Incidental Teaching

Have you ever built learning opportunities into your child’s daily routine? If so, you are using a teaching method called incidental teaching and it occurs around your child all of the time. Incidental teaching is one of the five ABA instructional/educational methods for teaching new skills. Incidental teaching is an effective and popular teaching method for many parents and teachers because it occurs in the child’s natural environment which can promote generalization of skills.          By definition, incidental teaching is embedding learning opportunities in ongoing, everyday activities with a focus on the child’s interests and initiations. Incidental teaching follows six guiding principles which include:

  1. Teaching in the natural environment in settings that will maintain the newly acquired verbal skills.
  2. The time incidental teaching is used is throughout the child’s day, naturally, and by everyone involved.
  3. Incidental teaching trains loosely which means it is a non-intensive teaching style where you take advantage of reinforcers selected by the child. You also use a variety of materials.
  4. There are indiscriminable contingencies which makes it different from discrete trial teaching. The child cannot distinguish whether the next response will give them reinforcement. This also helps with maintenance and generalization of skills.
  5. Generalization!! Incidental teaching promotes generalization of skills better than all other instructional teaching methods because you train loosely from the start.
  6. Increases language use/verbal skills because incidental teaching uses MOs (motivating operations: what your child is motivated for at the time) to build verbal skills to request items.

To use incidental teaching, you should select one of your child’s goals to teach/generalize to the natural environment. This could be a goal selected from your child’s treatment plan. Next, identify times throughout your child’s day that you will target the skill using incidental teaching. Be sure to follow your child’s lead and interests at that time. You will use their interest to establish an MO (motivating operation) to increase the chance they will use the skill. For example, during playtime with your child you are completing a puzzle with her. The puzzle is almost complete and you withhold the last piece until your child requests “puzzle piece please.” Incidental teaching a great way to teach language/verbal skills! Here are some more examples:

  • You are pushing your child on a swing outside and you stop and hold him at the top of a push until they request “push.”
  • You place your child’s favorite car on top of a high shelf that he can see but can’t reach. You wait until your child says “I want the car please” to give him the car.
  • Your child is thirsty, and you leave an empty cup on the table so she can request “water.”

Every child is different. Incidental teaching can be done with individuals who are verbal or nonverbal. If your child has limited language skills, he or she can use pictures or gestures to communicate. Some children may be able to use full sentences and some only one or two words. Incidental teaching is an effective and fun way to teach your child new skills!

Premack Principle

The Premack Principle, a big fancy name for something that is quite simple. So, what is it? The Premack Principle is a behavior change procedure that creates the opportunity for an individual to engage in a high-probability behavior once the occurrence of a low-probability behavior is complete. The reason this procedure is successful is because the high-probability behavior will serve as a reinforcer for the low-probability behavior.

A high-probability behavior is something the individual is more likely to do because it is preferred or reinforcing to them. A low-probability behavior is something the individual is less likely to do because it is undesirable or a non-preferred activity to them. For example, a high probability behavior may be watching TV and a low probability behavior may be brushing teeth. Keep in mind that these behaviors will be unique to each individual.

You have probably even used this behavior procedure before, or someone has with your child. It is a commonly used behavior strategy that you may not know you are using but now you have a name for it. How is it used? Anytime you use a first/then statement you are implementing the Premack Principle, simple as that! Remember you want the high-probability behavior (something they are more likely to do because it’s reinforcing) to serve as a reinforcer to the low-probability behavior (something they are less likely to do) so you will state the low-probability behavior first. For example, first put on your coat, then play outside. Another way you could use this procedure would be to say “When/then.” For example, “When you finish cleaning your room, then you can play on the computer.”

You can think of the Premack Principle as a way to structure your child’s schedule with a good balance of preferred and non-preferred activities to help your child be successful throughout the day. Sometimes too many non-preferred activities in a row before getting to engage in a preferred activity can increase challenging behavior. You may say to yourself, this sounds a lot like bribery. The Premack Principle should be used systematically and consistently, and always for the benefit of the child not for the adult, which in turn makes your requests not bribes. It is a way to motivate your child to complete tasks they may not want to do. It is important that you allow your child to engage in the high-probability behavior right after the low-probability behavior as you state so it can serve as a reinforcer to him or her. If you are looking for a simple and effective way to increase compliance with your child and balance his or her schedule, give the Premack Principle a go! Here are other examples:

  • First do three math problems, then play with toys.
  • When you are done putting your dishes in the sink, you can watch a show.
  • Once you finish reading this page, you can play a game.
  • First pick up cars, then listen to music.

