Wouldn’t you prefer to learn things in a natural way? Learning things when you are motivated and interested? How could learning be more fun and applicable? The NET is where Natural Environment Teaching occurs, and commonly looks like play.
The focus is on communication, social interactions, play skills, and other skills that the child would engage in during their typical days. In our clinic, many clients receive instruction in a Verbal Behavior approach. Verbal Behavior focuses on teaching the different verbal operants, such as mands, tacts, intraverbals, echoics, etc. as a replacement (or alternative) for problem behavior. The session is organized to be a combination of table time, where skills are learned in isolation, and NET time when skills are learned through opportunity (contrived and natural). The session is a ratio of NET and ITT (Intensive Table Teaching), based on the needs of the learner. Many of our early learners, spend 75-80% of their session (about 45 minutes) in the NET and 20-25% of their time at the table (about 15 minutes). This allows enough time to become engaged in a variety of play tasks and social opportunities.
Now let’s walk through what a sample NET session may look like, but first you must know about the learner. The learner is a 3 year old male with an older brother, vocal verbal communicator (which means he can communicate with speech) in single words, and loves trains/cars. The learner enters the basement, where sessions are typically held, and approaches the train table. He quickly gets out the big box of trains and begins digging for his favorite train, which changes on a daily basis. The Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) begins to move a train back and forth on the train tracks, while making ‘choo choo’ noises, ‘look at this blue train’, ‘it’s moving so fast’, ‘train, train, train’, etc. The learner finds today’s beloved blue ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and is ready to play on the train track. The therapist moves the train box closer to him/herself, thus encouraging the child to request next time they want a train. The train track is only partially completed. Therapist hands the child 2-3 pieces of train tracks, while stating ‘here’s the track, track, track’, ‘let’s make the track longer’, etc. The therapist will continue to play with his/her train, and the learner reaches for the track pile, The therapist will verbally prompt ‘track’, then provide the track. Over several more opportunities, and referencing the data collected per trial, they will fade out the verbal prompts and provide more opportunities for independence. You will note that the therapist provides plentiful speech around the play, as well as targeted language around a similar level to the learner. Since this learner is primarily communicating in single words, much of the modeling should be at this single word level (i.e. ‘train’ and ‘track’), however also modeling and providing experience for the higher level phrases and sentences, applicable to that activity. One of the other important components is to not spend all 45 minutes in the same activity. There are several ways to make the transition, but here are just a few:
- After some time of engagement with preferred activity, prepare the child 5 minutes before, stating ‘5 more minutes, then (name next activity)’. Similarly prepare the child at 3 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 All Done’ (or something of a similar structure). It may also be helpful to have a visual schedule for the learner to see what is coming next.
- Therapist can incorporate novel activities into the preferred activity. The previous learner loves trains. The therapist may incorporate music, bubbles, placing the train down a car track, racing trains on the ground, etc. The therapist may be working to condition new reinforcers (i.e. providing experiences with novel activities while incorporating their currently highly preferred activities.), in an effort to increase the variety of their interests (and possibly to be used as reinforcers in the future). Also the therapist may be working on variety of play actions with the same preferred activity (i.e. train races, trains on the car ramp, etc.).
- The learner may also transition to another activity while bringing the preferred toy with, to initially make the transition easier. Over time, we can work on transitioning without that preferred item.
These are just a few ways to structure your NET time!