ERIC Identifier: ED438671
Publication Date: 1999-12-00
Author: Warger, Cynthia
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Early Childhood Instruction in the Natural Environment.
ERIC/OSEP Digest E591.
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 (Sec.
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 intervention.
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, such as
* A family-centered approach
* Compatibility with a multicultural and multiethnic perspective
* Developmentally and individually appropriate practices
* The promotion of a least intrusive approach in normalized settings.
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:
"Effective curriculum and intervention strategies include milieu strategies
(e.g., incidental teaching, mand- model procedure, 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, the procedures that are
integrated into the setting also must be effective ones.
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
* 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.
APPLYING NATURALISTIC INSTRUCTION TECHNIQUES TO PRACTICE
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?
* How should the environment be arranged?
* What is the duration and intensity of activities?
* What materials are needed and how should they be selected?
Answers to these questions should facilitate practitioners' efforts to apply
research-based procedures to their work.
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), 283-293.
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: author.
Warren, S. (1998). Back to the future? Journal of Early Intervention, 21(4),
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.