Using Incidental Teaching to Engage Children in Summer Learning


Mom utilizing and incidental teaching opportunity with her daughter.

Take Advantage of Teachable Moments with Incidental Teaching

Whether you are a parent or a teacher, you probably worry about summer learning loss, which frequently occurs when children are out of school for extended breaks. And while learning loss over the summer is common, the good news is that learning isn’t seasonal. There are things you can do to ensure that children remain engaged in learning over the summer.

Life is full of learning opportunities. As parents and teachers, we just need to know how to take advantage of them.

Last week, Rethink’s very own Stephanie Whitley hosted a webinar discussing an ABA teaching strategy called “Incidental Teaching.”  Incidental Teaching is a strategy that can be used anytime and anywhere and can help families and educators of children with disabilities take advantage of teachable moments to ensure that learning continues, no matter what time of year it is.

During the webinar, Stephanie discussed what ncidental teaching actually is, how it differes from other evidence-based teaching strategies, and took a look at specific examples in which parents and educators can use incidental teaching to support learning.

What is Incidental Teaching?

In layman’s terms, Incidental Teaching is the process of taking advantage of teaching opportunities as they arise in daily life in order to teach a new skill to an individual or help them maintain or generalize a previously learned skill. Incidental Teaching evolved from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and can be used to teach new skills for which it might be difficult to simulate or role play (ie. teaching a child to stand up to bullying) or to generalize or maintain previously learned skills (ie. making eye contact or shaking hands).

When people think of ABA they often think of Discrete Trial Teaching. In Discrete Trial Teaching a child is often situated in a 1:1 setting with a teacher or a therapist and being tested, prompted and reinforced in a highly structured way.  Incidental Teaching relies upon the same principals of prompting and reinforcement, but takes place in a more natural setting.

While Discrete Trial Teaching is adult initiated in a highly structured environment utilizing specific teaching materials, Incidental Teaching is child initiated, takes place in a low-structured or play-based environment, and typically utilizes objects naturally occurring in this environment.

Why Use Incidental Teaching?

You can choose to use Incidental Teaching for a variety of reasons.  Incidental Teaching can support language expansion, can help children generalize skills, and can support them in building relationships and developing social skills.

How Does Incidental Teaching Work?

Incidental Teaching can be broken down into 4 easy-to-follow steps.

    1. Seize the Moment or Contrive Opportunity: Incidental teaching can be initiated by either seizing the moment – that is, waiting for a child to show interest in something and taking advantage of it — or by contriving an opportunity –setting up a situation or activity in which you think the child will demonstrate interest.Seize the Moment:  Look for cues that the child is interested in an item or an activity.  Are they pointing, reaching for, looking at, or asking questions/making comments about an object? If so, this is a learning opportunity!Contrive Opportunity:  If the child is not immediately or independently taking interest in items, you can contrive opportunities.Some ways you can contrive opportunity are:
      • Start and  stop:  Start a fun activity and then stop activity once interest is shown or engage the child in play until they begin to show interest. The use this as an opportunity to have the child.  This can be a great chance to encourage language
      • Engage in play:  Elicit interest in items or toys so that the child will then ask to play.  When the child does ask to play, request for the child to complete a skill.  For instance, if a child asks to play with their toys with you, ask them first to count the toy.
      • Engage and Entice:  Put out some snacks.  When the child asks for a task, ask them to complete a task first and then reinforce with the desired snack.
      • Arrange the child’s environment: put desireable items on shelf or in containers that are difficult to open.  The more access a child has to something, the more satiated they will be and the less opportunities you will have for contriving interest.  If a child needs to ask for an item, this can be an opportunity for Incidental Teaching.
      • Incorporate High Interest Topics:  Use materials a child is interested in – cartoon characters,
      • Offer Choices:  Offering choices allows a child to remain in charge of their own motivation and interest.
      • Engage in everyday activities:  Common events that a child particiaptes in regularly are excellent opportunities for learning. Grocery shopping, getting ready for school, setting the table, or going on a family walk all have built-in learning opportunities.  Read more about some of these teachable moments here!Seize the Moment or Contrive Opportunity: Incidental teaching can be initiated by either seizing the moment – that is, waiting for a child to show interest in something and taking advantage of it — or by contriving an opportunity –setting up a situation or activity in which you think the child will demonstrate interest.
    2. Wait!  Once you have seized the moment or contrived an opportunity, the next step is to wait for the child to respond. 3-7 seconds is a good amount of time to wait for a response.
    3. Support: If the child does not respond within 3-7 seconds, they may need a prompt. It’s important to have a plan for this step so you can give the child the right level of support.  Prompts should only be used to support the child when necessary, not to fill in quiet space when a child is processing.There is a hierarchy to prompting, and it is important to have a plan for fading prompts when they are no longer necessary.Physical prompting, as in guiding your child’s hand to perform the requested task, is the most intensive form of prompting.  Verbal prompting, such as reminding the child how to ask for the cookie, is the next level of prompting. And non-verbal prompting, such as pointing, gesturing, or nodding, is the least intensive form of prompting.  Be sure to give the child the correct level of prompting and fade or eliminate the prompting as it is no longer needed.
    4.  Confirm:  The last step to Incidental Teaching is the fun part: positive reinforcement. Providing the child confirmation that they performed the skill correctly is key to ensuring that the child engages in the skill again.  Reinforcement can come in the form of a high five, a hug, any kind of verbal praise, or even access to an item or activity of interest!

Prompting Hierarchy for Incidental Teaching


For practical examples of situations in which Incidental Teaching might be appropriate, check out the slides below or the recorded webinar here!

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