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Natural Environment Teaching

Page history last edited by Regina Claypool-Frey 14 years, 3 months ago


Adapted from Teaching Verbal Behavior in the Natural Environment

Amy McGinnis MS, OTR - AssociateEstablishing Operations,Inc.

POAC of PA April 2, 2006

Natural Environment Teaching


What is Natural Environment Teaching (NET)?


NET is loosely structured, and uses or contrives a learner’s motivation and activities and not an exclusively teacher-selected set of materials as the basis for the lesson.


"Sundberg and Partington (1998) noted that the NET component of VB is based on three previously established frameworks:

(1) the natural Language Paradigm (Koegel et al. 1987),

(2) incidental teaching (Hart and Risley, 1975) and

(3) the expanded program of milieu language training (Hart & Rogers-Warren, 1978)." Cautilli J. (2006)



Why NET?


Despite the successes of behavioral approaches in teaching language, the development of generalized and functional communication repertoires in children with autism has been disappointing (Fay & Schuler, 1980, Deprato, 2001).


What has led to these disappointing results?


Many behavioral practitioners have failed to use Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior (Skinner, 1957) to guide their language teaching programs and/or incorporate NET into the program (Laski et al, 1988)



What does NET look like? (video)


1. FREE Video from the Carbone Clinic

Video clip of Natural Environment Teaching (NET)

Learner - Max

Instructor - Emily Jane Sweeney-Kerwin


2. BAAM Behavior Movies

ABA in Natural Settings

Viewing and system compatibility


3. Here's a general idea from a parent-made video clip.

They are modelling, manding with a little imaginative play thrown in. Note that the child "changes up" the game by manding for "Up on the sofa". There may be some technical mistakes in transfer, but clearly this is not discrete-trial at a table and everyone is having fun.






  • Pairing is an essential first step that must take place before any type of teaching can begin in any environment


  • Stimulus stimulus pairing is a process by which a neutral stimulus (person, place, activity, or object) becomes a conditioned reinforcer.
  • Pairing is important because it teaches the child to associate his/her therapists, therapy area, and therapy materials with good things.
  • It is important for the child to want to be around his/her therapists in order to learn from them!



How to pair?


Identify as many reinforcers as possible

(Potential Reinforcer Profile)


Potential reinforcer profile (developed by Amy McGinnis)


Have a large supply and wide variety of reinforcing items to give to the child

Approach the child and deliver reinforcement non-contingently. You should give the child things that he/she likes for “free” (non-contingently). The child does not need to request or “earn” the reinforcers in any way.


Maximize the number of times that you provide reinforcement

-Break edible reinforcers into small pieces so you can hand them to the child more frequently

-Deliver multiple reinforcers at once (TV, food, toys, sensory stimulation, etc.)

-Try to deliver reinforcers several times per minute


Talk to the child, BUT do not expect him/her to talk back.


Follow the child’s changing interests.

-If the child becomes bored with a reinforcer, find another reinforcer.


Actively manipulate the environment and interact with the child so that you are required for maximum enjoyment of the activity




* Child is on swing – therapist pushes child

* Child is thirsty – therapist fills child’s cup a tiny bit at a time

* Child wants to go outside – therapist unlocks door



Pairing the Environment


Pair across






Common Pairing Mistakes


Placing demands on the child until "paired"

-Resist the urge to try to “teach” the child by asking questions or making the child “work” for reinforcers.

-It is necessary to first build rapport with the child before teaching.

-Pairing may feel slow, but you should not rush through it. Time spent pairing is time well spent!


Lack of active interaction with the child.

-Pairing is an ACTIVE process on the part of the therapist.

-The therapist must constantly be giving reinforcers to the child.

-Pairing will not be effective if the therapist just sits in the room while the child does his/her own thing.

-The therapist must continually act as the “giver” and the child should function as the “taker.”


Infrequent or weak reinforcement.

-If strong reinforcers are not given frequently, the pairing will be less effective.

-Find as many opportunities to reinforce the child as possible (several per minute).



Determining if Pairing Has Been Effective

Questions to ask:


-Does the child run to you or away from you?

-Does the child follow you when you leave the room?


Once the child is frequently and willingly approaching you to obtain reinforcement, you are ready to begin teaching verbal behavior in the natural environment



Developing Functional Communication


There are many functions or categories of expressive language and therefore many meanings to the words we say

The meaning of a word is defined by its function or category, not by its grammar or syntax



Developing a Verbal Behavior Repertoire


Many children with autism do not have verbal behavior repertoires that include responses in each of the categories for the same word (topography).

