Methods and Strategies: Incidental Teaching

Dr. Gail McGee, director of Emory University’s Walden Program for children with autism, describes incidental teaching as “a systematic protocol of instruction that is provided in the context of natural environments” (McGee, 1999). Incidental teaching evolved from the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which has developed a form of language instruction that works well for many children with autism. Incidental teaching has the same principles of learning as found in discrete trial training, following the same technical conditions:

• The intervention is composed of operant conditioning techniques;
• The intervention goals are socially significant; and
• The intervention results are analyzed objectively by assessing each child’s progress
before, during, and after the intervention.

The Walden Program, which was developed using incidental teaching includes a strong family training component, as well as planned environmental arrangement to illicit communication.

• A natural environment is arranged to attract children to desired materials and activities
• The child “initiates” the teaching process by indicating an interest in an item or topic
• The teacher uses the child’s initiation as an opportunity to prompt an elaboration
• The child’s correct response to the teacher’s prompt results in a confirming response,
then contingent access to the item/topic of interest.

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