Natural Environment Teaching (NET) in ABA

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

December 2, 2022

Natural environment teaching (NET), also referred to as naturalistic teaching, is a personalized teaching method used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. NET focuses on letting the child take the lead while learning new skills in an environment they are in every day. 

Although NET looks and feels a lot like playtime for a child, it is an evidence-based teaching method that can be used to teach socialization and communication skills. 

What Is Natural Environment Teaching?

NET uses the principles of ABA to teach skills in an environment the child is familiar with. It is individualized for each child based on the activities they do every day. 

NET is a less structured teaching style. In contrast, discrete trial training (DTT) is a structured intervention used to teach new skills. DTT breaks each skill into smaller steps and repeats the steps for practice. 

Where Does NET Occur?

NET can take place anywhere—at home, school, or out in the community. 

The important thing is that teaching takes place in an environment that the child is familiar with. The child’s daily routines and schedule will determine when and where the ABA therapist will conduct therapy. ABA therapists will commonly travel to a child’s home to provide in-home ABA therapy

What Does NET Look Like?

NET is used by an ABA therapist during ABA therapy sessions. The ABA therapist will loosely structure a session around a target behavior. 

There are three types of naturalistic teaching methods that are commonly used. 

Pivotal Response Training

Pivotal response training (PRT) uses positive reinforcement to encourage learning new skills. 

This method focuses on four “pivotal” areas of the child’s development. The four pivotal areas of PRT are:

  • Motivation
  • Child self-initiation
  • Self-management
  • Responsiveness to multiple cues

As an example, let’s say an ABA therapist wants to teach colors during today’s session. They know that the child likes to play with toy cars. The therapist can let the child play with toy cars of different colors to create opportunities to learn colors. 

Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching can be used in children aged 2 to 9 to improve communication skills and help children generalize skills so they can be used in other environments. This method can increase the child’s motivation to speak, so it is used with children who already have some language skills. 

During a session using incidental teaching, the ABA therapist may ask the child questions about the toy they are playing with. Because the child is playing with the toy and is already interested in it, they are more motivated to have a conversation about it. The therapist may also temporarily restrict access to a toy to encourage a response. 

Natural Language Paradigm

The natural language paradigm (NLP) method is commonly used with children who are non-verbal. This method is based on the deliberate arrangement of the environment to encourage communication and language. 

A child might learn to say “goodbye” before leaving a place. Using NLP, the child can leave when they say “goodbye” after being prompted. This method uses leaving as a reward instead of a tangible reward, like a favorite snack.

7 Benefits of NET 

NET can be beneficial for many children with autism and their families. 

  1. Child-Led

ABA sessions using NET are led by the daily routines, skills, and interests of the child. An ABA therapist will mediate and guide play, but the child chooses and leads the activities. This way, ABA therapists and parents can reward and reinforce learning in a way that meets the child’s needs.

  1. More Engagement

Children are more engaged in therapy because they are doing activities they already enjoy. Methods such as DTT can be tiresome due to repetition.

  1. Fewer Disruptive Behaviors

Because children are doing activities they already enjoy, there may be fewer disruptive behaviors. Children will be motivated to limit disruptive behaviors such as irritability, aggression, or noncompliance when they are doing an activity they have chosen and want to do. 

  1. Fewer Prompts

NET uses the child’s natural environment to create opportunities for learning. ABA therapists may be able to use fewer prompts during a therapy session because the child is motivated by activities they enjoy.

  1. Generalized Skills

NET provides opportunities to learn skills in the environment in which they will most likely be used. In contrast to learning skills in a controlled environment at an autism treatment center, the child will learn skills in many different environments. This increases the likelihood the child will continue to use the newly learned skill. 

  1. Increased Exposure to Therapy

NET can be done by anyone in the family. Parents, grandparents, caregivers, siblings, and teachers can all participate in NET. This means that NET can take place throughout the day, not just during an ABA therapy session. Having multiple adults interact with the child can also increase the generalization of a skill. 

  1. NET Works

NET is an evidence-based practice. This means that the efficacy is backed up by peer-reviewed research.

Conclusion

Natural environment teaching is an individualized teaching method used along with other methods in ABA therapy. Using this method, children with autism can learn new skills while participating in activities they enjoy. NET is not limited to ABA therapists—parents and other caregivers can also engage in NET to increase the child’s learning. 

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