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Natural Environment Teaching

One of the common misconceptions about ABA is that it’s all table work and discrete trial teaching, and NO FUN!  Quite the contrary, we are all about fun and games!  As the field develops, the term “Applied Behaviour Analysis” has become an umbrella terms for lots of other teaching styles. Within this umbrella are other useful teaching methods like Pivotal Response Training (PRT), Precision Teaching, and Natural Environment Teaching (NET).

What is Natural Environment Teaching

Natural Environment Teaching is a term that is used for when skills are taught or generalized within the natural environment. For example, you might teach a student to receptively and expressively label colours of items at the table. Then, during NET the student would get to practice the skill by labelling colours of crayons that you’re colouring with or asking for colours of playdoh that you’re playing with.

Why is NET Important?

A skill that we teach is only as good as its function for the student. A child can memorize lots of labels and words but if the chid can’t then use them in everyday, common uses then we haven’t done our job. As we’re teaching a skill, we want to concurrently teach the child how to use it in many different ways that are applicable to their life. NET is also important for generalization of a skill. Before a skill is considered “mastered”, the child should be able to show us that she can use the skill during play or other real-life situation. For example, we can teach a child to label pictures of animals and then, while playing with a toy barn, the child can have the opportunity to ask for the animal she wants.

How Do I Incorporate NET?

The best way to do NET teaching is through activities and toys that the child finds motivating. Ideally, the reinforcement should be the activity itself so that the skill gains them access to reinforcement within the activity. If it is hard to find play activities for your kiddo that is motivating, you can use some kind of external motivation and then fade. The NET activities can be short and they can even be repetitive. For example, if your child likes to throw a ball into a bin, you can use that activity, build on it, and incorporate skills that the child is working on: you can wait for eye contact before giving him back the ball; you can have him mand for the ball; you can have him imitate an action with the ball. The most important part: BE FUN!

One of our favourite early NET activities are sensory social routines:

What are sensory social routines?

They are short, interactive routines that involve movements and words which allow for opportunities of different social exchanges (think: joint attention).  Some tips for incorporating sensory social routines to NET:

  • Recognize student’s motivation and capture it.
    • Either get in and play with what the student is playing with, or set up something that is even more attractive than what the student is already doing.
  • Then set up a small routine to make play predictable for the student.
  • Then add to the routine slightly to teach ABA goals.
  • Once a student learns variation #1, add new variations systematically.
  • Be sure to sit across from the student so that the student can see your face.
  • Be as animated as possible.

What About the Data?

Choose an activity that the child likes and would be a good place to generalize some goals that they are working on. For example, if your child likes playdoh, you can have designated NET targets for a playdoh actvity like, “Mands for colour”, “Imitation with objects”, and “Requests from peers”. You can easily take rating scale or probe data on each skill within the activity. Alternatively, you can use this unique, data sheet/graph for NET goals so you can easily see them graphically all in one place!

With NET teaching, it’s on the instructor to be creative in contriving as many teaching opportunities as possible. But the goal of NET is worth the work: you’ll get to see the results of your hard work and teaching being used more often by your students!

Watch our YouTube video here!


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  1. Pingback: ABA Glossary - How to ABA

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