What is Incidental Teaching in ABA Therapy?

Discover the power of incidental teaching in ABA therapy. Boost learning through child-initiated interactions and natural environment teaching.

Understanding Incidental Teaching in ABA Therapy

In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, incidental teaching is an approach that promotes learning within natural environments and everyday situations. This section will provide an overview of what incidental teaching is and delve into the definition and principles that guide its practice.

What is Incidental Teaching?

Incidental teaching is a teaching method that aims to facilitate learning by capitalizing on naturally occurring opportunities in a person's environment. It involves taking advantage of the individual's interests and motivations to promote skill acquisition. Rather than using a structured and direct teaching approach, incidental teaching allows for teaching moments to arise naturally.

By observing and engaging with the individual, therapists and caregivers can identify moments where they can prompt and reinforce desired behaviors or skills. These teaching opportunities are embedded within the person's ongoing activities and interactions, making learning more meaningful and relevant to their daily life.

The Definition and Principles of Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching is grounded in several key principles that guide its implementation. These principles can be summarized as follows:

  1. Natural Environment Teaching (NET): Incidental teaching emphasizes teaching within the individual's natural environment, such as their home, school, or community. By utilizing familiar settings, the individual can easily generalize and transfer the skills they learn to various contexts.
  2. Child-Initiated Interactions: Incidental teaching encourages the individual to take the lead in initiating interactions and activities. By following the individual's interests and motivations, therapists and caregivers can create meaningful learning opportunities that are engaging and relevant to the person.
  3. Prompts and Reinforcements: Prompting and reinforcement play crucial roles in incidental teaching. Prompting involves providing cues or hints to prompt the individual to engage in a targeted behavior or skill. Reinforcement, such as praise or rewards, is used to strengthen and increase the likelihood of the desired behavior or skill occurring in the future.

By incorporating these principles, incidental teaching harnesses the power of naturalistic learning, promoting skill acquisition, generalization, and independence. To explore practical examples of incidental teaching in ABA therapy, refer to their article on incidental teaching examples in ABA.

Understanding the concept and principles of incidental teaching is essential for both ABA therapists and caregivers. By embracing this approach, they can create an environment that fosters learning, promotes independence, and enhances communication and social skills. To learn more about the benefits of incidental teaching and how it is implemented, continue reading the subsequent sections of this article.

The Components of Incidental Teaching

To fully understand incidental teaching in ABA therapy, it's important to explore its key components. These components include Natural Environment Teaching (NET), Child-Initiated Interactions, and the use of Prompts and Reinforcements.

Natural Environment Teaching (NET)

Natural Environment Teaching (NET) is a fundamental component of incidental teaching in ABA therapy. It involves creating a learning environment that resembles natural, everyday situations rather than relying solely on structured teaching sessions. NET aims to promote learning in a context that is relevant and meaningful to the individual.

In NET, the therapist or caregiver sets up the environment to encourage opportunities for learning. For example, if a child is working on language skills, the environment may include books, toys, or objects that spark their interest. By incorporating these elements, the child is more likely to engage in learning activities naturally.

Child-Initiated Interactions

Child-Initiated Interactions are an essential aspect of incidental teaching. This component focuses on allowing the child to take the lead in initiating interactions and activities. By following the child's interests and preferences, therapists and caregivers can create meaningful learning opportunities.

During child-initiated interactions, the adult provides support and guidance based on the child's interests. For example, if a child shows interest in a toy car, the therapist might engage in play with the child using the car as a tool for teaching language or social skills. This approach encourages active engagement and increases the child's motivation to learn.

Prompts and Reinforcements

Prompts and reinforcements play a vital role in incidental teaching. Prompts are cues or instructions provided to the child to assist them in completing a specific task or activity. The level of prompt used can vary depending on the child's current skill level. The goal is to gradually fade prompts over time, promoting independence and self-initiation.

Reinforcements are rewards or positive consequences that follow appropriate behaviors or successful completion of tasks. They serve as motivators to encourage the child's engagement and participation. Reinforcements can be verbal praise, tokens, or preferred items or activities. The use of reinforcements helps to reinforce desired behaviors and increases the likelihood of their recurrence.