This happens because the categories are functionally independent and the responses (words) may not transfer across the categories without explicit training. For example, being able to mand juice by saying “juice” does not guarantee that the same child will be able to tact (label) juice when they see it and there is no MO (motivation) for it (citation).



The Importance of Knowing and Following the Learner’s Motivation


Incorporating Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior (Skinner, 1957, Michael,1984) and the manipulation of establishing operations (Michael,1982, 1993, 2001) to the elements of natural environment teaching will enhance the effectiveness of NET



Teach all the “Meanings”















Echoic: No motivation or desire for juice. No juice present.

Teacher says or signs, "Juice"

Learner says or signs, "Juice"

Learner is indirectly or socially reinforced.


(NOTE: In the case where an MO for juice is present, and the item is present,

when using an echoic prompt, the interaction is MULTIPLY controlled

as mand-tact-echoic.)


Motivating Operation is present for the item, i.e., juice.

A listerner/audience present

Mand: "Juice", or "I want juice"

: Sign "Juice", or "I want juice"

Learner is directly reinforced with juice.



Teacher says,"Where's the juice?"

Student finds the juice.

Learner is indirectly or socially reinforced.


FFC (Feature, Function or class)

Feature: something ABOUT the item,

Function: Something the items does/is used for,

Class: Category of the item.


RFFC (Receptive by Feature, Function or Class)

Teacher says, "Point to the one that you drink"

Learner points to the picture of the juice.

Learner is indirectly or socially reinforced.


TFFC (Tact by Feature, Function or Class)

(In the presence of a picture of the item or the item itself (non-verbal stimulus), when learner is

either in a state of satiation or otherwise does not WANT the item.

Teacher says, "Tell me the one that is sweet"

Learner says, "Juice".

Learner is indirectly or socially reinforced.


IFFC (Intraverbal by Feature, Function or Class)

No non verbal stimulus present. Not under the control of a motivative operation.

Teacher says, "Tell me something you can drink".

Learner says, "Juice".

Learner is indirectly or socially reinforced.



Mand: paraphrase "requesting"

(command, demand, remand (Skinner, 1957), from Latin, Mando (Keller & Schoenfeld, 1950).


Dependent on the presence of a motivative operation (relative state of deprivation, desire for)

The verbal response of requesting (i.e. “I want juice.”)

Teaching someone to mand items, activities, or objects will lead to a higher rate of talking and will support the development of the other classes of verbal responses (i.e. tacts, intraverbals, etc.)



Mimetic (Motor Imitation)


The ability to imitate or do what others do during play or other activities is an important skill to acquire

During NET it will be important to teach this skill (i.e. teacher demonstrates how to play with toys appropriately)



Echoic (Vocal Imitation)


Vocally imitating what others say is an important skill that leads to increased vocal verbal behavior

During NET the teacher will provide a vocal model for the learner so that certain sounds and words become paired with reinforcement and can then be reinforced directly when the learner repeats them



Tact: close to labelling;

From conTACT, Latin, tactus=to touch (Keller & Schoenfeld, 1950).

The verbal response that is closest to labeling (i.e. “That’s a red ball.”)


When a learner says or signs what he sees, hears, touches, tastes, smells, etc., he is tacting. The stimulus for the response is a non-verbal stimulus associated with the physical environment.

The reinforcement for this response is NOT SPECIFIC to what is said and is usually social reinforcement of some type such as acknowledgement of what is said or praise.

To teach a pure tact, there should not be a motivative operation associated with the item, for instance--teach picture of juice, or real item when value of receiving juice is low, due to satiation.


Teaching Tacts: prompting and transfer



ECHOIC TO TACT TRANSFER: 0-second delay prompt

(Verbal SD & 0-sec. delay prompt)

Teacher: “What’s this? (Indicate correct item) Juice.”

Learner: “Juice” (echoic)



Therapist: “What’s this?”

Learner: “Juice.”

Therapist indirectly or socially reinforces.




The verbal response to someone else’s verbal response

(i.e. When someone asks what you had for breakfast, “I had juice” is an intraverbal)


This class includes answering “wh” questions and filling in the blanks (i.e. “Twinkle, twinkle little __”

Intraverbal skills are essential to carrying on a conversation


Teaching Intraverbals prompting and transfer





Teacher: “Ready, set…go.”(Verbal SD & 0-sec. delay prompt)

Learner: “Go.” (echoic)



Teacher: “Ready, set, __.”

Learner: “Go.” (Intraverbal)

Teacher indirectly or socially reinforces.





