uncertainty by providing information about changes through discussion or pictures (a language and cognitive strategy). However, when unexpected events happen suddenly, immediate supports for regulation may be necessary, depending on what best supports a student, ranging from providing sensory input to allowing the student to engage in a regulating activity. If an unexpected event results in a child being in a state of extreme dysregulation, specific regulatory strategies that are known to be effective for more extreme states may be implemented, such as removing the student from the immediate dysregulating situation.

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How do you tell the difference between problem behaviors and sensory processing problems?

There is not necessary a clear distinction, as problem behaviors may be precipitated by sensory processing difficulties. It is well documented that children with autism spectrum disorders have arousal modulation difficulties, resulting in patterns of hypo- or hyperreactive patterns of behavior to sensory stimulation. When experiencing more extreme states of hypo- or hyperarousal, a child is more likely to be dysregulated emotionally, appearing either unfocused or less responsive, or anxious, fearful, and irritable. When dysregulated, a child is less able to participate well and may attempt to engage in behaviors such as trying to escape from activities, protesting others’ behaviors, and even displaying aggression and disruptive behavior. Therefore, a team must always consider sensory processing problems as one factor that may contribute to problem behaviors. The team then attempts to make changes in the child’s sensory environment, as well as to teach specific coping strategies for mutual and self-regulation.

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How does the SCERTS Model deal with noncompliance?

The term noncompliance is often used very broadly and loosely, referring to a child’s reactions ranging from the child’s specific refusal of requests to a general lack of response or willingness to comply with requests or expectations of others. Our concern is that noncompliance is often attributed to a child’s behavior when the child may not be complying for many other reasons, such as not understanding the expectations of the language in a given circumstance or experiencing dysregulation to the extent that it precludes responding and complying (e.g., due to the child’s being in a very low arousal state or experiencing fear, anxiety, or lack of motivation). It is essential that a team carefully consider what is being asked of a student, that the activity demands are developmentally appropriate (i.e., not inappropriately too high or low), that the necessary interpersonal supports and learning supports are in place to help the child understand and succeed, and that there is a positive “payoff” for the child to engage in the activity and to cooperate. Most of all, it is important not to get into control battles when the issues may not be that important for a child in his or her life.

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In the SCERTS Model, do you try to stop self-stimulation?

Behaviors that may be viewed by some as self-stimulatory are often regarded as behavioral strategies for self-regulation within the SCERTS Model. Behavioral strategies develop initially during infancy and are simple motor actions or sensory motor strategies that a child engages in to regulate his or her arousal level, remain alert, and/or self-soothe. The use of behavioral strategies for the purpose of regulation persists throughout the course of a child’s development and may either be biologically driven (e.g., sucking one’s thumb to self-soothe) or modeled by responsive partners (e.g., stomping one’s feet when mad).

Often, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulty responding to conventional behavioral strategies modeled by partners (e.g., squeezing one’s hands together, tapping feet, chewing gum) and therefore frequently employ unconventional patterns of behavior (e.g., jumping, walking on toes, flapping hands, fleeing from the social setting) regardless of their age. This is particularly true for children with ASD when they are experiencing periods of extreme dysregulation. In the SCERTS Model, these idiosyncratic behaviors are viewed either as starting points for attempts at regulation or as signs of dysregulation, not necessarily as problem behaviors. As a result, these behavioral strategies as well as the environmental and social factors associated with their display are considered carefully when designing transactional supports and targeting developmental objectives in the domain of Emotional Regulation.

We believe that for so-called self-stimulatory behavior or any behavior that appears unconventional or that may be challenging to a child or to others, there must be a concerted effort to determine the functions of the behavior for the child and the precipitating factors. The term self-stimulatory behavior is often applied very broadly, with little consideration for the specific purposes for which a child engages in such behavior. In many cases, such behavior may be attempts to self- regulate, whereas in other cases, the behavior may be attempts to explore the sensory environment. For example, if a child hums loudly, it may be an effort to screen out excessive noise and stimulation in the environment that is disorganizing. When the behavior appears to serve a self-regulatory function, a team should first attempt to use prevention strategies. That is, a team may prevent the child’s needs to self-regulate by changing factors that appear to be causing the need to self-regulate. For example, a partner may reduce the complexity or level of stimulation in the social environment or reduce the complexity of the task. A child who gets up from an activity and jumps in place may be trying to increase alertness if the child is experiencing a state of underarousal. When such functions are determined, we try to replace less socially acceptable means for self-regulation with more acceptable means.

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How is the focus on emotional regulation in the SCERTS Model different from what has been referred to as behavior management?

A behavior management approach is most often focused on changing or eliminating problem behavior by manipulating consequences. There may be no consideration of functions of behavior or developmental variables such as understanding problem behavior as an attempt to communicate when a child has limited means to do so. The emphasis and ultimate goal of such behavior management approaches is to reduce or eliminate behavior, often as a reactive approach to problem behavior that appears. The strategies used often are designed by an “expert” in behavior management who writes a specific program for others to follow.

