Written by Andrew Ng, BCBA, LBA
The research and methodologies of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) have progressed and modernized drastically since its debut in the late 1960s. ABA is a scientific philosophy, and it is a way of understanding human behavior to be used to its advantage serving as an evidence based practice. Brilliant behavioral psychologists during these past few decades have been able to come together and develop revolutionary ways of teaching new skills and modifying behaviors.
What is DTT?
Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) is a well-known ABA teaching procedure developed by Dr. Ivar Lovaas in the 1970s. DTT is a one-to-one instructional approach used to teach skills in a planned, controlled, and systematic manner in which the learner is taught a skill separated into small repeated steps (Bogin, 2008). For example, if you were teaching a child how to read sight words, you would teach the same set of five sight words over and over until essentially “perfection” and no errors are made after a specified amount of consecutive sessions. To some practitioners, DTT may be perceived as “rote” or “highly repetitive” because DTT is sometimes characterized as “intense” and “repetitive” in its methodology. The amassed practice and repetition of learning trials can be beneficial for younger children (typically between the ages of 2 and 9) for teaching simple receptive skills such as tacting (labeling) objects, identifying colors, or following one-step directions.
However, using DTT can be challenging for teaching more advanced older learners more complicated or skills that require many steps such as: vocational skills, conversational skills, self-care skills, and many more. Most developmental disabilities such as autism are considered a lifelong disability. Therefore, DTT may not be the most appropriate teaching strategy for older children, teens, adults, and beyond. Luckily, there are many other options to choose from.
NET: An Alternative to DTT
Well-trained and experienced behavior analysts are aware of the many other teaching alternatives to choose from other than DTT. When I am providing direct ABA services, I prefer to follow a much more natural and relaxed teaching style. Natural Environment Teaching (NET) is also an evidenced based practice in which ABA practitioners incorporate the learner’s natural environment into the teaching, development, and generalization of skills. These learning experiences are incorporated into play activities using familiar toys, games, and materials to maximize the learner’s motivation to continue the activity. With NET, the learner is essentially in control of their environment and they have full autonomy on which activities they choose to do.
NET In Everyday ABA Practice
To best describe how and why I prefer to use NET in my everyday practice, I will explain the case of one of my 10 year old clients. Today, he returned back home after a long day at school (also a very long bus ride home!) and was very tired and he wanted to watch some of his favorite YouTube videos together on his favorite spot on the living room couch. This is very understandable, as I also like to do the same thing after being trapped in NYC traffic during the home rush hour almost every night!
I am thankful that I have such a wonderful and close rapport with him as his therapist. It is my presence and involvement in watching the videos together that has been the ultimate reinforcer for him since we have met. This gives me a teaching advantage during these situations in which I am able to provide natural teaching opportunities based on whatever he is choosing to watch. For example, today I was able to practice his expressive communication skills with learning to say, “again please” (for when he wants to hear the song again), “stop please” (for when he wants the video stopped), and “help me” (for whenever he would come across a technical issue with the computer). Because all of these situations were not contrived and occurred naturally, the learning experience becomes even more rewarding and meaningful. This also makes these target behaviors more likely to occur again.
Benefits of NET over DTT
Children are more likely to experience natural reinforcement outside of their therapy sessions when learning opportunities are incorporated into environments that are familiar to them. It is not worthwhile for them to learn how to memorize answers or responses through rote methods like DTT which are monotonous and not fun for the child. This is especially true if the learning experiences they acquire are not socially significant and do not functionally apply to their everyday environment. NET as an ideal teaching strategy is one of the many other ways that it can prevail over DTT.
For more information about the comparison between DTT and NET, please refer to the following article: https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2014-44014-007.html
Bogin, J. (2008). Overview of discrete trial training. Sacramento, CA: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders, M.I.N.D. Institute, The University of California at Davis Medical School.