Natural Environment Training
This article is part of our ABA therapy techniques series where we explore the different techniques used by ABA therapists.
Natural environment training (NET) is a commonly used ABA method of teaching new skills to children with autism. It is particularly effective for children who find conventional forms of learning challenging. In this article, we explain the benefits of NET and the way it is used in ABA therapy.
What is NET?
Natural environment training or natural environment teaching (NET) is a scientifically proven ABA method that allows therapists to incorporate the natural environment into the teaching of new skills. Learning is done in a setting that is comfortable and familiar to the child, for example, at home (child’s room, living room, kitchen), in the park, or in the grocery store.
NET focuses less on structured lesson plans than other ABA methods like discrete trial training (DTT). Instead, it follows the child’s specific needs and interests. NET is a largely child-led method, which ensures better focus and engagement during therapy sessions.
NET incorporates skill learning into play activities using familiar toys, games, and other objects to maximize the child’s motivation. The emphasis is on teaching communication, social interactions, play, and other skills that the child would typically engage in during the day.
ABA therapy sessions can be organized as a combination of table time where skills are learned in isolation, such as discrete trial training (DTT), and natural environment training where skills are learned through play. The ratio of intensive and NET learning in a session will depend on the child’s age, level of functioning, and individual needs.
What kinds of skills can NET teach?
Natural environment training can be used to teach a wide range of skills, from basic functional communication to advanced language and social skills, such as:
- Communicating wants and needs
- Taking turns
- Imitating actions
- Following instructions
- Improving gross and fine motor skills.
In the following section, we explain some of the main advantages of natural environment training.
Benefits of Natural Environment Teaching
There are many benefits of using natural environment training when working with children on the autism spectrum. Here are just a few of them.
Easy to implement
The NET technique is not only used by therapists. This method is simple enough to be implemented by anyone, including the child’s teachers, peers, parents, and siblings. Since NET is less structured and intensive than other forms of ABA training, teachers and family members can easily work on reinforcing the child’s skills in different settings throughout the day.
Natural environment teaching is largely focused on the child’s interests. Because children themselves decide what to do during the therapy session, they are more likely to be engaged. This helps create a fun learning environment and build rapport with the therapist.
Generalization of skills
Natural environment teaching allows the child to learn skills in the setting where they will be using them. In ABA therapy, they are referred to as directly applied skills. What’s more, the child’s interest and motivation are used to generalize skills acquisition to other environments.
NET requires less intensive work than other ABA teaching methods like discrete trial training, providing ample opportunities for the child to engage in the things that they enjoy. Skill acquisition is fun, which is particularly important for children who may otherwise be challenging to motivate.
Reduces aggressive behavior
Implementing NET may reduce instances of aggressive behavior caused by frustration in children with autism. Keeping the child engaged in a favorite activity during therapy sessions will help them keep a positive mindset to retain skills and continue learning.
Better instructional control
NET is a great way to establish instructional control and rapport between the therapist and the child. Providing or restricting access to the child’s preferred toys or games will pair the therapist with the thing they enjoy. As a result, the child will want to spend more time in the presence of the therapist.
How NET Works
NET is used to teach skills through activities that the child finds motivating. These activities can be short and repetitive, such as throwing a ball into a bin. The therapist can build upon this activity, seamlessly incorporating other skills that the child needs to learn, for example, imitating an action using the ball, waiting for eye contact before giving back the ball, or having the child mand for the ball.
The therapist will also gradually incorporate other elements and experiences into the activity to introduce new reinforcers, such as music or bubbles. This will help increase the variety of the child’s interests and allow the therapist to use them as additional reinforcers.
In order for the skill to be considered as mastered, the child must be able to use it in other settings. At first, the child might need to bring along a preferred toy or activity to make the transition into a new setting or situation easier. Over time, the child will learn how to transition without a preferred item.
The ABC model and reinforcement
Just like other ABA teaching techniques, NET uses the ABC model as a tool for the assessment of problem behaviors. This model consists of three steps:
- Antecedent. The therapist gives an instruction. For example, if the child wants to get the ball in order to throw it into the bin, the therapist can ask, “What do you want?”
- Behavior. The child responds “I want the ball” or simply “ball”.
- Consequence. If the child appropriately requested the item, the therapist will provide verbal praise and give the child the ball. Otherwise, the therapist will ignore the behavior and provide a prompt in the next trial.
Natural environment training is based on using authentic reinforcers and consequences. Ideally, the reinforcement is the activity itself, which means that the required skill provides access to reinforcement within that activity. Until the child reaches this objective, the therapist can use external reinforcers such as praise, a treat, or a token on the behavior management board, and then eventually phase them out.
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