Dimensions of Educational Practices
As just noted, a continuum approach requires scrutiny of educational practice along a
variety of dimensions. Table 6.1 presents these dimensions as organized in four major
categories: teaching practices, learning contexts, child characteristics, and programmatic
goals. We now discuss these dimensions with examples relative to different categorical
approaches. It will be evident that these dimensions are not mutually exclusive.
Theoretical and Research Underpinnings
A broad continuum that has framed discussions about different approaches is whether
an approach draws from developmental research and practice or from behavioral research and practice or both. All treatment and educational approaches have the potential to draw from the extensive literature on the development of children with and
without disabilities and the literature on developmentally appropriate practice in educational settings. On one end of the continuum, however, approaches may not draw
from child development research and may teach children primarily in a one–to–one
adult–child teaching format, with a focus on increasing or decreasing skills based on a
prescriptive program or on professionals' prior decisions about what a child needs to
learn and how teaching is to occur. On the other end of the continuum, developmental
research is used to provide a foundation for making decisions about goals and teaching
strategies to be used to achieve those goals, as well as for making decisions about
appropriate contexts for learning. Approaches for working with children with ASD
vary greatly in this dimension.
Traditional ABA approaches draw primarily from operant learning theory and
behavioral research and practice, whereas contemporary ABA approaches integrate
practices from developmentally based early childhood practice while still relying on a
learning theory framework for accounting for and documenting behavioral change in
children. However, contemporary ABA practices (e.g., as exemplified by the works of
Koegel and Koegel, McGee, Strain, and Schreibman) may not be guided by frameworks
based on the extensive research in child development to the same extent as developmentally based approaches such as the DIR Model and the SCERTS Model
(Prizant & Rubin, 1999). Nevertheless, information about developmental sequences
and developmental support based on child development research has had a significant
influence on contemporary ABA practices. For example, primary contexts of intervention
now include play–based interaction with peers and natural activities and routines,
with a focus on initiated communication and age–appropriate play.
Approaches that draw most heavily from child development research and practice
use developmental frameworks and developmental processes as the core foundation for
determining goals, measuring progress, and selecting developmentally appropriate
teaching practices. For example, the SCERTS Model is driven largely by developmental
research in language and communication development, social development, development of social–emotional capacities such as emotional regulation, and development
of sensory processing capacities. As noted, priority goals in the SCERTS Model are
identified in the areas of social communication, emotional regulation, and transactional
support. The SCERTS Model has a strong developmental focus; however, a
child's functional needs and family priorities are factors that are considered along with
goals guided by research on child development. Furthermore, teaching strategies based
on effective learning processes derived from developmental research are infused into
educational opportunities for children with ASD.
Other major bodies of research and literature relevant to underlying theoretical
and research foundations are family systems theory and family–centered intervention.
The SCERTS Model is heavily influenced by family systems theory and is consistent
with family–centered intervention practices (e.g., Mahoney & Perales, 2005) as well as
research on PBS as reported in the contemporary ABA literature (Fox et al., 2000).
Greenspan and Wieder's (1998) DIR model is based on Greenspan's (1992) model of
emotional development, with priority goals identified in social–emotional capacities
and related abilities. The DIR model does not draw directly from research or literature
on ABA practices.
Degree of Prescription versus Flexibility in Teaching
Some approaches are prescriptive, in that teaching practices and goal sequences are
clearly specified with recommendations to follow them faithfully. This may include
how teaching materials are to be presented, how the teaching environment is to be
structured or arranged, which types of child responses are considered acceptable or correct,and how adults should respond to acceptable as well as unacceptable responses. In prescriptive approaches, children's behavior may also be defined as on task or off task.
Such terms are used in specific reference to how a child's behavior relates to a specified
activity or to the teacher's agenda, regardless of its relevance to events in the situation
or a child's focus of attention or intention. For example, if a child comments on the
noise of a truck outside the window or requests a toy on a shelf within sight, the child
may simply be redirected back to the task at hand, despite the potential for using the
child's interests and spontaneous communication as teachable moments.
In contrast, other approaches may not follow a predetermined agenda or prescription
for teaching. On this end of the continuum, there are greater possibilities for
flexibly creating learning opportunities and for spontaneously capitalizing on teachable
moments based on a child's focus of attention and interest and how activities and
events evolve. In the examples mentioned in the previous paragraph, the child may be
brought to the window to observe the truck, with a short conversation about what it
is doing, or the toys may be brought down from the shelf to encourage further spontaneous communication. For this dimension, middle–ground approaches may have some degree of structure with specified goals that are predetermined. However, the child's partner is better able to depart from a prearranged agenda either for short periods or for longer periods, depending on the potential for creating and capitalizing on new and
more effective learning opportunities regardless of the original agenda. In general, this
approach is characteristic of the SCERTS Model.