By incorporating Natural Environment Teaching, Child-Initiated Interactions, and the strategic use of Prompts and Reinforcements, incidental teaching in ABA therapy provides an effective framework for teaching and promoting skill development. This approach allows for learning in natural contexts, encourages child engagement, and provides the necessary support and reinforcement for progress. 

How Incidental Teaching Works in Practice

To effectively implement incidental teaching in ABA therapy, it is essential to understand how it works in practice. This section will explore the key steps involved in utilizing incidental teaching techniques: setting up the environment, following the child's lead, and prompting and prompt fading.

Setting Up the Environment

Creating an environment conducive to incidental teaching is crucial for maximizing learning opportunities. The environment should be arranged to promote engagement and encourage the child to initiate interactions. Here are some strategies for setting up the environment:

  • Organize materials: Arrange materials and toys in an organized and accessible manner, ensuring that they are within the child's reach. This allows for easy exploration and encourages independent play.
  • Minimize distractions: Reduce or eliminate distractions that may divert the child's attention from learning opportunities. Create a calm and focused environment to enhance engagement.
  • Provide visual cues: Use visual cues, such as visual schedules or labels, to help the child understand the expectations and routines within the environment. Visual supports can facilitate communication and increase independence.

Following the Child's Lead

Incidental teaching relies on following the child's lead to identify natural learning opportunities. By observing the child's interests and actions, therapists can target specific goals and skills within the context of the child's preferred activities. Here's how to follow the child's lead effectively:

  • Observe and wait: Observe the child's actions and interests without interrupting or intervening immediately. This allows the therapist to identify the child's preferences and identify potential teaching moments.
  • Join in and expand: Once a natural learning opportunity is identified, join in the child's play or interaction. Expand on the activity by introducing additional vocabulary, concepts, or skills related to the child's focus of interest.
  • Provide choices: Offer choices within the child's play or activities to promote decision-making skills and provide opportunities for the child to initiate interactions.

Prompting and Prompt Fading

Prompting is an essential component of incidental teaching to support the child's learning and help them acquire new skills. Initially, prompts are provided to guide the child towards the desired response. However, the goal is to gradually fade prompts, enabling the child to respond independently. Here's how prompting and prompt fading work:

  • Use prompts strategically: Provide prompts, such as verbal cues, gestures, or physical guidance, to prompt the child's response. The type and level of prompt given should match the child's current skill level and gradually decrease over time.
  • Prompt fading: Once the child demonstrates consistent success with a prompted response, begin to fade the prompts gradually. This involves reducing the level of assistance, fading verbal prompts to whispers, or using visual cues instead of physical guidance. The ultimate aim is for the child to respond independently without prompts.

By setting up the environment to facilitate learning, following the child's lead, and utilizing appropriate prompts and prompt fading techniques, therapists can effectively implement incidental teaching in ABA therapy. This approach promotes active engagement, enhances learning opportunities, and fosters the development of communication and social skills. 

The Benefits of Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching, as a technique used in ABA therapy, offers several benefits for individuals receiving treatment. By incorporating the principles of incidental teaching, therapists can promote generalization of skills, increase independence and self-initiation, and enhance communication and social skills.

Promoting Generalization of Skills

One of the key benefits of incidental teaching is its ability to promote the generalization of skills. Generalization refers to the application of learned skills in various settings, with different people, and in different contexts. In ABA therapy, incidental teaching takes place in natural environments, such as home or school, providing opportunities for individuals to practice their skills in real-life situations.

By using incidental teaching, therapists can help individuals transfer and apply the skills they have learned in therapy sessions to their everyday lives. This promotes a more comprehensive and functional understanding of the skills, enabling individuals to use them in a variety of situations. 

Increasing Independence and Self-Initiation

Incidental teaching also focuses on increasing independence and self-initiation. By following the child's lead and allowing them to make choices and decisions, individuals are encouraged to take an active role in their learning process. This approach fosters independence and empowers individuals to initiate interactions and seek assistance when needed.

Through incidental teaching, individuals learn to self-advocate, make choices, and problem-solve independently. This promotes a sense of autonomy and self-confidence, which are essential for their overall development and success. For more information on promoting independence through incidental teaching, check out their article on promoting independence through incidental teaching.

