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What is Natural Environment Teaching?

Natural environment teaching (NET) is any type of teaching developed in the natural environment vs. a simulated environment. For instance, you might want to teach a child with ASD about colors by labeling them. However, instead of simply labeling crayons at a table, you’d encourage the child to choose the crayon color they want to draw with during a coloring session. This is NET in action and helps children understand how to apply skills learned elsewhere in the environment they’d actually use the skill in.

What is Natural Environment Teaching in ABA?

When combined with applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy, NET helps children learn language, social skills, and other skills through positive reinforcement in the natural environment. This helps them become more confident in what they’re doing where they’ll be using specific skills. By practicing these positive behaviors in the environments where they’ll be needed, it not only encourages children with autism to continue growing, it helps boost their confidence as they participate in different activities.

What Are the Benefits of NET?

The benefits of NET are almost endless for children. Being immersed in the environment they’re living in and learning to cope with it helps children feel more confident, which allows them to grow on their terms compared to other children their age.

NET helps children develop functional learning. For example, many children who are diagnosed with ASD have issues memorizing answers or responses. If they can’t associate those answers or knowledge directly to the environment around them, they may not understand those associations. Applying what they’re learning to the environment helps them correlate knowing something and doing something with it.

For example, a child begins to play with a farm set. A behavioral therapist will ask the child:

  • “Show me the horse.” (Listener Responding – Identifying Animals Program)
  • “What color is the pig?” (Tacting/Labeling Colors Program)
  • “The cow says…” (Intraverbal/Animal Sound Fill In Program)
  • “Do this.” The behavioral therapist puts the farmer on the tractor (Object/Play Imitation Program)

Coupled with ABA, the child is rewarded when they correctly answer the above examples when working with their behavioral therapist. Also, the child is highly motivated since this was the activity that they chose to engage in. This encourages them to continue playing, speaking, or moving towards a goal set elsewhere during the session. When using NET, even some non-preferred activities can eventually become reinforcing themselves.

NET also encourages better instructional control, encourages motivation, and helps make lessons easier to apply when working one-on-one with a child.

What Skills Does NET Teach?

What skills doesn’t NET teach should be the question. NET simply takes other skills and applies them to natural environments they’d be used in compared to a sterile, therapeutic environment.

NET isn’t always as structured as other types of therapy used with children since it varies on what environments are brought into play. Natural environment teaching reinforces everything from speech to socialization. Incorporating the child’s interests into NET motivates them to learn new skills. Since they already enjoy doing x, y, or z, using that to help them with other skills will already put them in a more engaging mood during sessions.

Natural Environment Teaching ABA Example

Some examples of NET that you would positively reinforce include:

  • Identifying animals, colors, or shapes
  • Imitating those around you
  • Making and holding eye contact with others
  • Making requests of people around you

Here’s a real-world example of NET:

  • Let’s say you want your child to identify animals, such as a dog. You’d start by introducing pictures of dogs to your child until they understand what a dog looks like.
  • Then, you’d want to plan out different activities your child does, such as playing with toys, drawing, etc., that dogs could be incorporated into for them to identify.
  • Next, you’d introduce dogs into things your child loves to do, such as playing with toys. Add dog toys to the routine, giving your child the opportunity to identify the toy that is a dog compared to their other toys.
  • Finally, you want to reinforce your child’s understanding and correctly identify dogs by only allowing them to play with their toys when they identify the dog alongside them.

Eventually, you can introduce new elements for your child to identify, positively reinforcing when they identify the correct choice during play like the scenario above.

Natural Environment Teaching Ideas to Use at Home

If you’re interested in reinforcing NET at home, here are some ways to do that with your child:

  • Engage in what your child is doing and enjoy doing it with them.
  • Observe your child so you can engage with them on their level.
  • Mimic their behavior to show them you can be part of their environment.
  • Eventually, your child will come to you for positive attention/reinforcement because they trust your engagement is genuine.

How Ascend Autism Uses NET

When Ascend Autism completes an initial assessment, we request detailed information from the family regarding the child’s typical schedule for when we would be providing services. We use this information to focus on the child’s immediate interests and activities as a context for instruction.

NET is conducted in a typical daily environment rather than a formal teaching arrangement. This type of training allows for more manding opportunities, promotes generalization, and stimulates more spontaneous verbal behavior. The child may also exhibit fewer negative behaviors because of the focus on motivation and consequences more directly related to that motivation.   

If you’re interested in how NET could help your child grow, reach out today. Call Ascend Autism at 877.323.8668 or use our contact form to get in touch.


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