Should I Use Natural Environment Teaching (NET) or Discrete Trial Training (DTT)?

Choosing the right teaching format directly impacts the success of your clients. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) provides a wealth of resources and interventions, so how do you choose the right one?

Two common interventions utilized by professionals include Natural Environment Teaching (NET) and Discrete Trial Training (DTT). While research supports both methodologies, choose carefully based on the needs of your client.

Natural Environment Teaching (NET)

NET is a method of instruction that requires careful planning to ensure you capture the targets you identify. Teaching happens throughout the session; however, instruction is less rote than during DTT.

Take a look at this video that includes 4 separate examples of NET.

In each example in the video above, the instructor carefully creates opportunities to teach the identified skill. Sometimes instruction happens on the floor, other times at the table.

Look at the examples from the video

In the first example, the instructor teaches the intraverbal “Ready, set,…” and the preposition “in” and the mand for “ball,” all within the space of 30 seconds. Reinforcement occurs when the instructor gives the child access to the ball for her to use with the ramps. The child’s motivated and engaged.

The instructor in the second example uses the child’s motivation for the vehicles to teach multiple different targets including the intraverbal “what else flies in the sky,” tacting colors, and another intraverbel “something you climb on.” During this session, you see the child make a connection between an item and another person in the room (Elizabeth). These types of connections are critical for more spontaneous learning and are largely unavailable during DTT.

The third example demonstrates NET at a table and you will see the instructor incorporating many different types of targets into the session, all presented in a natural way. The instructor incorporates targets for functional play, tacting animals, and intraverbals such as “what does a cow say?” Other targets include Listener Responding for identifying colors and following simple 1 step directions such as “pour the water.” The instructor uses prompts and prompt fading just as she would if she was using DTT.

The final example shows an instructor working with 2 children. This provides ample opportunities for teaching imaginative play and social skills. The instructor is very intentional in her approach. You see the girl is initially reluctant to follow the instructor’s lead, but the instructor is able to gain her interest and engage her in the activity. The instructor inserts teaching targets into the play throughout the session.

When using NET, the instructors still use error correction and reinforcement to teach a skill. Reinforcement is linked to the activity and driven by what motivates the child.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

DTT is a structured form of teaching where the instructor carefully plans the session and controls the conditions. Often this instruction occurs at a table with a high rate of presentation of trials.

DTT utilizes the following format:

Discriminative Stimulus (SD) –> Response –> Consequence

The SD should elicit the response that the instructor intends to teach. For example, if the instructor wants the child to tact car, the SD would be a picture of a car or possibly a toy car. The child then responds correctly or makes an error. The instructor provides reinforcement for a correct response and error correction for an incorrect response.

Take a look at this video from the Carbone Clinic that provides an example of traditional DTT.

In this example, the instruction occurs entirely at the table. The instructor rotates quickly between different verbal operants (tacts, listener responding, intraverbals, etc.) as well as between mastered and teaching targets. The instructor delivers reinforcement in the form of “tokens” which the child “trades in” at the end of the session in exchange for an edible and a video.

As you can see, reinforcement during DTT is not necessarily (and very often not) connected to what occurs during the teaching session. Many children with autism enjoy DTT sessions as they associate this with reinforcement and DTT may be easier for them than NET.

Learn more by reading the post 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Discrete Trial Training (DTT).

Advantages and Disadvantages of NET and DTT

As you can see, there are some distinct differences between the 2 methods

It’s not that one method of teaching is superior to the other. Each teaching method has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. For one client or skill, Natural Environment Teaching might offer the greatest benefits. Another might need the more focused instruction of Discrete Trial Training. Understand the challenges and benefits of each by taking a look at the chart below.

Natural Environment Teaching or Discrete Trial Training

When to Choose Natural Environment Teaching

Most children benefit from NET instruction, at least in some capacity. Children with limited play skills or interests struggle more with this type of instruction; however, professionals who carefully plan for this will still find success. If the client you work with is motivated by anything in the natural environment, NET may be a good option for you.

When to Choose Discrete Trial Training

Some children struggle to acquire new skills through NET and require the structured learning environment offered by DTT. These children need a thoughtful plan for generalization of skills learned during DTT. It may be possible to introduce some new targets using NET while also targeting some skills for generalization.

Take a look at this example:

You used DTT to teach tacting colors red, blue and yellow. You plan to generalize this skill by having the child tact colors in the classroom. During this time, you introduce the color green.

Natural Environment Teaching and Discrete Trial Training are not mutually exclusive. You may find it most advantageous to combine the 2 strategies so that your client receives the benefits of both while mitigating the disadvantages.