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Naturalistic Teaching is a teaching method in ABA therapy that incorporates the child’s motivation while embedding learning opportunities in their natural environment.

In an early intervention setting, naturalistic teaching is a play-based strategy that incorporates learning opportunities during play.

When looking into ABA therapy and naturalistic teaching, you may have a few questions; for example, how does naturalistic teaching ABA differ from other approaches? What are examples of naturalistic teaching strategies? What is a common characteristic of naturalistic teaching ABA, and what is an example of naturalistic teaching?

How Does Naturalistic Teaching Differ from Other ABA Approaches?

How Does Naturalistic Teaching Differ from Other ABA Approaches

With naturalistic teaching in ABA, the approach is child-friendly and child-centered. Some criticisms of other ABA approaches are that children must sit for long periods to perform therapy at a desk. In naturalistic teaching, children are often moving freely in their environment and learning through play with items that are located all around them.  While sometimes structured teaching is important, and tabletop activities are needed, in naturalistic teaching those skills are then also practiced away from the desk. The goal of a naturalistic and play-based approach is to follow the child’s lead. If they don’t like the activity or are not engaged, try to find something else. If the child demonstrates that they like a particular item or activity, find a way to practice what they are learning with that activity.

Naturalistic teaching can be compared to a more common approach to ABA called Discrete Trial Training (DTT). This approach typically involves a child sitting at a desk or table and being presented with learning opportunities, or trials. They are discrete in nature, meaning each one has a clear instruction or stimulus, expected behavior that the child will perform, and response from the ABA therapist.

Let’s compare the two approaches trying to teach the same two skills.

DTT Example 1: Teaching identifying your nose:

The therapist says, “Touch your nose.”

The child touches their nose.

The therapist says “Good work, that is your nose.”


DTT Example 2: Teaching to label a cat:

The therapist holds up a card with a cat on it and says, “What is this?”

The child says “cat.”

The therapist says “wow, you are right.”


Naturalistic Example 1: Teaching identifying your nose:

The child and therapist could play a game of Simon Says and follow the instruction to touch their nose.


Naturalistic Example 2: Teaching to label a cat:

The child and therapist are looking at a book with animals in it.

The therapist points to a cat and asks “What do you see here?”

The child says, “Cat.”

The therapist says, “It is a cat, cats say meow.”


What Are Examples of Naturalistic Teaching Strategies?

What Are Examples of Naturalistic Teaching Strategies

These strategies focus on integrating learning into the child’s natural environment. For example, if the child has just returned from a walk and needs water, an ABA therapist might use this moment to teach the client how to ask for water.

Another example is working on following safety directions to stop. The ABA therapist can work on this while transitioning to another activity instead of getting up to walking just to say “stop.” It is important for children to learn to follow directions in the context of when they will naturally occur.

Now let’s take the examples described earlier where a child is learning how to identify body parts and label animals. In a play-based naturalistic teaching arrangement, a child and therapist could be playing with stuffed animals. The therapist asks what animal the child is holding, and they label cat. They could then point to the cat’s nose and ask the child to point to their nose next.

What Is a Common Characteristic of Naturalistic Teaching ABA?

One of the most common characteristics of naturalistic teaching is how the learning takes place. With naturalistic education in ABA, the goal is to apply ABA therapeutic techniques within the child’s natural environment, whether at home, school, the grocery store, or any space the child frequents.

Ultimately, the goal is to implement learning opportunities in a way that is, just as the name sounds, more natural for the child. So, think about early learners. The goal with early learners is to teach learning through play. Most children are learning through exploring toys in their environment. Embedding opportunities to teach and practice a new skill while engaging with toys or other items that they find fun and exciting makes learning fun and child-centered.

What are some Examples of ABA Goals that can be Taught Using Naturalistic Teaching?

  • Requesting: preferred items, activities, turn-taking
  • Labeling: preferred items, activities, actions, items in their environment
  • Following directions
  • Social skills
  • Daily living skills
  • And more!

Most importantly, teaching in a naturalistic way leads to generalization of skills, and skills that last over time once the child leaves the direct teaching environment.

Conclusion: How is Naturalistic Teaching Used in ABA?

Naturalistic teaching is a teaching method that uses items and activities in the child’s natural environments to make learning fun and assist with generalization. The learning takes place with the materials or in the setting where the child will perform the skill, not only making the teaching more interactive but also making the skills easier to generalize outside of the teaching setting.

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  • Chrissy Barosky, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA (MA, TX, UT), LBA (RI)

    Chrissy Barosky, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA (MA, TX, UT), LBA (RI), joined Bierman ABA in 2013 as a Behavior Analyst and is now the Chief Clinical Officer. Chrissy has been working in the field of ABA as a practicing Behavior Analyst since 2008, and before that in the field of developmental disabilities since 2005. Prior to working in the center based setting at Bierman ABA Chrissy worked in home based ABA settings, consultation in schools and as a special educator. In addition to overseeing all clinical operations at Bierman ABA, Chrissy is also Adjunct Faculty at Simmons University and Endicott College where she teaches masters level courses on verbal behavior, behavior analytic methodologies and organizational behavior management (OBM). Chrissy obtained her bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University in Human Services, her masters degree from Columbia University in Applied Behavior Analysis and Education, and completed her Doctorate in Behavior Analysis at Simmons University. Chrissy’s research interests are in Verbal Behavior, specifically in early language acquisition and how it ties into joint attention, and staff training and its impact on client outcomes. Chrissy has presented at a variety of local and national conferences including the Association for Behavior Analysis International.

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