Creating Learning Opportunities in Everyday Life
Finding effective ways to teach children is a very important subject for many parents and caregivers. Between school, extracurricular activities, and homework, many families spend a large amount of their time dedicated to ensuring their children learn the information and skills necessary to do well in life. Finding effective ways to teach children and young adults with autism is just as important of a matter. Children and young adults on the autism spectrum oftentimes learn differently and require adapted instruction at their own pace to help them do their best. Many children receive treatments such as speech, occupational therapy, and behavioral health services to help teach other important skills.
As a behavior analyst, parents and caregivers commonly ask me how they can help teach their child skills they think are important. Parents and caregivers often are also concerned that they don’t have the time in their schedule to work with their child 1 on 1 like professionals do. The good news that I tell parents and caregivers is that they don’t need to-there are many ways to teach skills throughout the day. Better yet, these methods don’t require extra materials and are backed by science. This approach to teaching is called natural environment teaching.
Natural environment teaching is an approach to teaching that uses items in a child’s natural environment to help them learn. Instead of requiring special materials, common items can be used. For instance, a trip to the supermarket can be a great learning opportunity to practice colors, numbers, letters, and other important skills. Asking your child to “grab the red bag” instead of simply pointing to it can help work on colors. Having your child practice left and right while walking through (“okay, let’s turn left”) the store is also a great way to work on skills. More advanced concepts can also be taught. For example, asking a child to “grab the cereal that costs the least” can be used to teach relations of more/less. Other examples of skills that could just be worked on during a trip to the store include:
- Practicing listening to safety directives (stop, wait, go)
- Counting out money when paying for items
- Following a list of items
- Making choices (what chips do you want?)
Teaching moments can also be created for children with limited language. Instead of asking your child “what color is the bag?”, parents or caregivers could present to jars of different colors and ask, “which bag is blue?” to practice these skills. No matter how skills are practiced, one of the most important things to use when teaching is positive reinforcement. When you practice something with your child and they answer correctly, make sure to provide praise to help them really know they did it right (“That’s right, that is a blue bag! Great job!). If they do not respond correctly, you can show them the right answer and let them try again. Be sure to use positive reinforcement when the correct answer is given! Natural environment teaching can be used in the community, homes, and other places as well.
Dr. Kristopher Brown, PsyD, BCBA-D