Use of Directive versus Facilitative Interactional and Teaching Styles
A facilitative style, which currently is advocated by developmental and some contemporary behavioral literature, is characterized by
Following a child's attentional focus
Offering choices and alternatives within activities
Responding to and acknowledging children's intent
Modeling a variety of communicative functions, including commenting on a child's
Expanding and elaborating on the topic of a child's verbal and nonverbal communication
An extreme facilitative style is known as following the child's lead, in which minimal
direction is provided on the part of the communicative partner. When primarily a
facilitative style is used, an underlying assumption is that a child's spontaneous and
self–directed behavior is sufficiently organized and goal directed such that the partner
can create productive learning opportunities with appropriate responses and guidance
but with minimal intrusion or redirection.
On the other end of the continuum is a directive style of interaction and teaching.
As the name implies, this style is characterized by greater imposition by the partner
on the child to communicate, respond, and behave in a particular manner. Directive
styles are characterized by
Frequent attempts to bring the child's attention to events or activities chosen by
A large proportion of questions designed to elicit specific answers or directions designed
to have the child respond or perform in a particular manner
Frequent use of more intrusive prompting strategies (physical or verbal) to support
the child to respond correctly
Evaluative comments indicating whether the child's responses are appropriate or
The ultimate goal of this style of teaching is for the child to comply with the partner's
directives to achieve goals designated by the partner.
The middle ground on this continuum would be selective use of directive or facilitative
elements depending on the nature of the activity, a child's ability relative to demands
of activity, and the child's emotional regulatory status. For example, in teaching
a child to tie his or her shoes, a more directive approach may initially be necessary as acquisition of this skill may initially require hand–over–hand direction due to the visual motor and motor planning requirements. However, in fostering social–communicative
abilities for this same child, a less directive approach would be warranted due to the very
different nature of learning to participate in social–communicative interactions.
The SCERTS Model has a strong bias toward more facilitative styles of fostering
social communication and emotional regulation. (The concept of a facilitative style was
first introduced in the child language development literature and does not refer to the
method known as facilitated communication [Biklen, 1990], an AAC approach used for
individuals with ASD and other severe communication disabilities.) The justification
is that research has demonstrated that the benefits of a more facilitative style include
Providing a child with a sense of social control and communicative power, which
has been found to result in increased initiations and more elaborate communicative
attempts (Mirenda & Donnellan, 1986; Peck, 1985)
Following the child's attentional focus and motivation, which reduces problems of
noncompliance and may result in increased learning due to motivation and affective
Providing elaborated information and feedback appropriate to the child's level and
attentional focus, which supports the child's communicative and language development
through modeling of vocabulary and more varied language forms and functions.
For example, Mirenda and Donnellan (1986) found that compared with a directive
style, the use of a facilitative style resulted in higher rates of student–initiated
interactions, question asking, and conversational initiation in students with ASD.
Rydell and Mirenda (1991) found that higher frequencies of generative utterances,
initiations, and increased comprehension followed adult–facilitative utterances.
Facilitative strategies have also been found to increase communicative initiation and
social–affective signaling of children with ASD with limited or no language abilities
(Dawson & Adams, 1984; Peck, 1985; Tiegerman & Primavera, 1984).
Appropriateness of style along the continuum of facilitativeness to directiveness
is a child–specific issue and can only be determined by observing the effect of partner
style on interactions. Relative to a child's typical abilities, a good stylistic match should
Increased self-regulation of attention (i.e., ability to maintain a mutual focus of attention
with minimal prompting)
Active involvement in selecting and participating in activities
Frequent verbal and nonverbal communicative initiations
More elaborate communicative initiations
Positive affective involvement with the partner
A style may be thought to be more facilitative when these characteristics can be
observed in children's behavior. For example, for a highly active and distractible child,
a style that promotes a mutual attentional focus and more active involvement, even
though it may have some directive qualities (e.g., physical prompting, limit setting),
must be viewed as facilitative for that child. This same style, however, may have detrimental effects for a child with a lower activity level and greater attentional regulation.
As Marfo (1990) noted, the function of adult directiveness in supporting interactions
is of overriding concern, not the presence or absence of features thought to be directive.
In the SCERTS Model, we advocate incorporating facilitative features in play and
teaching interactions and gradually modifying style along the facilitativeness–directiveness continuum until an optimal match is found.
Excerpted from Chapter 6 of The SCERTS™ Model
A Comprehensive Educational Approach for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, by Linda Wollesen, R.N., M.A., & Karen Peifer, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2005 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.