Measuring Behavior: The Power of Data Collection

In applied behavior analysis, data drives each decision we make. Without data, we are simply making our best guess with the information we have at hand. Often these guesses are based on our own opinion and contain subjective information derived from how we “feel” things are going. Data allows us to make objective decisions based on quantifiable information.  When data is objective, it removes one’s opinion and makes the data more accurate. It is important that we make changes based on accurate information in order to support effective behavioral change. 

Data isn’t something that’s only meant for scientists. Many fields and professionals use data including doctors, pharmacists, mechanics, teachers, and business owners. In reality, most of us analyze, search, find patterns, and make predictions with information in our everyday lives. Data is everywhere and it often drives the decisions we make without us even knowing it.

Let’s look at some examples of how we use data everyday: 

  • Checking the weather to determine what to wear for the day
  • Making a grocery list to determine what you need from the store
  • Following a recipe
  • Keeping a food log
  • Using a device to track exercise, sleep, and mood

In applied behavior analysis, we use data to measure behavior change. The goal of any behavior analysis program is to change behavior. Behavior analysts measure the effect of interventions on behavior. Once an intervention is put in place, behavior analysts watch for a decrease in problem behavior and an increase in positive behavior. The only way we know this change is occurring is with data collection. Chances are, you have been asked to complete this very important task of data collection. 

Data collection is a core part of your child’s therapy program. Data is collected each time your child has a therapy session. You might even be asked to collect data outside of therapy sessions depending on your child’s goals. Data may be collected on your child’s behaviors, new skills, treatment goals, potty, social skills, sleep, or eating patterns. What behaviors and skills are tracked and the type of data collection used is specific to your child’s plan. 

There are numerous types of data collection some of which you might be familiar with and some that might be new to you. Anytime you are asked to collect data or when data is shared with you, your child’s consultant will train you on collection and interpretation. Below are different types of data collection that may be used by your child’s team or that you might be asked to collect.

  • Frequency: the number of times a behavior or response occurs.
  • Duration: the length of time from start to stop that a behavior or response occurs.
  • Latency: the length of time from the instruction to the start of the behavior.
  • Intensity/Magnitude: the degree to which the behavior is happening. What is the impact of the behavior?
  • ABC Recording: Descriptive information about the antecedent, behavior, and consequence when observing a behavior. The antecedent occurs before the behavior and triggers it. The consequence is what happened after the behavior including how others responded. 
Date/Time Activity Antecedent Behavior Consequence


  • Per Opportunity: When the opportunity arises for your child to engage in a particular behavior, skill, or response does your child complete it or not. 

In conclusion, data collection is a very important piece to your child’s therapy program. Data collection is not only used to track problem behavior, but also data is collected on your child’s new skills, goals, and other adaptive behaviors. Data collection helps us to know if treatment is working. With data collection, it becomes easier for professionals to understand behavior patterns and the progress of the individual. In the end, data collection can be viewed as the most important part of your child’s treatment program because without it, effective treatment would not be able to take place. Data collection is the foundation for decision making with one’s treatment and supports your child’s success. Now let’s take some data!


  • Bears, K. Johnson, C., Handen, B., Butter, E., Lecavalier, L., Smith, T., Seahill, L. (2018). Parent training for disruptive behavior; the RUBI autism network, parent workbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 
  • Cooper, J. Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed). New Jersey: Pearson Education.
  • Kansas Institute for Positive Behavior Support, University of Kansas. 

Autism and the Holidays: 5 Helpful Strategies to Increase Success and Joy!

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is a joyful and stressful time for many. For families of individuals on the autism spectrum, the holiday may prove to have some unique challenges. It is important for families of individuals with autism to consider these challenges and plan ahead in hopes to lessen the stressful times and increase success and joy for everyone. Let’s review some helpful strategies that you might consider implementing this holiday season.

1. The Importance of the schedule

Individuals with autism thrive on a consistent and predictable schedule. When the schedule is disrupted, problem behavior may occur. While your holiday season is likely to be less structured, it can be helpful to create a schedule and remain consistent with following it. Following a consistent schedule, may reduce problem behavior. Keeping consistent wake up times, bedtimes, mealtimes, and activities throughout the day will help ensure your child’s schedule is consistent and predictable. Your child may need a visual and preparation (e.g. visual schedule, calendar) of any changes to the schedule. If your child is receiving therapy, it is important to keep therapy appointments throughout the season. 

