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Early Childhood Instruction
in the Natural Environment
The ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC/OSEP Digest #E591
Author: Cynthia Warger
Consistent with the concept of education in the least restrictive
environment, the IDEA Amendments of 1997 require states to ensure
that, to the maximum extent appropriate, early intervention
services to infants and toddlers under 3 years of age are
provided in natural environments, such as the home and community
settings in which children without disabilities participate.
Services may be provided elsewhere only if early intervention
cannot be achieved in a natural environment (Sec. 303.167(c)). In
addition, each individualized family service plan (IFSP) must
contain a statement of the natural environments in which services
are to be provided and a justification of the extent, if any, to
which the services will not be provided in a natural environment
In the field, instruction in the natural environment is
considered by a growing number of early childhood researchers and
practitioners to be an effective approach for delivering
interventions to young children with disabilities. Instruction in
the natural environment makes use of typically occurring events,
activities, and consequences as a context in which to teach
specific skills. The instructional context consists of routine
events and everyday activities in a variety of settings.
Typically, interactions between the child and adult are
characterized as following the child's lead or capitalizing on
the child's interest and engagement. The consequences of the
child's behavior are utilized as reinforcement. Functional
skills(particularly language(are a common focus of
A Recommended Practice
In 1993, the Division for Early Childhood (DEC), of the Council
for Exceptional Children identified indicators of quality
programs for infants and young children with special needs and
their families. DEC espoused the position that effective
practices should have a research base that documents positive
results for young children with disabilities. They also should
reflect program characteristics that are valued by the field,
Instruction in the natural environment, along with other
curriculum and intervention strategies, was recommended by DEC as
an effective practice as shown in the following indicator:
- A family-centered approach
- Compatibility with a multicultural and multiethnic
- Developmentally and individually appropriate practices
- The promotion of a least intrusive approach in normalized
"Effective curriculum and intervention strategies
include milieu strategies (e.g., incidental teaching, mand-model
procedures, modeling, and naturalistic time delay) that involve
brief interactions between adults and children." [Wolery &
Sainator, p. 59]
DEC presented the indicators with the hope that educators would
find out more about the recommended strategies, know when and how
to use them, and know how to make adjustments in their use.
DEC also cautioned that the practices cited in the document
should be understood to reflect the state of the art of early
intervention as it existed in 1993. The authors encouraged
researchers and practitioners to periodically review each
recommended practice for validity and soundness.
This digest reviews what we have learned from recent research
about delivering instruction in the natural environment. It draws
heavily upon research syntheses by Santos and Lignugaris/Kraft
(1997) and of Rule, Losardo, Dinnebeil, Kaiser, and Rowland
(1998). Practitioners are encouraged to use these findings to
enhance their practice when delivering instruction in a natural
Delivering Effective Instruction in the Natural
Much of the research to date has focused on validating specific
natural-environment approaches, including incidental teaching,
coincidental teaching, time delay, mand-modeling procedures,
activity-based intervention, and milieu teaching. The research
has focused on interaction formats and instructional strategies
that produce successful outcomes when they are integrated into
the natural environment. Results have underscored the fact that
just using the natural environment is not enough
procedures that are integrated into the setting also must be
For example, in a synthesis of the research, Santos and
Lignugaris/Kraft examined 28 studies from an effective teaching
perspective(i.e., whether they (a) included instructional plans
including goals, objectives, and activities; (b) established a
learning set by reviewing earlier materials or assessing
prerequisite skills necessary for the day's learning; (c)
presented new material and provided guided practice; (d) provided
opportunities for independent practice; and (e) monitored and
evaluated progress. Overall, the researchers found that effective
instruction in natural environments is beneficial to some
children, under some conditions, and for some skills. They
identified the following practices as ones that contribute to the
success of instruction in natural environments.
