Updated: May 12, 2021
Naturalistic methods are those we use in natural, daily situations. We follow interactions where they take us, and build skills needed in that moment. This contrasts with structured teaching methods where therapists have a specific response they want the child to give in a specific situation. When materials and activities are limited by the therapist, children might learn nothing (or the wrong thing) about how to be a social person.
Naturalistic methods have been developed to avoid the social side-effects often seen with more structured behavioral methods. When teaching communication skills, we should always be building children’s social reasons for communicating at the same time we are teaching specific skills.
TRANSFER NEW SKILLS IMMEDIATELY TO SITUATIONS WHERE THEY ARE NEEDED
When we use therapy methods during natural daily interactions, we are helping children learn to notice and use natural cues that tell them what to say and when to say it. When children can independently use natural cues, their rate of learning increases. They don’t have to wait to be specifically taught in all the situations where the skill is needed.
Teaching communication in natural settings immediately shows children what they can say and why they would say it, in situations they are most likely to need it. We help them focus on the important information in that situation, then make connections between words, actions, ideas and feelings. When we consistently use naturalistic methods throughout the day, we give children many more opportunities to learn and apply a skill when it is important to them. More practice results in more learning.
AVOID RESISTANCE AND TANTRUMS
Children with communication delays aren’t able to say how they feel, or bargain about what they want to do. They naturally leave a situation that is not interesting or feels too difficult. When someone makes them stay, they express themselves more strongly—they might try pulling away, running, screaming, flopping on the floor, crying or hitting. At some point in this sequence, they are able to escape. Next time they want to escape, they’re going to skip the things that don’t work and use the expression that works for them best.
Personally, I think it’s unfair to both the parent and child to ask them to do structured lessons together. There are times when parents need to use their “do what I tell you” control, and we don’t want to overdo that method by using it in uncomfortable teaching situations. Instead, we want to take advantage of the positive parent-child relationship that naturally motivates children to do things together with people.
Children learn to be motivated by these natural, social reasons rather than perform because someone tells them to. Children learn to stay in interactions for longer and longer periods of time because they enjoy being with people. They talk more because they have things they want to say. The more they enjoy interacting with us, the more time they spend with us, and the more learning opportunities they have throughout their day.
When we use structured lessons, children often get used to the pattern of “When I see that, I say this.” Some may be able to say 100 words when shown pictures, but we never hear them say the word in other situations. Or they might use those words to request things, but they don’t use the words for other purposes like commenting or explaining.
With naturalistic methods, we can show children many different reasons to use a word. I can hold out my hand and say “car” to request it, or point and say “car” to call attention to it. I can look in a box and say “car?” to ask for information, or push a block and say “car” to pretend.
We can add more words to express those same reasons to communicate. I can hold out my hand and say “more” to request, or point and say “see” to call attention to something, look in a box and say “where” to ask for information, or push a car and say “go” to pretend. When children are using a variety of single words, we can show them how to use 2-word combinations like “want car,” “see car,” “where car” and “go car.”
Learning words in naturalistic settings helps children think of those words when they need to use them. They can call the words to mind and know how to use them for many different reasons. Their communication becomes more spontaneous.
AVOID PROMPT DEPENDENCE
A prompt is something we say or do to let children know what response we are expecting. When I say, “What’s this?” I’m prompting the child to give me the name. If we are washing hands and the child turns off the water and stands with wet hands, I might point at the towel to let them know to continue with the next step.
Prompts are an important part of structured teaching. We want children to learn a skill without making errors, so we start by making the task easier. We might first show them how to do it and they imitate. When they are good at that, we get rid of, or fade, our example but use a prompt like “What’s next?” to let them know it’s time to do what we expect. Later, we fade that prompt to something more subtle, like pointing. The key is to fade prompts as quickly as possible so the child performs the task independently.
Many children develop prompt dependence, and only perform the skill when they are prompted. They don’t make the leap to independent use of the skill. This might be because they don’t have a natural reason to use the skill—if they’re not interested in interacting with you they aren’t going to use words with you. Or it might be because we don’t pay enough attention to fading the prompt quickly—we get in the habit of using it and children learn that they’re supposed to wait for it.
With naturalistic methods, we aren’t expecting one right answer. Think about conversations you have with friends. When you say something, they might make a comment, ask a question or make a joke about it. You don’t say, “Wrong. You’re supposed to say that’s nice. Try again.” The point of social interaction is to keep it going in a mutually enjoyable exchange. That’s why naturalistic methods don’t set up situations for children to give us the “right” answer. Instead, we teach children to respond in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas and feelings.
Naturalistic methods avoid the unintended side-effects of structured teaching. Teaching new skills in the situations where they are needed makes it easier for children to use the skills in those situations, avoids developing negative behaviors when children try to avoid lessons, helps children be more spontaneous with their language, and reduces the chance children will become dependent upon prompts.
Most important of all, naturalistic methods help children learn the social reasons for communication at the same time they are learning specific speech and language skills. We want children at any level of language development to be able to use their skills with a variety of people for meeting their physical, social and emotional needs.