Teacher: “Something you drink is __.”(Verbal SD & tact stimulus)

Learner: “Juice.” (tact)



Therapist: “What do you drink?” (removes juice from sight)

Learner: “Juice.” (Intraverbal)

Therapist indirectly or socially reinforces



Receptive (listener behavior)

The receptive response class refers to understanding what someone else says

During NET this might include delivering requests to:

Perform actions: “Stand up” (receptive commands)

Identify an object by touching it or giving it to the teacher “Give me the red ball” (receptive ID)


Teaching Receptive prompting and transfer




Therapist: “Touch juice.” (Verbal SD & mimetic prompt)

Learner: touches juice (mimetic)



Therapist: “Show me the juice.”

Learner: (touches juice) (Receptive ID)

Therapist reinforces




Receptive by Feature, Function & Class (RFFC)


In addition, it is sometimes useful to ask the learner to respond receptively to the description of something (i.e. “give me the beverage,” rather than, “give me the juice.”)

RFFC – “Touch the one you drink.”

TFFC – “Which one do you drink?” (item present)

IFFC – “What do you drink?” (no item present)



Learner Profiles


Suggested distribution of programming


Phase I: NET>DTT : Focus on early manding, pairing, compliance and stimulus control

Phase 2: NET=DTT : Focus on mand, tact, receptive, imitation, echoic and intraverbal

Phase 3: DTT>NET : Focus on academic activities and specific skill development; development of task endurance.

Phase 4: NET>DTT : Focus on group-instruction learning, from peers in looser learning environment (like typical K or 1st grade).

Phase 5: DTT>NET : Focus on academic skills and structured learning; like later elementary classrooms.


From: p. 152, Sundberg, M., & Partington, J. (1999).


Early Learner Profile

  • Limited basic skills.
  • Weak echoic
  • Almost no formal mands
  • Few receptive responses outside of the context
  • Few tacts and intraverbals.


Early Learner NET

Require very little responding and pair yourself with reinforcers.

Have child take reinforcers from you.

Gradually increase response requirement.

Begin errorless teaching of mands with full prompts and then fade prompts.

Intersperse a few instructional demands for relevant to the reinforcer



Intermediate Learner Profile


See also: Powerpoint: Programming for an Intermediate Learner

Presented by Mary Gill BCaBA, Michelle Geist BCaBA; POAC of PA

right click download


Several mands (some spontaneous)

Many tacts

Some receptive


Simple intraverbals.


Intermediate Learner NET

Teach within the context of the activities that are reinforcing and motivating for the child.

Teach mands, simple tacts, receptive, TFFC and simple intraverbals. Many of these responses will be multiply controlled, e.g. part or mostly mand.

Begin the VB module in this environment.



Advanced Learner Profile


See also:Powerpoint: Programming for an advanced Learner


right click download


Many spontaneous mands

Manding for information

Complex tacts

TFFC and intraverbals (answering “wh” questions).


Advanced Learner NET

Teach within the context of the reinforcing or motivational activities of the child.

Complex VB modules that are conversations within non-verbal contexts.

These modules include answers to "wh" questions as well as manding for information, e.g. asking "wh" questions.

Have similar but less complex conversations in the intensive teaching settings.


See also: Advanced WH mands and intraverbals



Developing NET Lesson Plans


Planning NET sessions in advance prepares the teacher to teach and generalize targeted skills while following the child’s

It is often necessary to customize lesson plans to follow each child’s unique MO & teach target skills


Step 1: Potential Reinforcer Profile

Look at the learner’s reinforcer profile to get some ideas regarding what s/he might enjoy doing in the NET.


Step 2: Brainstorming Activity Ideas

Select one reinforcing item/activity from the list. Try to brainstorm as many creative and fun things possible to do with that item/activity.


Example: Water play



Mix food dye with water to create different colors

Filling squirt bottle with water and squirting paper or other target taped vertically on the wall

Play with wind-up pool toys in bathtub or sink

Create “ocean in a bottle” by placing small boat or fish toys in bottle filled with water

Create sparkle water bottles by mixing food dye, glitter, and water in bottle, then shaking bottle for visual effect

Play with sponges

Play with funnels, cups, watering can

Bring snow/ice inside house to play with, sculpt, etc.

Add soap into basin of water. Use eggbeater to make bubbles.


Step 4:

Incorporate Targets into Activity

Determine which behaviors you will target

What will you do/say? Sd

What will the learner do/say? response



Summing up structure


Reinforcing Activity

Type of skill

What teacher will say or do

Child’s Response/

Skills to be taught

Natural Environment Teaching Lesson Plan

See: EstablishingOperationsInc.

Natural Environment Lesson Plan Sheet 



Continue to Create Novel Activities

Continually generating novel activities helps to keep the learner engaged and creates new teaching opportunities




Water + balloons = water balloons

Water + music = fill glasses with water to produce different tones when struck with a spoon

Water + vehicles = playing car wash






Cautilli J. (2006). Validation of the verbal behavior package: Old wine new bottle--a reply to Carr & Firth (2005). The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 81-92. Retrieved April 10, 2008.


