Skill Repertoire Building: Procedures – Natural Environment Training (NET)


  • What is Natural Environment Training (NET)?
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • NET versus Discrete Trial Training (DTT)
  • Prompting strategies used within NET
  • Application of NET
  • When to use NET – Generalization/Skill Acquisition
  • Data collection strategies

What is Natural Environment Training (NET)

Teaching procedures within Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that can be used to teach learners in their natural environments. Many people assume (incorrectly) that ABA is synonymous with discrete trial training, however DTT is only one method among many. NET is another. In Natural Environment Training, situations and items that the learner would already be interacting with are used to teach relevant skill targets. Therapists capitalize on the learner’s motivation at that given moment.

Behavioral Treatments in Autism Spectrum Disorders (Vismara & Rogers, 2010): An intervention approach that applies the behavioral teaching principles of applied behavioral analysis within the child’s natural environment


What is the Goal of NET? To provide treatment activities which replicate as closely as possible the natural environment of the learner to maximize the effectiveness of instruction

  • NET fosters motivation
  • NET facilitates independence & generalization of skills

NET is different than other approaches in several ways: 

  • Learners rarely sit at a table (unless the activity naturally occurs at a table)
  • Typical training materials such as cards or “academic” manipulative are rarely used
  • The target items are chosen by the learner not the therapist
  • The learner typically gets the reinforcer that they are working with, or more accurately the work the child is doing provides a natural reinforcer or directly related reinforcer and no artificial or contrived reinforcer is needed
  • And because of all this, the lessons can be more “functional” in nature

Four main characteristics of Naturalistic Teaching Strategies:

  1. Focus on use of the learner’s current motivation / MO (Motivation Operation)
    • Child directed -therapist follows the learner’s lead
    • If the learner’s motivation changes, the activities follow
    • Activities may be embedded within regular daily activities
  2. Functional relationships between task and reinforcer
    • Reinforcers given are directly related to activity, not arbitrary
    • Natural consequences are provided for desired responses
  3. Taught in child’s environment in playful manner
    • Use of functional stimulus items
    • More naturalistic transitions
    • To untrained individual may appear as if the therapist and learner are just playing
  4. Focus on reinforcing any appropriate attempt to respond
    • Shaping procedures lead learner to correct response
    • Less focus on “correct” versus “incorrect” responding

Other general components to NET

  1. Naturalistic Instruction Delivery
    • SDs use more natural/conversational language
    • “SD voice” is faded to natural tone, intonation and volume
    • SDs are often interspersed with other comments and instruction, not repeatedly presented in the same way
    • It may be necessary to start first with mastered SDs within NET activities and then gradually fade to more natural instructions
      • Pairing procedure
      • Using a mastered SD as a prompt
  2. Experiential Instruction
    • Embedding of key concepts into naturally occurring situation where it is most functional for the learner to use the skill
    • Learning done around the environment, not at a table
  3. Follow’s Motivation of Learner
    • Increases motivation
    • Targeted skills become more functionally relevant
    • Primarily learner directed – but also instructor directed at times
      • Contriving learning opportunities
      • Implementing BIPs
      • Guiding interaction’s by presenting interesting activities
    • This does NOT mean that we allow the learner to engage in stereotypic, perseverative rituals/patterns of behavior

Advantages of NET

  • Motivation/EO provides best conditions for mand teaching.
  • Generalization naturally occurs; elaborate generalization procedures are not necessary
  • Reduced amount of negative behavior due to use of child’s interest; specific reinforcement is naturally built in
  • Verbal interaction is characteristic of natural environment
  • Verbal responses can be mixed together under environmental conditions that may evoke them later

Disadvantages of NET

  • Provides fewer opportunities for repetition
  • Learner may require more structure due to attention issues, especially at the beginning of a treatment program
  • MOs/SDs may not naturally present themselves during a 2-3 hour therapy session
  • Requires more proactive planning on part of BCBA and therapists
  • Not always feasible for reinforcers to be functionally related to task or natural reinforcers may not be strong enough
  • Data collection is more challenging

Differences Between NET and DTT

Use of Naturally Occurring Stimuli Both can use instructional materials selected from the natural environment, which the learner will encounter frequently and are functionally relevant including objects needed to complete tasks, and objects from actual household locations. Stimuli in both NET and DTT are presented within the context of the natural setting. In NET this occurs naturally in DTT this requires programming.

Variation of Environments/People/Time In NET, skills are naturally targeted across a variety of places and situations to ensure the learner can use the skill functionally in multiple settings. In NET this occurs naturally in DTT this requires programming.