Applying Naturalistic Instruction Techniques to
- Review and requisite skills. Program staff should use a
learning set prior to instruction to reinforce requisite skills
and build instructional momentum for difficult tasks. The effect
of reinforcing performance on known skills may reduce errors and
promote the child's interest in the interaction, which ultimately
may increase the child's interest and engagement in the activity.
- Presentation of new material and guided practice. Higher
interaction rates lead to higher levels of task engagement. When
presenting new material, adults should ensure that instructional
arrangements include situations in which the children must
respond (obligatory responding). The adult should move quickly
from obligatory to nonobligatory responding so that the child
does not learn to depend on the adult's prompt. These
instructional arrangements should promote numerous response
opportunities with clear criteria for reinforcement.
- Maintenance and generalization. Adults should provide
opportunities for children to independently use the skills they
have acquired. Providing additional opportunities to
independently practice newly acquired skills may produce more
fluent repertoires of skills that will be maintained and will
generalize to new situations, settings, and people.
In an analysis of the literature on instruction in natural
environments, Rule and her colleagues addressed issues raised
when procedures are translated from research to practice. They
determined that there are many procedural variations in the
techniques described in different studies, and it can be
difficult to apply the study technique exactly. Rule and her
colleagues suggest this may explain why there still remain many
unanswered questions about the role that particular adult and
child behaviors play in producing desired results.
Program staff need to know what the procedures are and how they
should be applied, as well as the level of implementation
required to produce the desired outcome. To this end, Rule and
her colleagues have provided guidelines that practitioners (and
researchers) might use to investigate recommended approaches.
Practitioners should ask:
- What is the nature of the target behavior (i.e., the
behavior that we want the child to demonstrate)?
- How many target behaviors are to be taught?
- When and how should training trials be introduced?
- Who initiates the teaching transactions?
- What antecedents and consequences should be used?
- What is the role of corrective feedback?
Answers to these questions should facilitate practitioners'
efforts to apply research-based procedures to their work.
- How should the environment be arranged?
- What is the duration and intensity of activities?
- What materials are needed and how should they be
Instruction in the natural environment requires significant
planning. It should have clear, observable goals and reflect the
principles of effective instructional practice. As researcher
Steven Warren (1998) reminds us, these procedures "were developed
because they can be embedded in the stream of ongoing interaction
and can effectively accelerate the development of certain skills
if they are used frequently, with fidelity, and within the
child's zone of proximal development."
Instruction in natural environments promotes child-focused,
age-appropriate target skills. In addition to a growing research
base, there is another more basic advantage to using instruction
in the natural environment. Philosophically, its use is
consistent with inclusionary practices. This is an important
consideration, especially since during the 1995-96 school year,
51.6 percent of children ages 3-5 with disabilities were served
in regular classes (U.S. Department of Education, 1998), where
they are expected to learn daily routines and activities in
natural or least restrictive environments.
The natural environment offers practitioners and children a
variety of opportunities to teach and learn important skills.
Research continues to help ensure that this practice is used to
its greatest potential.
Rule, S., Losardo, A., Dinnebeil, L., Kaiser, A., & Rowland, C.
(1998). Translating research on naturalistic instruction into
practice. Journal of Early Intervention, 21(4),
Santos, R., & Lingnugaris/Kraft, B. (1997). Integrating research
on effective instruction with instruction in the natural
environment for young children with disabilities.
Exceptionality, 7(2), 97-129.
U.S. Department of Education (1998). To assure the free and
appropriate education of all children with disabilities:
Twentieth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC:
Warren, S. (1998). Back to the future? Journal of Early
Intervention, 21(4), 297-298.
Wolery, M., & Sainato, D. (1993). General curriculum and
intervention strategies. In Division for Early Children, Council
for Exceptional Children (Ed.), DEC recommended practices:
Indicators of quality in programs for infants and young children
with special needs and their families. Denver, CO: author.
ERIC/OSEP Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This digest was prepared with funding from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0026. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OSEP or the Department of Education.
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