Delprato, D.J. (2001). Comparisons of discrete-trial and normalized behavioral language intervention for young children with autism.

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 31, 315-325.


Fay, W., & Schuler, AL (1980). Emerging language in autistic children. Baltimore: University Park Press.


Gillett, J.N. & LeBlanc, L.A. (2006). Parent-implemented natural language paradigm to increase language and play in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 1, 247-255.


Hart, B. M., & Risley, T. R. (1974). Using preschool materials to modify the language of disadvantaged children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 243-256.


Hart, B. M., & Risley, T. R. (1975). Incidental teaching of language in the preschool. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 411-420.


Hart, B. M., & Risley, T. R. (1980). In vivo language intervention: Unanticipated general effects. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 13, 407-432.


Kates-McElrath, K., & Axelrod, S. (2006). Behavior intervention for autism: A distinction between two behavior analytic approaches. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7, 242-252. Retrieved April 10, 2008.


Keller, F. & Schoenfeld, W.N. (1950). Principles of Psychology: A Systematic Text in the Science of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.


Laski, K.E., Charlop, M.H., & Schreibman, L. (1988). Training parents to use the natural language paradigm to increase their autistic children's speech.. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 391-400. Retrieved April 10, 2008.


Mariposa School Training Manual

Tracy Vail, SLP-CCC (2002, rev. 2006).

Mariposa School, Cary, N.C.


Michael, J. (1985). Two kinds of verbal behavior and a possible third. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 3, 2-5.


Michael, J. (1988). Establishing operations and the mand. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 6, 3-9.


Michael, J. (1993). Establishing operations. The Behavior Analyst, 16, 191-206.


Add Michael 2001


Oliver, C. B., & Halle, J. W. (1982). Language training in the everyday environment: Teaching functional sign use to a retarded child. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 8, 50-62.

ERIC citation Retrieved 4/11/08.


Rogers-Warren, A., & Warren, S. F. (1980). Mands for verbalization. Behavior Modification, 4, 361-382.


Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J. W. (1999). The need for both discrete trial and natural environment language training for children with autism. In P. M. Ghezzi, W.L. Williams & J.E. Carr (Eds.) Autism: Behavior analytic perspectives. (pp. 139-156). Reno, NV: Context Press.


Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group.


Stokes, T.F., & Baer, D. M. (1974). An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10, 349-367.


Sundberg, M. L., & Michael, J. (2001). The benefits of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior for children with autism. Behavior Modification, 25, 698-724.


Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J. W. (1999). The need for both discrete trial and natural environment language training for children with autism. In P. M. Ghezzi, W.L. Williams & J.E. Carr (Eds.) Autism: Behavior analytic perspectives. (pp. 139-156). Reno, NV: Context Press.


Sundberg, M. L., & Partington, J.W. (1998). Teaching Language to Children with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Danville, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.


Warren, S.F., & Kaiser, A.P. (1986). Incidental language teaching: A critical review. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 51, 291-299.




For more info:



Visit Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) of PA for:

-Information on their free workshops

-Information on their fee-based professional workshops


Visit Establishing Operations, Inc. for:

-Potential Reinforcer Profile

-NET data sheets & potential target lists

-Workshop information


4/11/08: The VBN website may be inactive or locked to non subscribers

Visit www.verbalbehaviornetwork.com for:

-Sample NET lesson plans & data sheets


$$ DVD: Teaching Language in the Natural Environment (Vocal manding)--1 hr.

$$ DVD Teaching Language in the Natural Environment (Teaching Manding (Requesting) Using Sign Language)

$$$ Teaching Verbal Behavior in the Natural Environment: 2 DVD Set

Discounted bundle

Establishing Operations, Inc.


See also,


(add page citations) Teaching Language to Children with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities

Mark Sundberg, Ph.D., James Partington, Ph.D. 1998

Also available at Behavior Analysts, Inc.


Pages 133, 135-136 of The Verbal Behavior Approach How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders

Mary Lynch Barbera,RN,BCBA; With Tracy Rasmussen, 2007


Chapter 10, pp.135-146, Educate Toward Recovery: Turning the Tables on Autism

Robert Schramm, MA,BCBA 2006


An excellent discussion of Milieu Language Teaching, including

Incidental teaching, Mand-model,Milieu Teaching and the role of the interventionist in staging the intervention

Peterson, P. (Ph.D., BCBA) Milieu Language Teaching

Web document, retrieved 4/11/08



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