Incidental teaching involves manipulating a student’s environment to promote the natural use of educational objectives.  While it can be used for a variety of language goals, incidental teaching is particularly effective in promoting initiation.  Incidental teaching can be looked at as having four main features:

  1. The environment is arranged to set occasion for student response
  2. Teacher waits
  3. If necessary, student is prompted
  4. Student response

The reinforcer is whatever the child needs or wants, such as crayons, juice, or a toy.  Incidental teaching contrasts with discrete trial teaching, in that while the one encourages responses, the other expects it.  Each has its place, and each is better at teaching different skills.

Planning, prompting, and waiting are three critical aspects of incidental teaching.  Planning may start with an observation of  a child’s current initiation level, as well as determining child’s unique interests.  Ways that low functioning children initiate include looking at desired objects, moving toward them, pointing, grabbing, or taking care-giver’s hand.  When prompting, the child should be encouraged to produce a slightly more complex language skill than the current ability, using a developmental hierarchy.  When waiting, 3-5 seconds between the event and response is often the most effective interval between prompts.

Incidental teaching is often thought of as “sabotaging the environment.”  Some specific examples of how to do this include…

  • controlling access to materials
  • using items of special interest
  • setting up repetitive routines
  • starting a favorite activity, and then stopping
  • looking at materials, then student, then pausing

Much of my information comes from a seminar presented at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association 2008 convention by the New England Center for Children.  Their website is here.  Additional information can be found at the Interactive Collaborative Autism Network.