What is Incidental Teaching?

Based on what you’ve learned from the material on incidental teaching, in a two page (minimum) double spaced paper, describe in detail how you would implement an incidentaI teaching model in a preschool classroom with 10 children. Include: methods of target behavior identification, methods of reinforcement, and expected outcomes as a result of IT implementation.

Academic Intervention-Incidental Teaching Page | 1

Academic Intervention

Incidental Teaching

Many teachers and parents struggle with how to best teach preacademic and academic skills to young students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and ensure that the skills generalize to a variety of settings, people, and materials. Incidental teaching is a strategy that can be used to address these issues. It applies methods of applied behavior analysis to preacademic skills taught in typical preschool or home settings.

This topic introduces you to how you can teach preacademic skills such as colors, size, and shape to children with ASD in typical settings, within the daily routines. Specifically, you will learn how to apply the strategy and develop data collection methods, receive suggestions for materials to teach adjectives, read a case study, find the answers to frequently asked questions, and take a short quiz.

What is Incidental Teaching?

Incidental teaching involves structuring and sequencing educational objectives so that they occur within ongoing, typical activities and take advantage of student interests and motivation (McGee, Daly, & Jacobs, 1994). Incidental teaching uses strategies from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) to present learning objectives within typical early childhood activities, instead of sitting face to face with the child at a table in a clinical setting. Teachers arrange the environment by placing preferred toys and activities of each student within sight, but not within reach, to encourage the student to initiate teaching sessions based on preplanned learning objectives. Once the child shows an interest in the materials by gesturing or requesting an item or activity, the teacher prompts an elaboration on the initiation. The child subsequently obtains the desired item upon generating the elaboration. For example, a student may say, “barn,” to request a toy barn, followed by the teacher’s question, “what color barn?” When the student says, “red barn,” she is allowed to play with the barn for a couple of minutes. A nonverbal student might work on the skill of asking for help using a gesture. For example, the teacher could place the child’s favorite toy, a dump truck, in a plastic container that the child could not open. Once the child attempts to open the box, the teacher physically prompt him to hand the box to her for help.

There are several advantages to incidental teaching. First, it is thought that teaching within the context of typical preschool activities promotes generalization of skills (McGee, Morrier, & Daly, 1999). In addition, social initiations, a deficit of many children with ASD, are an integral part of incidental teaching. The basis for incidental teaching lies in the student initiating a teaching session. Lessons involve interactions in which the child expresses interest and the adult responds with prompts and praise.

Families are also able to integrate incidental teaching into typical daily routines by finding ways to encourage their children to elaborate during everyday activities (e.g., dinner time, outside play, bed time). For example, Johnna’s mother wants to teach her to be able to name body parts. Initially, she targets this skill during bath time, an activity Johnna enjoys, by getting the washcloth soapy and waiting for Johnna to indicate (e.g., pointing, pulling mom’s hand toward her) what part she wants washed. Her mother then prompts her to repeat the name of that part (e.g., “wash arm”).


The following are essential steps in carrying out incidental teaching:

1. The teacher or parent chooses an educational objective. Example:Labeling the letters of the alphabet.

2. The adult arranges the natural environment to promote student motivation and interest in the materials related to teaching the objective. For example, the child can see the materials, but does not have access to them, or the adult sees the child playing with a toy and gently takes the toy and plays with it. Example: Joshua enjoys puzzles. His teacher, Miss May, finds a puzzle with the letters of the alphabet. During center time while Joshua is working on puzzles, Miss May puts the puzzle on the table with the letters in a clear container that Joshua is unable to open.

3. The child shows interest in the materials through verbalization or gesture, thus initiating the teaching session. Example:Joshua points to the box and says, “letters.”

4. The adult encourages the child to elaborate on his or her initiation, based on the student’s developmental level. If the adult does not understand what item or activity the child wants, the adult first asks, “What do you want?” Ways to encourage elaborated responses include:

· Ask a question (e.g., “What color car do you want?” or, “Where is the car?”)

· Make a gesture, sound, or word (e.g., point to the blue car)

· Model the desired response (e.g., “blue car”) Example: Miss May opens the box and holds up the letter R, asking, “What letter do you want?”

5. If the child responds correctly to the prompt, the adult provides specific praise and gives the child brief access to the desired materials. Example: Joshua says, “Letter R,” so Miss May says, “That’s right! It’s the letter R!,” and allows him to put the letter in the puzzle.

6. If the child does not respond or responds incorrectly, the adult provides up to three more prompts, such as providing the necessary words. Once the child responds correctly, he or she receives specific praise and brief access to the materials. Example: Joshua repeats, “Letter,” so Miss May says, “Letter R.” Joshua repeats, “Letter R.” Miss May says, “Right, that’s R!,” and allows him to put the letter in the puzzle.

7. The adult “takes a turn” with the materials (i.e., replaces them on the shelf or plays with them, or, says, “I want the green car” and picks up the green car), The steps begin again. Example: Miss May closes the box again and waits for Joshua to say, “Letter,” or point to the box.

The incidental teaching session should end with success (i.e., child responds correctly and receives access tot he materials). The session should be brief and end once the child loses interest.

See Wetherby and Prizant’s (1989) “communicative temptations for a communication assessment” and Susan Boswell’s suggestions for “communication incentives” at http://www.teacch.com/teacchco.htm for more ideas on how to elicit communicative initiations.


