Teaching outside of the table: Natural Environment Teaching (NET) and its benefits
By Christopher Allen, BCBA, LBA
Many times, people see ABA therapy and think Discrete Trial Instruction (DTI). This style of teaching is usually characterized by seated table work, quick repeated questions, and candy or another similar treat as a reinforcer, however ABA is much more than that. Discrete Trial Instruction is one way to teach skills but is not the only way a Behavior Analyst can work on skill acquisition. One other key evidence-based method is Natural Environment Teaching (NET) which can be utilized across many environments because of its flexibility and use of reinforcers. Whereas, traditional DTI uses a script:
(1) task demand – what color is this?
(2) a behavior – either saying the correct color or the incorrect color
(3) a consequence – a reinforcer (maybe one M&M) for a correct response or a representation of the task demand with a prompt to teach the correct answer
NET uses a modified environment. This method of instruction, by giving a short demand, measuring their ability to do it, and reinforcing the correct answer, can work great for targeted skills, however is not the only method for teaching a skill using applied behavior analysis.
In the case stated above, the target skill was saying the correct color or teaching colors. If we switch to a NET approach, we set up the environment to evoke the desired response. This may mean coloring a picture with the child but holding all the crayons, or their favorite color crayon. As the client needs a specific color, prompting them to use their words to identify the color they need and ask for it. Both systems are teaching the colors, however the natural environment in this case, uses access the correct color crayon as the reinforcer instead of an artificial reinforcer like candy or a toy.
Advantages to NET
One main criticism with ABA therapy is the clinical nature of it, the perceived long hours at a table, and the rote learning that has come out of many ABA therapy centers. NET can be seen as a way to address some of these issues that have came up in the field of ABA. Some main advantages to NET are:
- Less structured
- This means that there is less perceived work and a more fluid teaching approach, creating less rigidity and focus on a schedule, which creates more time on engaging in the things that the child enjoys.
- More focused on the child’s values and functional play.
- Because the child gets to decide what to engage in, they are more likely to be engaged in the therapy session. This helps build rapport and creates a fun learning environment for both the child and the therapist.
- Skills are taught in the environment that they will be used
- The skills are taught to be used right away, in other words they are directly applied skills. This enables the sessions to be held anywhere; from a clinic, to imbedded in a school, or at home, even in the community.
- Sessions are very interactive
- As a parent or caregiver, it is easy to jump in and teach or take over when the lesson is centered around what the child likes. This enables both the child to learn and the parent or caregiver to practice ABA skills.
How to apply Natural Environment Teaching (NET) in the home
A key to success in any ABA therapy is the ability to apply a learned skill across all areas of their life (school, home, community). NET is a good way to learn and practice skills in the home that can be used in school, the community or any other location. This teaching system is based on functional communication and the ability to problem solve. As a therapist or parent, to introduce NET we must set the environment up a little different than we may be used to. One thing that seems counter intuitive but is critical to setting up for success is building an environment that enables them to use their words which may not be fostering the independence they are used to. This means that the child could temporarily lose some of their independence while their functional communication repertoire is built. For instance, if they have access to their toys, they may not be as likely to use their words to ask for them. So here are some tips to promote good practice in the home:
- Know what goals they are working on
- Make sure you are mimicking what the therapist is working on. If there is a goal to ask for food, keep the good snacks out of reach, and only honor requests for the good snacks if they use their words.
- Actively participate in building goals with your BCBA
- This will help ensure the family values are upheld and the goals that are being worked on in sessions are more likely to be applied in the daily life of the child.
- Build a large, diverse play repertoire
- Encourage lots of play with different things, that way, during sessions, the child will have many different things to play with and build the session around. One disadvantage can be if the play repertoire of the child is limited, this style instruction is much harder.
- Have fun, and don’t get discouraged
- It can be very tough for parents. Children know how to get things, and most of the time it’s not with their words. It is a big change to have to switch from either independently accessing things, using gestures or other non-verbal communication means. They may get upset or switch to tantrums or crying to access what they want. It will pass, and eventually their life, and yours will be much easier.