SCERTS: Building Communication Skills

SCERTS: Building Communication Skills

Speech Language Pathologists and Pathologist Assistants don’t change lives on their own – true change comes when they support families, and help them make change.

This was the message from Terri Duncan, executive director of Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton (CASE). Her guest lecture to students of MacEwan University’s Speech Language Pathologist Assistant program focused on SCERTS, the educational model that CASE structures its programming around.

“If the family believes you are the agent of change, you have failed,” explained Duncan. “You are not there to save children, but to support them. Family is permanent. Professionals come and go.”

SCERTS is a family-centered model based on responsiveness and attention to the needs of children, with the goal of developing spontaneous, functional communication, and emotional regulation capacities.

The model is unique in its  multi-modal approach to communication: speech, gestures, pictures, sign language, and writing are embraced as important communications methods.

SCERTS is an acronym based on three concepts:

1. SC: Social Communication

The development of spontaneous, functional communication is key. Children must be able to communicate for functional purposes: paying a cashier, taking a bus or joining in play, for example. To develop social communication, each task must have a goal – developing a useful communication skill.

2. ER: Emotional Regulation

The ability to maintain a regulated emotional state – that is, alert, attentive, and neither over nor under regulated — is essential to learning, interacting and, ultimately, communicating. Unique to the SCERTS model is the concept that children cannot learn when they are disregulated. “If the child is not in a learning state, it is not a teaching moment,” says Duncan. Instead of continuing to teach during a disregulated emotional state, SCERTS uses transactional supports to help the child return to a learning state.

The SCERTS model is built around an active engagement with children, which fosters recognition of and response to the signals of disregulation. Strategies such as a taking a break or engaging with the child’s interests can effectively dispel emotional disregulation.

3. TS: Transactional Support

Transactional supports help partners respond to the child’s needs and environment in order to enhance learning and communication. They are essential tools that help the partner be responsive to the child and to signs of deregulation, to foster the child’s initiation with purposeful activities, and to respect the independence of the child. Ultimately, transactional supports help to enhance the child’s learning of spontaneous, functional communication.

“Behavior is not the issue in autism. It is a by-product, the end result of autism” – Ros Blackburn. Terri Duncan shared this quote to help the SLPA students understand the importance of the SCERTS model – to provide the tools to communicate spontaneously and functionally, within an emotionally regulated state, and to create a network of family and professional support that helps maintain and grow the ability of individuals to communicate.

Learn more about CASE on their website:

Terri Duncan, Executive Director of CASE