Limitless Teaching Opportunities

In applied behavior analysis, two of the most predominate methodologies include discrete trial training (DTT) and incidental teaching. Core features of DTT include repetition and sequenced instruction, in order to target certain skills, while on the other hand, incidental teaching involves elaborating on what a child initiates (Weiss, 2005). Today, we will be discussing the latter.

So, what is incidental teaching?
– The teacher arranges opportunities or sets the environment to encourages the learner’s interest.
– It is child-initiated, which means once the environment is arranged, the teacher waits for the student to initiate interaction.
– Once the child either asks or makes a comment about the item/topic, the teacher prompts an elaboration.
– After the child responds, the teacher provides reinforcement (e.g., teacher gives him/her the item, attention, etc., for what he/she has initiated).

Why is it used?
– It is an effective way of teaching a variety of language and conversation skills, including the ability to initiate interactions.
– It provides learning opportunities where the skills naturally occur.
– It promotes generalization.
– Seems less like “work” for child as the child is initiating and therefore, motivated.

Examples of incidental teaching:
– Child loves apple juice. Dad is pouring a glass of apple juice that is out of reach, yet near the child. Child reaches for juice, dad prompts “J—-,” child says “juice,” dad gives child juice to reinforce the elaborated response. (This demonstrates an example of controlling access to item and moving item closer to student/child).
– Mom is pushing child on a swing. Mom stops pushing child and waits for the child to ask for more pushes. (This demonstrates an example of starting a preferred activity and then stopping).
– Therapist brings in special farm animal toys. Child asks for toys, therapist gives child toys. Child says, “Duck.” Therapist responds with, “A yellow duck!” as the child moves duck around. (This demonstrates an example of using items of special interest to student).

It is important to prompt the child to produce just a slightly more complex level of their current language skills. For example, if child says single words, model 2 words. Once a child is using 2-3 word sentences, prompt for more complete sentences by adding adjectives (e.g., colors, shapes, size, numbers), adverbs (e.g., fast, slow, soft, rough), and prepositions (e.g., in, on under, next to, behind). For example, if a child is asking for help they may first say “help,” and then, “Help me,” to “Can I have help?”

An example of an interaction in incidental teaching. Illustration by Tale Hendnes.

In conclusion, learning may occur in a highly structured and systematic manner or be embedded into our day to day lives. While ABA therapist are trained in using incidental teaching, really anyone can do it. You may already be doing it without realizing it! Regardless, it is important to recognize the idea that learning can occur at any time or place and with incidental teaching, any opportunity can be turned into a learning moment!


Comprehensive Guide to Autism – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from:

Hart, B. M., & Risley, T. R. (1982). How to use incidental teaching for elaborating language. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Weiss, M. J. (2005). Comprehensive ABA programs: Integrating and evaluating the implementation of varied instructional approaches. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6(4), 249.