2. Preparation for new events and changes

With the holiday season brings a time of new events and changes to the schedule and environment. These changes may be difficult for an individual with autism. Preparation for these changes it key! Preparation for new events and changes can be done in a variety of ways and should begin weeks to days in advance from the change. Some individuals may need a visual schedule or calendar that includes new events and changes that will occur. To prepare the individual, the schedule may need to be reviewed several times. Other times, a script may need to be reviewed, modeled, and practiced with the individual so they feel prepared. If you are traveling, preparation should occur. While traveling, pack your child’s favorite things to have available to keep them busy during the flight (e.g. favorite snacks, toys). It may be helpful to have your child walk around the airport in advance to get used to the environment. 

3. Parties, Parties, and More Parties: Less might be More!

Holiday parties bring many people, noises, and extra distractions that may be difficult for an individual with autism. It is important to know your child’s limits and gradually extend the amount of time spent at a party. It may be helpful to practice this situation with your child prior to attending a party by using a script. With a script you can help to prepare your child on what to expect at the party and how your child should act. You can prepare scenarios that include how to greet others, how to engage in activities, as well as what to do and where your child should go if he or she feels overwhelmed. When your child begins to feel overwhelmed, encourage your child to communicate he or she needs a break and allow your child to go to an area they find reinforcing to take a break. Asking your child to stay at the entire party might be too much at first. Reinforcing small amounts of time and then increasing the time might be the right way to go. Being successful for achieving small steps to the end goal should be celebrated!

4. Connect with your Community

During the holiday season your community may offer additional resources, support, and activities for children with autism. Your community can be a great resource during this time. Many communities offer special and free events or activities for families of children who have autism spectrum disorders. These events provide safe and understanding environments as well as a time for families who are going through similar situations to connect with one another. To find out more information about activities in your area, it can be helpful to connect with local autism groups. 

5. Reinforcement

With all the newness and change the holiday season brings, it will be important to continue to support your child’s behavior and celebrate his or her successes. If your child has a behavior plan it will be important to continue to follow it during this time. Keep in mind the ABC’s (antecedent, behavior, consequence) of behavior. The antecedent comes before behavior and triggers it and the consequence is how you or others respond to the behavior. Keep track of behaviors and note any new behaviors that occur. When your child engages in new appropriate behavior and other behaviors that you want to see, provide reinforcement. When your child is successful in a new situation or at a party, provide reinforcement. Reinforcement may occur as praise, physical (e.g. high fives, hugs, pat on the back), or tangible items (e.g. toys, trinkets, activities, privileges).  Reinforcing the behaviors that you do want to see, will increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. 

We hope that these strategies will help your child to be successful this holiday season and that your family experiences less stress and more joy that comes with the celebration of your child’s successes. Have a wonderful holiday season!


  • Holiday tips. Retrieved from
  • Bears, K., Johnson, C., Handen, B., Butter, E., Lecavalier, L., Smith, T., & Scahill, L. (2018). Parent training for disruptive behavior: the RUBI autism network, parent workbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed). New Jersey: Pearson Education. 


Reinforcement is an important component to learning new skills and behaviors. While some reinforcement is contrived, much reinforcement occurs naturally in our everyday lives. We most often don’t even recognize that it is occurring. Reinforcement occurs when there is a stimulus change immediately following a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar situations. More simply put, reinforcement is a process that occurs after the behavior and helps us to learn new skills because it strengthens it.
Reinforcement is part of what we call operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is simply one way we learn, and we learn through either reinforcement or punishment. Let’s look at some examples of naturally occurring reinforcement.

  • A baby reaches her hands towards the mobile and it moves.
  • You push the button on your coffee pot and the coffee starts to brew.
  • You put your keys in your car and it starts.
  • You lather sunscreen on your skin to avoid a sunburn.
  • These are things you might see or do in your everyday life. So how is reinforcement working in these situations you might ask?
  • The mobile moving when the baby reaches her hands increases the frequency of the baby reaching towards the mobile again.
  • Your coffee brewing increases the likelihood you will push the button the next time you want coffee.
  • Your car starting increases the frequency of you putting your keys in the ignition the next time drive.
  • Avoiding the sunburn increases the frequency you will use sunscreen again when in the sun.
Antecedent Behavior


