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As a parent of a child with autism, you want what is best for them, especially regarding their education and development. If you are considering Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for your child, you may have heard the term “natural environment teaching” or “NET”. In this article, we will explore what NET is, why it is beneficial, and when it is used in ABA therapy.
What is Natural Environment Teaching (NET)
Natural Environment Teaching (NET) is an evidence-based teaching approach commonly used in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for children with autism. The primary goal is to teach skills in a natural setting that the child is likely to encounter in their everyday life, such as at home, school, or in the community.
The approach focuses on using a child’s interests and motivations to engage them in learning new skills. Suppose a child loves playing with toy cars. The therapist may use that interest to teach them new vocabulary words or to practice counting by asking the child to count the number of cars they have.
NET typically involves breaking down skills into smaller, manageable steps and providing reinforcement or rewards for successful attempts. For instance, if the child is working on asking for a desired item, the therapist may initially prompt the child to say, “I want [item]” and then reward them with the item once they make the request.
Benefits of Natural Environment Teaching
- Promotes Generalization: NET allows children to learn in the natural setting where they will use the skills, making it more likely that they will generalize those skills to other settings and situations.
- Increases Motivation: Using natural settings and activities, NET can be highly motivating for children with autism, leading to increased engagement and more successful learning experiences. NET uses natural reinforcers which they get in everyday life, such as praise, hugs, and access to preferred toys or activities, to reinforce desired behaviors. This helps the child see the value in what they are learning and can increase motivation.
- Individualized Learning: NET can be customized to the child’s individual needs, allowing for a personalized approach to teaching. By observing a child’s strengths and needs in their natural environment, a teacher or therapist can tailor the teaching approach to fit their unique learning style. This personalized approach can help the child better understand and retain the new skills being taught.
- Improves Social Skills: NET provides opportunities for children to practice social skills in natural social settings, such as playgrounds, stores, and parks.
- Enhances Communication: NET can help children with autism learn to communicate more effectively by practicing communication skills in real-life situations.
- Builds Independence: NET helps children develop skills that promote independence, such as self-help skills, navigation skills, and problem-solving skills.
- Provides a Positive Learning Experience: NET can be a fun and positive learning experience for children with autism, leading to increased confidence and self-esteem.
NET is typically used with other ABA therapy methods, such as discrete trial training (DTT) and structured teaching.
Types of Natural Environment Teaching
There are several different types of NET, including incidental teaching, discrete trial training, and structured approaches to learning.
Incidental teaching involves using the child’s natural interests and everyday situations to teach new skills. For example, suppose a child is playing with blocks. A therapist may use that opportunity to teach them colors or counting.
Discrete Trial Training
Discrete trial training involves breaking down skills into small, manageable steps and teaching them through repetition and reinforcement. This method is often used for teaching academic skills.
Structured Approach to Learning
Structured approaches to learning involve teaching skills in a structured environment, such as a classroom or therapy room. This method is often used for teaching more complex skills, such as problem-solving and critical thinking.
Examples of Natural Environment Teaching
So many skills can be taught using NET. For example:
Social skills on a playground – teaching social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, and making friends in the context of playing on a playground.
Communication skills during mealtime – teaching communication skills such as requesting food, making conversation, and expressing needs during mealtime.
Math skills during a grocery store visit – teaching math skills such as counting, addition, and subtraction in the context of a grocery store visit.
Science skills during a nature walk – teaching science skills such as observation, classification, and identification in the context of a nature walk.
Problem-solving skills during a scavenger hunt – teaching problem-solving skills such as planning, decision-making, and critical thinking in the context of a scavenger hunt.
Language skills during a playdate – teaching language skills such as vocabulary, grammar, and conversation in the context of a playdate with peers.
Functional skills during a visit to the bank or post office – teaching functional skills such as filling out forms, using a debit card, and mailing letters in the context of a visit to a bank or post office.
Self-help skills during daily routines like getting dressed or brushing teeth – teaching self-help skills such as hygiene, dressing, and grooming in the context of daily routines.
Common Misconceptions About NET Practices
There are several misconceptions about NET practices and ABA therapy in general. The three most common are:
ABA Therapy is a Form of Punishment
One common misconception is that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is simply a way to punish children for undesired behaviors. This is not true. ABA therapy focuses on positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors, and it is not meant to be punitive. ABA therapists are trained to use positive reinforcement and praise to motivate children to learn new skills.
Lack of Evidence for Positive Results:
Another common misconception is that there is a lack of evidence to support the effectiveness of NET. However, a growing body of research suggests that NET can effectively teach children with autism and other developmental disorders. Studies have shown that children who receive NET interventions often make significant gains in various skills, including communication, socialization, and academic skills.
Limited Range of Skills Accomplished Through NET
Some people believe that NET only focuses on a limited range of skills, such as basic communication and socialization, and does not address more complex skills. To the contrary, NET can teach a wide range of skills, including academic, problem-solving, and executive functioning skills. NET can be adapted to meet the specific needs of individual children, making it a flexible and versatile approach to teaching.
It’s important to recognize that NET can be a valuable tool for teaching children with developmental disorders. By dispelling common misconceptions, we can better understand the benefits of NET and how it can help children reach their full potential.
Best Practices for Natural Environment Teaching
If you are considering NET as part of your child’s ABA therapy, there are several best practices to remember.
Utilizing Positive Reinforcement Strategies
As mentioned earlier, ABA therapy is based on positive reinforcement. Therefore, it is important to work with your child’s therapist to identify the most effective reinforcement strategies.
Promoting Positive Behaviors and Motor Skills Development
In addition to teaching specific skills, NET can promote positive behaviors and motor skills development. This can include things like practicing taking turns, improving balance and coordination, and developing self-regulation skills.
Accommodating Different Learning Styles and Expressive Language
Children with ASD may have different learning styles and expressive language abilities. NET should be tailored to meet each child’s individual needs, including using visual supports and alternative communication methods as needed.
Achieving Success Through Natural Environment Teaching
NET is a valuable tool for teaching children with ASD essential skills in their natural environment. By focusing on positive reinforcement, encouraging motivation, and tailoring the learning experience to each child’s unique needs, NET can help children achieve success and independence in their daily lives. If you are interested in learning more about ABA therapy and natural environment teaching, contact Circle Care today to schedule a consultation. Our experienced team of ABA therapists can provide you with the support and resources you need to help your child thrive. Parent of a child with autism or a teacher looking for more autism tips and tricks? Sign up for our email list. We’re here to help you every step of the way!