What Are Natural Environments?
In Early Intervention, “natural environments” are emphasized as the primary and most desired setting for therapeutic and educational services, and are included in the legislation mandating EI services (Part C of IDEA). In the school system, “least restrictive environment” is a related concept, though not as intuitively understood. However, both concepts emphasize participation in typical settings, or those that non-disabled peers access. Examples of natural settings in the schools might look like:
A speech therapist supporting literacy instruction at the elementary level, a social studies group project in middle school, or interview practice in the high school.
An occupational therapist supporting writing centers at the elementary level, a cooking task in home economics in middle school, or a driver’s education course in high school.
A physical therapist supporting recess participation in the elementary school, participation in team sports in middle school, or accessing community and vocational environments at the high school level.
How To Incorporate Natural Environments Into Practice
Although this resource is directed toward early intervention, many of the benefits and strategies detailed in this fact sheet are applicable to integrating related services in the classroom. Communication with parents is emphasized, and, while parents are very important as well, it is important to establish this rapport with the classroom teachers at the school level. See more about collaborating with team members in our previous post: Classroom Integration, Part 3 – Collaborative Consultation.
Additionally, intervention in natural settings should be focused on the activities and routines that occur there. For school-based therapists this indicates that:
1. Evaluation should include information about student engagement in the natural environment.
- This may include teacher interviews, informal or formal, writing samples, or grades. But it should definitely include observation of the student, engaged in the specific activities of concern (i.e. the reason for referral). Ideally, observation would occur over several days/times, in the settings when the child and his classmates are engaged in typical activity.
2. Goal setting should be a team effort, with goals focused on functional, routine tasks and activities that occur in the natural environment.
- The Anonymous OT discusses some of the challenges associated with setting authentic OT goals in her post. Collaboration with the team will result in goals that are not labeled by profession, rather, they address the student’s functioning in the school, across settings, with multiple team members responsible for a goal. The Pediatric APTA has a slide show of examples of team goals in the school setting, which can be downloaded here.
3. Assessment and data collection should include measurement of performance in the classroom.
- As a result of learning about a child’s baseline performance in the classroom, setting goals that address student needs and barriers to participation, and incorporating all team members in the goal setting process, progress should also be monitored in the natural setting. This may require therapists to adapt and change their relied-upon methods of progress reporting, but it is worth the challenge! Working with team members to set goals helps set the stage for shared collection of data. It is important to make sure the expectations are clearly outlined and understood by each participant, to support consistency (i.e. define levels of independence, types of cues) and accountability.
We invite you to share your experiences with integrating therapy services in the natural classroom environment! What do you anticipate as barriers, if you have not attempted integration? Let’s start a conversation so we can work together find solutions and overcome challenges!