Interspersing of Treatment Targets SDs/Targets from multiple skill areas are intertwined within a single functional or preferred activity. This requires the learner to discriminate between different SDs thereby learning to apply the appropriate skill to the appropriate situation. In NET this occurs naturally in DTT this requires programming.

Reinforcement Use of functional reinforcers is characteristic of NET while DTT generally uses arbitrary reinforcers. However, use of functional reinforcers may not provide enough reinforcement to the learner based upon their motivation and level of difficulty for the skill being targeted. In short some learners may need to use primary or stronger secondary reinforcers within the NET program. In addition, the reinforcement schedule needs to be thinned (e.g., delayed reinforcement, token economies). Also, the Premack Principle or the First/Then, which means we’ll do the Hardest thing first and the fun thing that you want to do immediately after!


In NET therapy, BCBAs and RBTs often must prepare and plan far more than in a traditional DTT program!!! NET requires knowledge of the learner’s lessons and targets without having immediate access to the program book. Data collection is more complicated and may occur during natural breaks within a session. Therapists need to be innovative and flexible taking advantage of any unplanned situations that arise. In addition, when working with older or more socially aware learners they may react negatively to the therapist writing down data in their presence and therapists need to be cognizant of their learner’s needs and apply utmost discretion in these situations. Community outings will require that data be recorded at a later time.

NET may require pre-planning of contrived situations in order to evoke target-skills. Target lessons may not arise naturally during a session and skills need to be taught in novel situations that share common qualities or similarities but that are not identical. This prevents memorization and facilitates generalization and critical thinking skills.

Prompting Strategies

As with DTT prompting strategies will vary with the learner and that learner’s specific needs and abilities and whether or not a new skill is being taught or a mastered skill is being generalized or maintained. Another consideration when developing prompting strategies is whether or not the response needed is a rote response or conceptual target. And all of these thing will lead to whether or not a direct or an indirect prompt will be used.

Direct Prompt: Gives the correct response to the learner

Indirect Prompt: Helps guide the learner to “figure out” the correct response

With instruction, the goal is to move towards indirect prompting as the child progresses. And especially when working on generalization of mastered skills the expectation is to use indirect prompting, to draw the response from the child in such a way that they are using their own thinking process to find the correct answer. This allows the learner to further develop their critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning skills. It is simply not possible to teach learners every possible situation that may arise in the course of daily living, so it is important to teach concepts that can be applied across novel situations. This may not always be possible for learners who have greater challenges in skill acquisition and generalization, but it should always be a goal.

Indirect Prompting Strategies: Developing a Prompt Hierarchy

  • Develop a hierarchy of indirect prompts from least to most intrusive
  • Hierarchy will be dependent on the learning style of the individual
  • Utilize the weakest prompt possible
  • For advanced learners, avoid direct prompting of answers whenever possible
  • Indirect prompting strategies are frequently used within the following curriculum areas:
    • Cognition: i.e, social perspective taking, and advanced social skills
    • Executive Function: flexibility and planning, problem solving and inhibition
    • Social: social perspective taking, advanced social skills, etc.
    • Pragmatic Language: conversation, body language and non vocal social cues

Example of least to most indirect prompting hierarchy:

  1. Rephrase the question
  2. Asking leading questions/scaffolding
  3. Relating situation to previous event
  4. Drawing/using visual representation of situation
  5. Asking yes/no questions or giving a choice of responses

Applications of NET

NET activities can be implemented at all stages of an ABA intervention program and almost all learners can benefit from some type of NET within their instruction. Let’s look at what NET programs might look like at several different levels of intervention.

Early/Beginning Level – Examples

  • Mand Training (Single words /Basic frames) – Manding or requesting
  • Tact Training (Single words / Basic frames) – Commenting or labelling
  • Social Engagement (looking to adult to continue preferred activity, gain reinforcement/praise)
  • Joint Attention (following a gaze or gesture to an interesting stimulus)
  • Non-vocal Imitation (imitating silly actions)

Mid/Intermediate Level – Examples

  • Mand Training (Multiple frames / action-object-features/manding for information)
  • Tact Training (Multiple frames /action-object-features)
  • Social Engagement (looking to adult / peer to imitate action, gain information about how to respond in environment
  • Joint Attention (gaining another person’s attention to show them something novel/interesting in their environment)
  • Functions (learner gathers necessary items needed to perform a desired activity)
  • Emotions (identification and “why/because” scenarios in books and during in-vivo demonstrations)
  • Flexibility (using different objects for different uses, changing words to songs, a rule to a game)

Advanced Level – Examples

At this point, when a learner has reached this stage most of the learning will be done in the natural environment.