Enhancing Communication and Social Skills

Incidental teaching offers valuable opportunities for enhancing communication and social skills. By setting up the environment to encourage interactions and following the child's lead, therapists can create natural opportunities for individuals to practice their communication and socialization skills.

In an incidental teaching approach, individuals are motivated to communicate their needs, wants, and preferences. By responding to their communication attempts and providing positive reinforcement, therapists can encourage and reinforce effective communication strategies. This helps individuals develop and refine their language skills, social interactions, and problem-solving abilities. 

The benefits of incidental teaching in ABA therapy extend beyond these three areas, as each individual's progress is unique. However, by promoting generalization of skills, increasing independence and self-initiation, and enhancing communication and social skills, incidental teaching plays a vital role in supporting individuals with their overall development and progress in therapy.

Implementing Incidental Teaching at Home or School

When it comes to incorporating incidental teaching into daily routines, collaboration with ABA therapists, creating opportunities for incidental teaching, and maintaining consistency with reinforcement are key factors to consider.

Collaborating with ABA Therapists

Collaboration with ABA therapists is crucial for successful implementation of incidental teaching at home or school. ABA therapists have the expertise and experience to guide parents, caregivers, and educators in effectively applying incidental teaching strategies. They can provide insights into identifying appropriate teaching opportunities, selecting targets for intervention, and tailoring teaching methods to the individual needs of the child.

Working closely with ABA therapists ensures a cohesive approach to incidental teaching and allows for ongoing assessment and adjustment of teaching strategies. Regular communication and collaboration with the therapist can help address any challenges or concerns that may arise during the implementation process. 

Creating Opportunities for Incidental Teaching

Creating a supportive environment that fosters incidental teaching opportunities is essential. Both at home and in school, it's important to set up the environment in a way that encourages the child's exploration and engagement. Provide a variety of materials, toys, and activities that align with the child's interests and developmental goals.

Encourage child-initiated interactions by following their lead and interests. Observe their play and engage in activities that naturally arise from their choices. By capitalizing on these moments, you can incorporate teaching opportunities that are meaningful and relevant to the child. This approach enhances motivation and increases the child's active participation in their own learning.

Consistency and Reinforcement

Consistency is key when implementing incidental teaching. It is important to establish a consistent routine and environment to help the child generalize their skills across different settings and situations. Consistency in providing prompts, cues, and reinforcements ensures that the child understands the expectations and is motivated to engage in learning opportunities.

Reinforcement plays a vital role in incidental teaching. It helps to strengthen desired behaviors and increases the likelihood of their recurrence. Reinforcements can be in the form of verbal praise, tokens, or other preferred items or activities. By consistently providing positive reinforcement for the child's efforts and achievements, you create a positive learning environment that encourages their active participation and engagement.

Remember that collaboration with ABA therapists, creating a supportive environment, and maintaining consistency with reinforcement are all important aspects of successful implementation of incidental teaching at home or school. By incorporating these strategies, you can effectively support the child's learning and development.


Is incidental teaching only used in ABA therapy for children with autism?

No, while incidental teaching is frequently utilized in ABA therapy for children with autism, it can also be used to teach new skills to individuals with other developmental disabilities.

Can parents use incidental teaching at home with their child?

Yes, parents can use incidental teaching at home with their child. By taking advantage of everyday opportunities to teach new skills, parents can help their child learn and generalize those skills to other settings.

Does incidental teaching replace traditional structured teaching methods?

No, incidental teaching should not replace traditional structured teaching methods entirely. Instead, it should be used as a supplement to these methods to help the child learn new skills in a natural and meaningful context.

How long does it typically take for a child to learn a new skill through incidental teaching?

The amount of time it takes for a child to learn a new skill through incidental teaching varies depending on the complexity of the skill and the child's individual learning style. However, research has shown that using naturalistic methods like incidental teaching can lead to more rapid acquisition of skills compared to traditional structured approaches.


In conclusion, incidental teaching is a naturalistic teaching method that involves taking advantage of everyday opportunities to teach a child a new skill. It is a highly effective method for teaching a wide range of skills, including communication, social skills, self-help skills, and academic skills. By using incidental teaching, therapists can help children with autism and other developmental disabilities to learn new skills in a natural and meaningful context, while also increasing their motivation and engagement in learning.







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