In my practice in Tallahassee, Florida, I provide speech and language therapy in natural learning environments. Natural learning environments describe intervention that takes place in typical settings for infants and toddlers without disabilities (Paul & Roth, 2011). Natural learning environments include homes, daycares, and schools, as well as other settings where a child is found on a regular basis. In these environments, children are naturally learning about themselves and their world. Citing numerous sources in literature, (Dunst, Bruder, Trivette, & Hamby,2006) advocate that activities performed in everyday settings improve learning and participation in other activities which further foster a child’s development.
In graduate school, I had the opportunity to experience a myriad of therapeutic settings. I treated patients in my university’s speech and hearing clinic, in private clinics, hospitals, schools, and private homes. It was at that time in my professional development that I noticed some differences about each of the different settings. In clinic or center based settings, I had a wealth of options when it came to materials. Special swings, ball pits, and playhouses offered novel and exciting activities for a child learning speech and language skills. However, I found it difficult for families to recreate what I had accomplished in therapy due to those novelties. The first time I treated a patient in their home environment, I realized that my therapy immediately revolved more around the family unit. I was able to relate speech and language goals to the goals of the family, improving communication in the most functional of ways.
One example of this is an experience I had while treating a young, 2 year old child with autism. The child I was treating had very little communication or imitation skills. His preferred activities included collecting objects such as blocks and cars, and lining them up on the floor. When he was prevented from performing these preferred activities, which he often was in his parent’s attempt to redirect him to more appropriate activities, the little boy was inconsolable. It had become a real issue in the family, as they were never able to bond as a family, communicate with one another, or even share joy.
By sitting back and watching this situation play out in their natural environment, I was able to provide detailed and specific ideas to improve communication between parent and child. I was able to illustrate how to add to their little boy’s play ideas instead of redirecting him. By facilitating his play ideas (for example, handing him blocks, helping him carry objects, adding language to his play, helping him use his preferred objects in different ways, encouraging turn-taking, instilling trust with their child) they could resolve the problem while also building foundational speech and language skills.
A natural learning environment provides continuous opportunities to participate in valuable ways to find functional solutions to the important, everyday challenges my patients and their families face. Providing therapy in this setting is not only effective, producing long-lasting improvements, but also helps support the family and caregivers, who are the backbone of the therapy team.
Robyn Hillison, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a Speech-Language Pathologist, with over 10 years experience treating a variety of speech and language disorders. She is the owner of Capital Speech & Language Therapy Services, LLC, located in Tallahassee, Florida. For more information on this and other topics, visit: www.capitalspeechlanguagetherapy.com or on facebook at www.facebook.com/capitalspeechlanguage
Dunst, C. J., Bruder, M. B., Trivette, C. M. and Hamby, D. W. (2006), Everyday Activity Settings, Natural Learning Environments, and Early Intervention Practices. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 3: 3–10. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-1130.2006.00047.x
Paul, D. & Roth, F. P. (2011). Guiding Principles and Clinical Applications for Speech-Language Pathology Practice in Early Intervention. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 42, 320-330. [5a]