Incidental teaching involves structuring and sequencing educational objectives so that they occur within ongoing, typical activities and take advantage of student interests and motivation (McGee, Daly, & Jacobs, 1994). Incidental teaching uses strategies from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) to present learning objectives within typical early childhood activities, instead of sitting face to face with the child at a table in a clinical setting. Teachers arrange the environment by placing preferred toys and activities of each student within sight, but not within reach, to encourage the student to initiate teaching sessions based on preplanned learning objectives. Once the child shows an interest in the materials by gesturing or requesting an item or activity, the teacher prompts an elaboration on the initiation. The child subsequently obtains the desired item upon generating the elaboration. For example, a student may say, “barn,” to request a toy barn, followed by the teacher’s question, “what color barn?” When the student says, “red barn,” she is allowed to play with the barn for a couple of minutes. A nonverbal student might work on the skill of asking for help using a gesture. For example, the teacher could place the child’s favorite toy, a dump truck, in a plastic container that the child could not open. Once the child attempts to open the box, the teacher physically prompt him to hand the box to her for help.
There are several advantages to incidental teaching. First, it is thought that teaching within the context of typical preschool activities promotes generalization of skills (McGee, Morrier, & Daly, 1999). In addition, social initiations, a deficit of many children with ASD, are an integral part of incidental teaching. The basis for incidental teaching lies in the student initiating a teaching session. Lessons involve interactions in which the child expresses interest and the adult responds with prompts and praise.