What Is Incidental Teaching?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 22, 2022
5 min read

Incidental teaching is a naturalistic teaching method used in certain therapies and support programs such as Applied Behavior Analysis therapy (ABA). While incidental teaching in ABA is not a therapy for autistic children in itself, it is used to support autistic children through natural opportunities to learn. Incidental teaching is aimed at helping develop learning skills such as play, language, and behavior.

Typically, incidental teaching is a method chosen for children who are between the ages of 2 and 9 years old. It is used to guide children in improving their language and communication, developing and transferring skills from one situation to another, and encouraging children to start conversations. 

The idea behind incidental teaching is that if a child uses a skill and is rewarded for that skill, then they will use it more often. Similar to all-naturalistic teaching methods, incidental teaching allows a child to use skills in a wide range of natural environments instead of exclusively using them in a controlled structure such as a clinic or a school. 

Applied Behavior Analysis therapies have used incidental teaching methods since the 1970s. They are regarded as the first naturalistic teaching technique to be utilized, meant to offer an alternative to traditional methods such as Discrete Trial Training, or DDT, which teaches skills in controlled environments. 

It’s important to understand the fundamentals of incidental teaching. First, incidental teaching is a method that allows you to use your child’s interests to encourage them to say or do something. As you and your child are engaging in their interest, it’s important to then encourage them to use a skill that they need to learn. 

There are five steps to consider in incidental teaching: 

  • Watch and listen: You, as an adult, should watch and listen for sounds, words, gestures, or gazes that reveal what your child is interested in. If your child shows interest in something and you are able to pick up on it, that is called initiation. An example of this would be your child reaching for something like a toy or a book. Another example would be an attempt at communication with another person. It’s important to pick up on these initiations so that you can respond appropriately. To further help your child in this process, you can place things in your child’s surroundings that are easily accessible.
  • Engage: After your child initiates, it’s important to engage them by encouraging them to elaborate. This means that you should encourage your child to act in a way that is more complicated than the original initiation. As an example of this, you can encourage an elaboration by asking your child questions, prompting them to say additional words, or perhaps to do something more specific. It can also involve something as simple as showing interest in what they are interested in.
  • Wait: Waiting is the next step. Give your child the opportunity to act or respond. This follows the engagement step. After you have encouraged your child to further act or elaborate, it’s important to wait at least 5 seconds for your child to respond.
  • Support: Support means to give help when necessary. For example, if you do not receive a response from your child or if the response is incorrect, then you can step in and offer help.
  • Confirm: The final step in the incidental teaching method is to confirm, reassure, praise, or reward your child. An example of this would be for you to give your child what they were initially interested in. Another example would be to continue the conversation you are having with your child and expand on what they said. Finally, you may praise, reward, or offer further encouragement to your child. This helps show your child that their response was correct and increases the likelihood of your child repeating positive responses.

No matter what, as long as you and your child are engaging in a fun conversation or activity, you are encouraging their development. 

Anyone can use incidental teaching to help the children in their care. Whether you’re a speech pathologist, occupational therapist, psychologist, special education teacher, aide, or parent, incidental teaching can be beneficial, helping children learn how to communicate, respond, and act effectively. 

Here are some examples of how incidental teaching works: 

During Meals or Snacks 

During mealtime, present your child with a desirable food or drink. Ask them what they want or what the food or drink is. If no response is received, you can further prompt your child with the correct response by saying what the meal, snack, or drink is. If your child has a more developed language skill, you can prompt them by saying, ‘I want,’ then naming the food or drink. Once the response is received, give your child the food item or drink. 

Another example of a mealtime incidental teaching moment would be encouraging your child to use utensils on their own. Additionally, you can give your child a napkin and prompt them, when necessary, to clean their hands or face. 

Finally, you can involve your child in cooking and baking by having them help measure ingredients, stir up mixes, or place batter onto a cookie sheet. 

At School

At school, children should be encouraged to share with peers and participate in turn-talking. Additionally, children should practice cleaning up after themselves and putting things in their appropriate places. 

It’s important to reinforce a child with consistent and positive reaffirmations when they have waited their turn, raised their hand to ask a question, or engaged in other appropriate classroom behaviors.  

During Outings 

During outings to a store, you can use incidental teaching by asking your child to label items or to request an item that they would like. If your child is older, you can encourage your child to choose foods on their own. You can also help them in making and sticking to a budget plan and allow them to pay for the items during checkout. 

At the park, encourage safe behaviors by positively reinforcing safe play on the playground. Your child can practice their motor skills using slides, swings, and monkey bars. 

When dining out, encourage your child to sit appropriately at the table and reward them for good behavior. Ask your child to read the items on the menu, allow them to make decisions about what they will eat, and allow them to practice using utensils independently. You could also encourage them to order their food on their own. 

At Home 

If your child is old enough, include them in advanced cleaning chores such as vacuuming, loading dishes into the dishwasher, and dusting. For both younger and older children, encourage them to clean up after themselves. This can be reinforced by turning it into a game or singing songs. 

You can also offer positive reinforcement when your child turns a light off when leaving a room. 

Finally, ask your child to label items. This is especially important for younger children. Ask them questions: “Where is the refrigerator?” “Where do we keep the snacks?” “What is this called?”