Natural Environment Teaching

Motivator Spotlight Feature of the Month
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The practice of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a vibrant application of the science of behavior that keeps changing to meet the unique needs of people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Contrary to common belief, ABA therapy is not confined to structured table sessions with rigid methodologies like Discrete Trial Training (DTT). While DTT has useful applications, ABA can also be adaptable to different environments using innovative strategies like natural environment teaching (NET), which has numerous benefits for kids on the autism spectrum.

What is Natural Environment Teaching?

Natural Environment Teaching is a personalized teaching method used frequently in ABA therapy, for individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities. NET is useful when tailoring teaching strategies to individual strengths, needs, and interests. ABA therapy emphasizes personalized learning for each child, and NET is a powerful technique within ABA that capitalizes on this concept.

NET recognizes that children learn best in their natural environments, during everyday activities. This approach harnesses the inherent learning opportunities during playtime, common daily situations, and routines. Instead of structured lessons, therapists use play and familiar activities to teach and reinforce new skills.

NET doesn’t mean you have to abandon data collection.  Platforms such as Motivity make it easy to take data wherever you are, no matter what you are doing! 

Benefits of Natural Environment Teaching

NET can benefit learners in many ways by providing:

Authentic learning:

Activities that address the child’s specific interests and goals, reflecting their strengths and weaknesses.

Example:

A therapist can use a child’s favorite toys to teach them counting, sorting, or color recognition. This helps the therapist and child to engage in their preferred hobbies while coping with potential challenges in communicating and interacting socially that may be related to autism or other developmental challenges.

Real world relevance:

The skills learned by the child are directly applicable to their daily life, fostering independence.

Example:

A child who practices measuring ingredients while helping bake cookies in the kitchen is not only learning math but also gaining practical life skills that can be challenging for some autistic individuals.

Increased motivation:

When lessons in natural environment teaching are based on a child's preferences, they're naturally more engaged and motivated to participate.

Example:

A child on the autism spectrum who is passionate about music might more easily learn counting by practicing rhythms on different instruments, leveraging their specific interests and motivations.

Positive Reinforcement:

With positive reinforcement, the act of learning becomes enjoyable, creating a rewarding association with the process, which can be especially helpful for autistic children who might struggle with traditional learning methods.

Example:

Whenever a child finishes a task successfully, they get a high five, verbal praise like “well done,” or access to a preferred toy. In NET, the goal is for the child to access natural reinforcement, in that the completion of the activity itself reinforces practicing the activity.  It is best to focus on the things that the child is doing well rather than what they are missing.

Transferable skills:

Natural Environment Teaching capitalizes on different opportunities to develop skills by practicing them in everyday contexts. Children learn to apply them across different situations, manifesting in long-term learning and independence.  Skills that are taught in the natural environment may be easier to generalize to other environments.

Example:

An autistic child can learn to ask for help while playing with friends at the park, then they can use this skill to ask for help from a teacher at school, promoting broader communication skills.  Then, the more the skill is reinforced in multiple environments, the more likely it is to become a permanent part of their repertoire.

Reduced Monotony:

NET is also beneficial not only for the autistic individual but for therapists as well, since they get to engage in varied, real-world activities with their clients, reducing the monotony and BCBA burnout often associated with structured therapy sessions.

Example:

Rather than solely relying on tabletop exercises, a BCBA might take their client to a local playground or a petting zoo, where the child can interact with different textures, animals, and play equipment. This not only provides a more dynamic learning environment for the child but also allows therapists to observe and teach in natural, everyday settings, preventing burnout by breaking the monotony of clinical sessions.

NET Techniques and Strategies:

Natural Environment Teaching isn't a restrictive therapy approach. Instead of relying on structured lessons, NET provides therapists with a toolbox of techniques and strategies. These strategies help therapists and their clients to leverage the power of real-world situations and boost learning outcomes. Here are some strategies that therapists can use:

Incidental Learning

This approach encourages learning through everyday situations, seizing spontaneous opportunities for skill development as they naturally occur during routine activities. By embedding learning targets into the child's natural environment, therapists facilitate meaningful and contextually relevant learning experiences.

Environmental Prompting

Therapists strategically modify the physical environment to prompt desired behaviors or responses. Guiding environmental cues like visuals or the arrangement of materials cue the task-specificity and self-directed absorption of a child’s learning.

Peer mediated play

This practice enables children to develop social abilities by ensuring interaction between the autistic child and his peers. This is achieved through peer models who provide opportunities for social interaction, taking turns, and playing together. Children learn how to behave in different circumstances through interacting with their friends.

Activity scaffolding

Therapists offer well-structured support and guidance to help the child succeed in difficult assignments. Through gradual adjustment of support based on the child’s capabilities, therapists scaffold learning experiences, allowing the individual to progressively gain new skills and knowledge.

Functional Routine Based Intervention

This approach is concerned with supporting learning moments within the child’s daily schedule and activities. In this case, therapists train relevant life skills such as self-hygiene or household chores thereby facilitating acquisition of skills through meaningful contexts that promote generalization as well as independence.

Natural environment teaching examples:

NET can be implemented everywhere at any time which means it is easily accessible to instructors and especially parents. Here are some examples you can use as a parent at home:

Skill: Sorting Colors

NET in Action: While folding laundry together, separate clothes by color and ask, "Can you find all the red socks?" or "Let's put all the blue shirts in this basket!". This reinforces color recognition and sorting skills.

Skill: Counting

NET in Action: Use bath toys to practice counting. Count the ducks while putting them in the tub, or sing counting songs while splashing.

Skill: Following Instructions

NET in Action: Let your child help prepare a simple snack like putting sliced fruit on plates. Talk about the shapes and colors of the fruits while they help. When giving instructions, use simple phrases like "Put one apple on each plate."

Skill: Spatial Reasoning and Following Directions

NET in Action: While building together, encourage the child to follow simple instructions like "put the red block on top" or "let's build a tower with five blocks". This develops spatial reasoning and following directions.

Make every day a growth opportunity

Natural Environment Teaching turns everyday moments into learning adventures. Kids feel safe to explore, experiment, and even make mistakes. They interact with the world around them, learning and growing with every step as positive cheers and encouragement fuel their curiosity and confidence. This sets the stage for lifelong education, where children are not just passive recipients of information but active participants in their own intellectual journeys.

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Motivator Spotlight Feature of the Month
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Christy Evanko, BCBA, LBA
Subject Matter Expert
at
Motivity