Baby sees mobile Reaches hands

Mobile moves/reinforces movement

The key word in all of these situations is INCREASES. The behavior increases which makes it reinforcement.
Reinforcement can also be socially mediated which means that it is must be delivered by another person. This is what we might call “contrived” reinforcement. Often, children with autism need some additional reinforcement to learn new skills and this is okay. Just because a child needs some extra reinforcement now does not mean they will always need that same reinforcement as they continue to grow. The goal of any reinforcement program should focus on fading tangible reinforcement as new skills are learned or problem behaviors decreased. For example, with my own child, I used a sticker chart paired with praise to increase going on the potty. Now that my child is consistently going on the potty, I no longer use the sticker chart and use praise intermittently.

Reinforcement has two categories, primary and secondary reinforcement. Primary reinforcement is reinforcement that is not learned. It is referred to as unconditioned reinforcement. This type of reinforcement refers to things such as food, water, sleep, and air. Secondary reinforcement is conditioned reinforcement. It is conditioned because it is the process of pairing something that was not previously reinforcing with something that is reinforcing such as the primary reinforcement of food. For example, pairing praise with a bite of food makes praise a conditioned reinforcer. With time, you should be able to remove the food and only use praise as a reinforcer because it has been conditioned.

There are two types of reinforcement, positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you add in or present something after the behavior that increases the future frequency of that behavior. Negative reinforcement is not negative, hence the title. Instead it also increases the future frequency of a behavior because it is reinforcement that removes something aversive to the individual. Let’s look at some examples.

Positive Reinforcement
Child picks up toys and teacher provides praise and a sticker. *This is positive reinforcement because the praise and sticker are added/presented, and it increases picking up toy behavior.
Negative Reinforcement
Child asks for a break from completing homework and parent allows the child to take a 5-minute break. *This is negative reinforcement because the aversive homework is removed, and the child is more likely (increases) to ask for a break the next time he is completing homework.
There are many things you can use for reinforcement, thus there are many different types of reinforcers. Reinforcers can be activities/privileges, tangible items, primary reinforcers such as food, social reinforcement such as praise, and tokens. Tokens signal larger reinforcement later. For example, your child must earn three tokens before picking a larger reinforcer. Tokens can be actual tokens, or they may be stickers, play money, etc. What your child finds reinforcing will be unique to them. Let’s look at some examples.
Games: Board and interactive such as peek a boo, tag, ring around the rosy, etc.
Community outings: going to the park, out to eat, swimming, etc.
Art activities
Singing/music activities
Staying up late
Taking a break/down time

Tangible Items
Sensory items
Household items that your child enjoys

Social Reinforcers
High fives
Back rubs
Thumbs up

Primary Reinforcers

Sticker chart
Play money (bucks)
Actual tokens

How do you know what is reinforcing to your child? You most likely can already identify your child’s favorite things; however, you may want to do an informal reinforcer assessment to get a better idea of which items are the most reinforcing. To conduct an informal assessment, identify what items your child plays with the most or watch them during play to see what they play with. You can also ask others who know your child well what they think your child likes. For example, asking your child’s teacher what they prefer at school. Once you have identified items that your child prefers, you can pair items and ask them to choose which one they what. Take notes, on the items/activities that your child chooses the most.
When teaching a new skill consider using some of your child’s favorite things as reinforcers to shape the new behavior or skill you want your child to learn. It will be important to cut off reinforcement for problem behavior and reinforce the skills and behaviors you want to see your child engage in. To use your child’s favorite items as reinforcers here are a few general strategies.
Place the items in your child’s view but not in their reach. This may motivate them to ask for the item or engage in the skill you are teaching.
Keep items that you are using as reinforcers put away. Try to only use them during the times you are shaping behavior or teaching new skills. If your child as access to the reinforcing items all of the time, they may get satiated on them and the items will no longer be reinforcing.
Vary up reinforcers. Just because your child likes something one day does not mean it will be what they are motivated for the next. Just as I mentioned above, your child may get satiated with the reinforcers.
When teaching a new skill or shaping a new behavior it is important to remember that you may need to reinforce successive approximations of that behavior. This is shaping. For example, when teaching a child to sit at the table you may first reinforce the child standing at the table, then sitting for 30 seconds, then reinforce only when they sit for 1 minute, etc., until you get to the target goal.
Often in the beginning when teaching a new skill or shaping a new behavior, reinforcement must occur in close approximation to the target behavior. That is, reinforcement should occur immediately after the response and for each response. Once your child starts to become successful for a period of specified time, you can fade reinforcement (i.e. reinforce for a certain number of responses or time).
Reinforcement is perhaps the most important and powerful principle of behavior analysis. It is always in use and sometimes we might accidentally reinforce behaviors that we don’t want to see. However, when reinforcement is used appropriately it can shape any new behavior or skill that you want to see your child engage in. What behavior will you reinforce today?

