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How Natural Environment Teaching (NET) Can Improve Outcomes Through Functional Learning

Natural Environment Teaching (NET) InfographicOne of the common misconceptions of ABA therapy is that it is done at a table using methods such as Discrete Trial Training (DTT) which involves mass trialing and occurs in a structured environment with minimal distractions. In today’s world however, Natural Environment Teaching is one of the more commonly used methods to teach behavior skills.  The reality is that as ABA continues to evolve, so does the implementation of ABA principles and teaching styles used.

What is Natural Environment Teaching?

Natural Environment Teaching (NET) is a scientifically proven teaching method which allows ABA practitioners to incorporate the learner’s natural environment into the teaching, development, and generalization of skills. Teaching is incorporated into play activities using familiar toys, games, and materials to maximize the learner’s motivation to continue the activity.

Examples of NET

An example of NET might include a learner’s favorite toys, such as animal figurines. The Behavior Technician (BT) can target the skill development of learning prepositions by engaging in play with the child and giving natural instructions using prepositions, i.e., ‘Let’s put this tiger next to the lion!’ When the child demonstrates the correct understanding of ‘next to,’ the BT might provide social praise. Or, the BT may make the lion and tiger roar, which is both naturally reinforcing and fun for the child. This increases the likelihood the child will demonstrate another correct understanding when the BT uses ‘next to’ in the future.  

Benefits of Natural Environment Teaching

A benefit of NET is that it allows for teaching to be functional for the learner. It isn’t enough to memorize answers or responses if the knowledge doesn’t functionally apply to their everyday environment. By incorporating teaching into familiar environments, children are more likely to experience natural reinforcement outside of ABA sessions.

For example, teaching a child the function of a chair: sitting. A child might learn to say a chair is for sitting, but struggle to take direction when asked to sit. During a play segment with a doll house, a BT might ask how a doll can sit at a table. If the child chooses the chair, they have demonstrated an understanding of the function in a natural play environment and generalized from the initial learning environment. This is how we can tell when a skill is truly mastered rather than memorized! 

When children struggle to engage in play segments an external motivator can be used as a form of reinforcement. External motivators can be anything a child enjoys and considers a reward. The could include playing with stickers, bubbles, or playing a game on an iPad.  After a play segment is completed and the targeted skills are demonstrated, using these motivators can act as a reinforcement. A visual cue such as a token board can also be used to show a learner when they are engaging in the desired behavior and ‘earning’ access to the external motivator. As the learner further demonstrates independence and increased motivation for play routines, these motivators can gradually fade out while the play activity itself becomes reinforcing! 

Summarizing Natural Environment Teaching

NET allows learning to be natural and even fun for the learner. In the best NET segments, the child doesn’t even realize that they are learning or being taught a specific skill; it occurs naturally. Your Clinical Team is a great resource to help identify NET opportunities in your home and  ensure that your child continues to develop skills across their natural environments. 


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