In an emotional regulatory approach, problem behavior is viewed in terms of a child’s attempts to cope with or adapt to environmental or physiological stressors relative to the child’s developmental capacities and emotional history with a person or am activity. An emotional regulatory approach considers a child’s intentions, emotional arousal, sensory profile, previous emotional experience, and relationship history.

In the SCERTS Model, the approach to emotional regulation is developed by a team proactively and preventatively as an inherent part of overall developmental plan, not initiated solely as a reaction to the appearance of problem behavior. In this manner, it shares some qualities with the philosophy known as positive behavior support (Fox & Dunlap, 2000; Koegel, Koegel & Dunlap, 1996; Lucyshyn, Dunlap, & Albin, 2002), as both place a great emphasis on prevention and on understanding functions of behavior.

An emotional regulatory approach also places a strong consideration on a child’s developmental capacity for regulation, allowing partners to recognize when the child is simply not yet ready for a specific setting or activity even with modifications and/or support. The ultimate goal is to build capacities in mutual and self-regulation so that the child is best able to maintain an optimal state of arousal and be well-regulated emotionally, as emotional dysregulation puts the child at greater risk of engaging in problem behaviors.

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If a child is dysregulated, won’t we just be reinforcing “bad behavior” or problem behavior if we attempt to support the child through mutual regulation? We frequently hear that it is best to ignore a child’s behavior when he or she is crying and is having difficulty, yet it is so hard to do this, especially for a parent. What is the SCERTS Model’s approach to dealing with dysregulation?

The belief that “bad behavior” will increase if social attention is provided is based in a tradition of learning theory and, more specifically, operant conditioning. That is, the theory is that a partner may inadvertently increase the likelihood of engaging in bad behavior by reinforcing such behavior. An emotional regulatory approach is grounded in a different research foundation. We believe, and research has demonstrated, that self-regulatory capacities develop from responsive caregiving, which includes successful strategies to help a child regulate through mutual regulation. When “bad behavior” results from emotional dysregulation, as is most often does, supporting a child’s regulation is used to reduce and prevent problem behavior. Having said that, partners also must always consider a child’s emotional regulatory state when he or she engages in problem behavior to respond. For example, if a child appears well-regulated, and is using socially unacceptable means to seek attention, such as hitting or screaming, the child’s partners may recognize the child’s intentions and immediately model more appropriate means to replace the less acceptable means or may ask the child to use more acceptable behaviors if the partners know that the child has more acceptable means to do so (e.g., tapping on shoulder, or calling a person’s name to get his or her attention). The overriding factors here, however, are understanding the child’s intentions and reading the child’s emotional regulatory state.

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Transactional Support

In the SCERTS Model, what do you do if you make suggestions to parents to support carryover of skills from other settings to the home but the parents do not carry through with these suggestions?

First, we believe we must begin with the assumption that all parents want to do what is best for their child. Therefore, when parents have problems carrying through, a series of questions should come to mind:

  1. Do the parents value the problems or issues that the suggestions address? For example, if it is suggested that a 2 1/2-year-old be taught to sit at a table at home and do puzzles for 20 minutes, do the parents place the same priority on this goal or even see it as reasonable?
  2. Is the lifestyle and the routine of the family able to support carrying through on the recommendations? For example, if it is recommended that visual supports be used at mealtimes at home to teach requesting, is the family able to make some accommodations in the mealtime routine?
  3. If the answers to 1 and 2 are yes, do the parents have the skills to implement the recommendations? For example, are family members being provided with help such as making visual supports if they are not able to make them and ways to implement them if they have little or no experience in doing so?
  4. Are there particular events happening within the life of the family at the time that the request is made to preclude carryover? For example, is another child in the family ill or is one of the parents working or traveling more often to the extent it causes greater stress for the family?

Therefore, an important rule of thumb in making suggestions for carryover to the home or outside of a school or clinic is to ask families the following questions:

  1. Do the suggestions address issues or goals valued by the family?
  2. Is the family capable of implementing the suggestions given their lifestyle and routine?
  3. Do family members need support in following up on suggestions?
  4. Are there any other events in the life of the family that may be interfering with implementing suggestions?

In the SCERTS Model, collaborative goal setting and ongoing communication deals with these crucial issues to support successful collaboration.

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Does the SCERTS Model deemphasize academic and self-help skills to focus primarily on abilities in social communication and emotional regulation?

The SCERTS Model addresses the social-communicative and emotional regulatory abilities that are the foundation for other aspects of learning, such as academic and self-help skills. The implementation of transactional supports also provides the greatest likelihood that a child will be able to acquire other crucial skills. By viewing programmatic priorities in this way, it is not so much a matter of deemphasizing other skills, which certainly must be addressed as part of a child’s overall plan. It is more an issue of giving a child the best possible chance to acquire other crucial skills as part of his or her program as social communication, emotional regulation, and transactional support create opportunities for broad-ranging success.

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