Bearss, K., Johnson, C., Handen, B., Butter, E., Lecavalier, L., Smith, T., Scahill, L. (2018). Parent training for disruptive behavior: the rubi autism network. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Preference assessments. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from

Cherry. K. (2019). Positive and negative reinforcement in operant conditioning. Retrieved from

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. New Jersey: Pearson.

Creating Supportive Environments

Perhaps you have noticed or been told that your child “acts” a certain way in one environment and a different way in another. From experience, my own children engage in different behaviors at school than they do at home. I often get asked by parents why this occurs. A good place to start to uncover some answers to this question is by looking at the environment.

From a young age, children quickly learn the expectations and consequences for each environment they are a part of. Examples of different environments include the grocery store, swimming pool, park, home, and school. From a behavioral perspective, we believe that people engage in different behaviors across environments due to the contingencies that are put in place. A contingency is the relationship between two events, the behavior and consequence, and one is “contingent” on the other. Contingencies can be natural or contrived and come in the form of reinforcement or punishment. Here is an example:

Antecedent              Behavior                  Consequence

Child wants juice    Child says “Juice”   Parent gives child juice

This consequence reinforces or strengthens the behavior of appropriately asking for juice. Since the child received the juice, the child is more likely to say “Juice” in the future.

Let’s look at another example…

 Antecedent                                                               Behavior                       Consequence

Parent tells child it is time to take a bath           Child runs away          Delays bath

In this example, the behavior was also reinforced or strengthened because the child was able to delay the bath which is a non-preferred activity. Since the child was able to delay the bath, the child is more likely to run away in the future when it is bath time.

This is an example of how easy it can be to accidentally reinforce the behaviors we do not want to see. In this example, it would be important for the parent to follow through with the request and prompt or guide the child to that bathtub.

Consequences occur after the behavior and all behaviors have a consequence. At times, you may find that you have to be reactive; however, there are many things you can do to your environment to help your child be successful and decrease the chances the problem behavior will occur in the first place.

Often children with autism, need a little extra support to learn the expectations for each environment. While contingencies will always be different across environments, I will discuss some general strategies for creating a supportive environment that can work across the board.

  1. Safety First

Children with autism may engage in unsafe behaviors such as self-injurious behavior, elopement, jumping off of items, and climbing.

  • Ensure the room is set up for maximum safety
  • All items your child is not supposed to have are put up and away
  • Locks and gates can be used to ensure safety
  • Use of visuals such as a stop sign or signs signaling what your child is to do and not do in situations where safety is a factor can be useful.
  1. Structure, Consistency, and Predictability

Children with autism often thrive in structured environments that are high in predictability. There are a variety of ways you can make your environment more structured and predictable.

  • Use a visual schedule
  • Create an expectation visual: List what behaviors you expect from your child at various times of the day.
  • Use a first-then visual to show your child once a nonpreferred activity is complete a preferred or reinforcing activity will be next.
  • Balance nonpreferred/difficult and preferred/easy tasks throughout your child’s day.
  • It may be helpful to break nonpreferred/difficult tasks into smaller steps with reinforcement throughout.
  • It is important to keep a consistent daily schedule (e.g. consistent morning routine, bedtime routine, etc.)
  • Have structured play activities—children with autism may have a difficult time playing independently or appropriately. They may need adult facilitation to model, prompt, and reinforce appropriate skills.
  • Providing your child with reminders and prompts for appropriate behavior can help to encourage the behavior you want to see.

It is okay that children act different from one environment to another. It is not expected that children will act the same at home as they do at school or in another environment because the contingencies are different. However, you can set up each environment to be supportive of the behaviors you would like to see your child engage in.


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. New Jersey: Pearson.

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Roane, H., Ringdahl, J., & Falcomata, T. (2015). Clinical and organizational applications of applied behavior analysis. San Diego: Elsevier Inc.

Webster, Jerry. (2019, January 26). Contingency — the Important Relationship Between Behavior and Reinforcement. Retrieved from