Background to my interest in teaching children with autism

Teaching Children with Autism, continued

In most of the older ABA literature, people referred to two common teaching models/venues used in an ABA-based program: Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) and Natural Environment Teaching (NET). Discrete Trial Teaching involved the instructor and student working together at a table, using a series of discrete Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence “teaching/ learning trials,” while Natural Environment Teaching occurred in the child’s natural environment rather than in a more formal teaching setting, making use of the child’s immediate interests and activities in that environment.

NET can be a little more challenging for the instructor, since it requires you to “think on your feet,” making use of whatever the child is interested in, or can be interested in, at the moment, to keep him or her engaged in the task of learning, but it is more fun than only working at a table; and we do like to keep things fun for both the instructor and the child. In addition, however, there is more than a little research which suggests that “Naturalistic Language Teaching Procedures for Children at Risk for Language Delays” – incidental teaching, modeling, milieu language teaching, etc. – can be even more effective than more structured approaches in facilitating the generalization of children’s acquired language skills (Peterson, The Behavior Analyst Today, Vol. No. 5, Issue No. 4, 2004), and generalization is an extremely important component of making language actually functional for the child.

One of the most charismatic advocates of the verbal behaviour approach described above is Vincent Carbone, whom some of you may have heard of. He was my first introduction to ABA. Two of his former colleagues, Holly Kibbe and Cherish Twigg, have gone into business for themselves, calling their business Establishing Operations Inc.   They have suggested that rather than contrasting DTT and NET, a better distinction would be between Intensive Trial Teaching (ITT) and Natural Environment Teaching (NET), at least partly because the teaching trials in NET are also discrete, i.e., each teaching/learning trial has a beginning and an end.

In this new way of looking at things, ITT involves the instructor and student working together at a table, often using as many as twenty-five or so discrete Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence “teaching/ learning trials” per minute and, in the beginning at least (unless you are teaching “requesting,” in which case the reinforcement is getting what has been requested), the reinforcement is most often arbitrary (in the sense of being unrelated to what is being learned), i.e., whatever consequence works to strengthen the behaviour being taught, such as a piece of cookie for learning to say “book” when shown a book and asked “What is it?”

Natural Environment Teaching (NET), in contrast, uses the same kind of discrete Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence “teaching/ learning trials” as ITT but the reinforcement, rather than being arbitrary, is the learner’s motivation-of-the-moment. In this way of thinking about NET, “environment” does not refer to location but, rather, to the fact that the reinforcement is natural rather than arbitrary, i.e., the teaching occurs within the “environment” of natural rather than arbitrary reinforcement.   NET still makes use of the child’s interests and activities of the moment, just as before, and interactions that involve materials and activities which are meaningful to the child, used in a reinforcing manner, continue to be the key to Natural Environment learning.

Holly and Cherish also recommend that the relative amounts of ITT and NET be based on whether the learner is a beginner, an intermediate learner, or an advanced learner – it is recommended that NET be the main (although not necessarily the only) teaching model for both beginning and advanced learners (where interpersonal engagement is crucial to program goals) and that ITT be the main teaching model for intermediate learners (where the vast bulk of intermediate language-acquisition goals need to be taught). Of course, it is important to remember that all children are different and that what works well for one child may not work as well for another and that, while a particular approach may work very well at one point in a child’s program, it may not work as well later on. One of the main advantages to ABA is that it is data driven, and (in theory, at least) ABA programs are adjusted as needed to ensure the child’s continuing progress.

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