  • Non-vocal Communications (Therapist uses gesture to convey confusion in social situation, learner must recognize and respond, i.e., body language, gestures)
  • Pragmatic Language (maintaining conversation with peer regarding favorite movies during a hang out date)
  • Inhibition (therapist takes turns on a computer game in a different way than learner and leaner must not offer corrections)
  • Preferences (learner must pay attention and listen to therapist throughout session to discover what they want to play with)
  • Sustained Attention (learner must finish homework while they hear music playing in another room)

Guidelines When Applying Natural Environment Strategies

  • It may be helpful to implement a visual schedule of activities to provide some structure during sessions (especially if they are transitioning from a more traditionally DTT method into a NET structure)
  • Remember to use indirect prompting instead of direct prompting – be persistent
  • Avoid informational “no” for instructional purposes
  • De-emphasise “correct” verus “incorrect” responding, instead emphasize attempts to respond, for taking risks, trying new things
  • Present multiple examples to teach concepts and avoid memorization
  • Therapy should flow continuously and not separate segments of skills
  • Make data collection discrete, first to be sensitive to learners who may not appreciate data being collected on them and second so as not to disrupt the flow of the learning
  • Incorporate peers and family members
  • Incorporate popular and/or age-appropriate play activities and themes for learners
  • Make it enjoyable and be enthusiastic

When to Use NET?

When might NET strategies be appropriate to implement within a treatment program?

  1. Generalization Only – It can be used for generalization, here they are learning skills within DTT but generalizing within NET. Essentially the learner continues to require high levels of repetition to acquire new responses and the ability to acquire basic skills is still emerging (e.g., NVI, following instructions, object identification, SD rotation, etc.). In addition, learners still require a frequent schedule of reinforcement and/or remain dependent on the use of primary reinforcers (such as food/toys). Likewise, if a learner exhibits poor discrimination skills, thereby requiring systematic rotation/randomization of targets and similarly, when the learner requires a highly structured teaching format due to attendance issues
  2. New Skill Acquisition– Here the learner is either advancing within the DTT curriculum and is ready for NET or the DTT curriculum is not working for the learner and it is time to try the NET strategy.
    • NET may be used as a primary strategy for teaching once certain foundation skills are in place and complexity of skills begin to increase.
    • In contrast for learners unable to learn within the DTT environment the NET environment may function as a format for learning functional skills

Data Collection

  • In NET lessons/SDs are generally not presented in repeated mass trial
  • There are fewer opportunities for the learner to respond
  • Free operant responses can occur at any time
  • Opposed to structured discrete trials
  • It may be more informative to gather data reflecting quality rather than quantity of a response

Data Collection Options

  • Discrete Trial Data – there are still many skills that we work on within NET that are dependent upon the presence of a specific stimulus and there are multiple opportunities to respond even though the structure is more open, fluid and dynamic
  • First Trial Data – Discrete response is dependent on presence of specific stimulus (instruction, etc.). But there are fewer opportunities to respond. And I am interested in tracking that initial response over time. Examples would be responding to a gesture/non-vocal cue in a social situation or manding for cessation when a non–preferred song is being played
  • Task Analysis Data – Response is a complex skill comprised of multiple steps or behaviors, commonly used with adaptive tasks (e.g. brushing teeth, getting dressed) and joining a conversation. Any skill that involves multiple steps.
  • Likert Rating Scale – Level of independence of response, using a scale of 1-5 the therapist rates the level of independence of a response, or the level of a behavioral reaction to a situation. (A bit more subjective than some data)
  • Narrative/Anecdotal Data – A verbal or written detailed account of an event, lesson, or sessions activity
  • Rate/Duration Data – Free operating, quantity of skill, length/endurance of target skill

How do we know when something is mastered?

The BCBA will ultimately determine mastery. This being said, due to variations within lesson targets, basic DTT mastery guidelines will often not apply to NET targets. And the BCBA must consider whether or not and why in looking at:

  • Rote versus conceptual skill
  • Free operant versus discrete trial
  • Application of skill across novel stimuli

Individual mastery criteria will need to be determined dependent on the type of skill being taught and the individual characteristics of the learner

Criteria Options:

  • Percentage of opportunities over specified duration of time (ex. 90% over 10-trial)
  • First Response (ex. first trial correct across 5 sessions)
  • Task Analysis (ex 90% total accuracy across three consecutive sessions)
  • Rate/Duration (50 mands per hour across two consecutive weeks)
  • Level of response over a specified duration (likert rating scale systems)

Learn More…

Transfer of Stimulus Control – Fading Prompts

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