Incidental Teaching

Providing Early Intervention and Applied Behavior Analysis in Northern California and Vermont

ABA therapy in general, is often associated with one method of teaching: discrete trial teaching. While discrete trial teaching often plays a critical role in helping children with autism learn, it is only part of a comprehensive program. Even the 1987 research by Dr. Lovaas mentions other important components of treatment including:

1.   Generalization of skills in school through systematic prompting and fading by a 1:1 aide.

2.    Facilitating socialization through peer play dates.

3.    A third component of treatment, incidental teaching, is also an evidenced-based practice frequently used at the Lovaas Institute. In incidental teaching, "the instructor assesses the child's ongoing interests, follows the child's lead, restricts access to high interest items, and constructs a lesson within the natural context, with a presumably more motivated child." (Anderson and Romanczyk, 1999)

Below are some strategies for implementation and examples of how this powerful teaching technique can help children with autism learn new behaviors.

Learning New Behaviors

Incidental teaching can be used to teach new language as well as expand upon the language a child already uses. A few examples from the research include teaching children to:

1.  Learn the names of highly preferred objects and actions by requesting for them.

2. Learn to read words.

3.  Use prepositions to describe where highly preferred objects are located.

4.  Use a more detailed sentence to request a specific highly preferred object (e.g., ask for the blue train or the red train).

5.  Use a compound sentence to request a toy and say how the toy will be used (e.g., say, "I want the blue train and I want to make a train track).

Capturing Initiations

One way of setting up incidental teaching opportunities is to capture initiations that occur in the natural environment. When someone captures an initiation, they take advantage of opportunities that arise in the natural environment. For example:

1.  Set out a child's favorite toys before therapy and see which one he gravitates toward. Block his access to the toy and prompt him to call it by name (Bob the Builder) before he can play with it.

2.  Wait for a child to go into the kitchen or cupboard area around snack or dinnertime. When he indicates he wants a specific food, prompt him to say the name of it. If the child is nonverbal, prompt him to point to the object he is requesting (or use some other form of augmentative communication). If he already can say the name of the food, prompt him to use a full sentence to request it or to use the person's name he is talking to when requesting.

By creating a rich environment, allowing a child time to explore, and being mindful of typical objects and activities in which that child demonstrates interest, one is able to capitalize on a child's motivation to learn new skills.

Contriving Situations

Realistically, some children with autism allow for more opportunities to capture initiations than others. Another way of setting up incidental teaching opportunities is to contrive situations that do not already occur in the natural environment. For example:

1.  If a child frequently plays with only a few toys, an instructor may prompt the child over to a new toy and attempt to make that toy interesting. Initially, the instructor may only prompt the child to play with the toy for a few seconds and then allow them to keep playing on their own or return to another activity. The ultimate test is for the instructor to move the toy approximately three feet away from the child while he is playing with it. If the child approaches the toy to keep playing, the instructor can use the opportunity for incidental teaching (e.g., to name the toy, ask "Can I play," etc.).

2.  If a child prefers specific task completion activities, some of the pieces can be removed from the set so that the child must ask, "Where's the..." in order for the instructor to go find the missing piece. Hiding objects that a child needs throughout the day is an extension of this (e.g., hiding a child's shoes or coat when it's time to go outside, hiding silverware when it's time to eat, etc.).

3.  Wait for a child to request an object or play activity. When he does, get it for him, but then stop walking or run away on the way back to him. Use the opportunity to teach him to repair the situation by repeating his request or to learn new phrases such as "hurry up," "come back," etc.

Instructors can purposefully mess up while interacting with a child during a familiar activity or while responding to a child's initiations. For example, change the lyrics to a familiar song or if a child asks for juice, hand him a banana. A child can learn to repair these situations by explaining what an instructor did incorrectly (e.g., for Ring Around the Rosie, "no, it's 'We all fall down,' or "no, this is a banana) and/or by reminding her what he really wants to happen.Because contrived situations do not occur in a child's everyday life, one must be careful to determine the extent to which these situations will need to continue to be set up in order for the child to maintain a new behavior. Regardless, by contriving situations that build upon a child's interests, research has shown that children can not only learn a wide variety of new skills, but will often more easily generalize these skills.