To ensure that generalization takes place, evaluation should take place not only during teaching sessions, but also within other settings, with all those with whom the child communicates, and with a wide range of instructional materials. Data should be collected frequently, weekly at minimum, to make certain that the child is making progress. In some situations it would be helpful to collect data within each teaching session. If the data do not show improvement, another strategy should be considered or the method of delivery should be assessed to judge if changes are necessary.

Data Collection: Initial Lessons

When assessing a child’s skills, data should not be collected in the middle of a teaching session or the adult will be uncertain if the student truly learned the objectives or is simply displaying short-term memory skills. Instead, probe data should be used (McGee, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1985). Whereby data collection takes place before a teaching session begins and in the setting in which prior teaching has taken place. The order of presentation of the materials should be random, so the adult can be sure that the child has not simply learned a pattern of responding. The child may receive reinforcement (e.g., praise, edibles), but it should not be connected to the correctness of responses (e.g., provide praise for following directions). When collecting probe data, unlike in the middle of a teaching session when the adult would wait for the child to initiate the session by showing interest in an item with a gesture or verbalization, the adult initiates the data collection session by asking the child elaboration questions (e.g., “where is the juice?” might be asked to check for use of prepositions).

Correct responses occur when the child uses a correct elaboration spontaneously or within approximately 5 seconds of the adult’s question (McGee, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1985). For example, the child sees the cookies on the shelf and says, “I want the chocolate cookie.” The following exchanges would also be recorded as a correct response:

Example 1: Adult: “Where is the juice?” Child: “In the cup.” “On the table.”

Example 2: Adult: “What shape are the cookies?” Child: (2-second pause) “Square cookie.”

Errors are those exchanges in which the child does not respond, responds more than approximately 5 seconds after the adult’s question, or responds incorrectly (e.g., asks for a circle cookie when the cookies are squares). In the case of an error during data collection, the adult would not prompt a correct response and the child would not receive the item. It is important to keep the data collection sessions short to prevent frustration.

The following data collection sheet is useful in collecting probe data.


Data Collection: Checking for Generalization

Few skills are useful if children do not generalize their use to settings, materials, and communicative partners other than those in which the skills were initially taught. In addition to collecting data at the beginning of teaching sessions, therefore, it is essential also to collect data on the child’s generalization of the skills. Teaching and testing for generalization must be planned.

Example: Asa was initially taught colors through the use of toy trains. He previously learned how to label favorite toys and would initiate sessions by asking for “train” at free play. His teacher, Ms. Alexander, then taught him to label the colors of train cars by asking, “what color car?” until he consistently asked for “yellow train car.” To promote generalization of expressive color labeling, Ms. Alexander set up sessions using different colors of gummy bears, toy cars, blocks, and crayons. Starting with gummy bears, Asa’s favorite candy, Ms. Alexander offered them as an after lunch snack. In order to teach color labels, when Asa said, “Gummy bear, please,” Ms. Alexander asked, “What color?” Once Asa was consistently asking for, “Blue gummy bear,” the teacher moved on to working on the same skill at art time, withholding paints and crayons until Asa asked for them by saying, “Purple paint.”

Materials to teach adjective

Adjective use is one example of incidental teaching that is frequently implemented in schools and home settings. The following are some ideas for materials to use to teach adjectives. Incidental teaching may also be used to teach such objectives as nouns, verbs, pronouns, and initiating and sustaining conversations.

Colors Shapes Size

Rainbow-colored cookies

Toy train cars






Puzzle pieces

Shape lotto


Toy cars and trucks

Bear manipulatives

Pieces of favorite foods



Case Study

Eli is a 4 year-old student with pervasive developmental disorder- not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). He has a limited functional vocabulary; however, he often recites scenes from favorite storybooks and movies. He often engages in echolalia (i.e., immediately repeats words and phrases said by others). He has previously learned to request preferred foods and toys by using single words. His parents and teacher, Ms. Markin, want him to use color adjectives and targeted the color yellow, his favorite color cookie (vanilla wafers). A recent teaching session went as follows during snack time:

Ms. Markin: (holding bag of cookies, eats one) Eli: (reaching for cookie) “Cookie” Ms. Markin: “What color cookie do you want?” Eli: (reaches for cookie again) Ms. Markin: (modeling) “Yellow cookie” Eli: “Yellow cookie” Ms. Markin: (gives Eli the cookie) “Yes, that’s a yellow cookie. Great!” The next three trials went similarly with Ms. Markin providing a prompt. The following trial went as follows: Ms. Markin: (holding bag of cookies, eats one) Eli: (reaching for cookie) “Yellow cookie” Ms. Markin: (gives Eli a cookie) “Wonderful! You asked for the yellow cookie.”

Once Eli could consistently request yellow cookies without prompts, Ms. Markin and his parents added another color, again finding items that were motivating to him. For example they began teaching brown with chocolate cookies and red and blue with favorite toy cars.


Top of Form

1. Incidental teaching sessions must take place in a clinical setting, with the teacher and student seated face-to-face at a table.

True False


2. Incidental teaching applies strategies of applied behavior analysis (ABA) within typical activities.

True False


3. Incidental teaching requires that teaching sessions be designed around students’ interests.

True False


4. Who initiates incidental teaching sessions?

A. Teacher B. Student C. Administrator


5. The student can show an interest in the materials by:

A. Speaking B. Walking out of the room C. Gesturing D. A and C E. A and B

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