NLE Practices Defined

"…experiences and opportunities afforded developing children as part of daily living, child and family routines, family rituals, and family and community celebrations and traditions" (Dunst, Hamby, Trivette, Raab, Bruder, 2000).";

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations 303:12(4)(b)(2) defines natural environments as "settings that are natural or normal for the child's same age peers who have no disabilities." A natural environment includes both places as well as activities where children without disabilities would typically be found within the community – not places children go because of their disabilities, convenience of a therapist, or access to a special place or equipment.

The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997 reemphasized the original requirement (IDEA, 1986) that states ensure that Part C services for eligible infants and toddlers are provided in natural learning environments. For many states, programs, and practitioners this has meant shifting services from segregated, clinic-based programs (i.e., therapy clinics, hospitals, developmental centers) to supporting families and their children in real life environments such as children's homes, child care centers, preschools and other community settings. This requirement, however, has required much more than a shift in where support is provided, but also a fundamental change in how support is rendered. The shift from clinic-based early intervention services to supporting children and their care providers in everyday experiences has had major implications for many states and programs including changes in policy and procedure, funding priorities, and training for providers and families (Shelden & Rush, 2001).

Evidence to support the use of natural learning environment practices is plentiful ( Bruder & Dunst, 1999; Dunst, Hamby, Trivette, Raab, & Bruder, 2000; Dunst, Herter, Shields, 2000; Hart & Risley, 1995; McLean & Cripe, 1997; Shelden & Rush, 2001; Trivette, Dunst & Hamby, 2004; etc.) and continues to emerge. The existing literature reveals that using the child's/family's interests, routines, rituals, and priorities is the venue for promoting the child's existing abilities and learning new skills. As early interventionists focus on enhancing parent competence and confidence to maximize child participation in existing and desired activity settings, positive outcomes are achieved for children and caregivers. More specifically, "children's participation in both home and community activity settings is related to children's developmental progress and a positive sense of parent's well-being" (Trivette, Dunst & Hamby, 2004, p. 30). We have also learned that, if therapists and teachers engage in decontextualized activities within a child's natural learning environments (e.g., provide therapy or educational activities to the child, give homework for parents to perform in our absence, embed activities and exercises into daily life) we are actually disrupting well-established, meaningful learning opportunities (Raab & Dunst, 2004).

Due to existing and emerging evidence regarding effective and ineffective practices in natural learning environments, early intervention practitioners must strive to rethink their intervention paradigms and learn how to support children within the context of their family and community life. If we continue to practice as we did five years ago, two years ago, or even last year, we must question our usefulness and work harder to bridge current knowledge to everyday practice. Simply "kerplunking" the practices we used in clinic-based settings into family homes and other community settings is unacceptable (Rush, 2000). Although many practitioners feel they are making major sacrifices by changing the location of their support, we now understand that embedding decontextualized practices into the child's family and community life is not helpful and has been demonstrated to be detrimental. The lessons we have learned from the literature and interactions with children and their care providers have given us a clear mandate to accept the challenge of refocusing our practices. Current practice guides us to coach care providers in supporting their child's learning in everyday moments by maximizing his/her participation in the things he/she likes to do.



Bruder, M. B., & Dunst, C. J. (1999-2000). Expanding learning opportunities for infants and toddlers in natural environments: A chance to reconceptualize early intervention. Zero to Three, 20(3), 34-36.

Dunst, C. J. (2000). Revisiting "Rethinking early intervention". Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20, 95-104.

Dunst, C. J., Hamby, D., Trivette, C. M., Raab, M., & Bruder, M. B. (2000). Everyday family and community life and children's naturally occurring learning opportunities. Journal of Early Intervention, 23, 151-164.

Dunst, C. J., Herter, S., & Shields, H. (2000). Interest-based natural learning opportunities. Young Exceptional Children Monograph Series No. 2: Natural Environments and Inclusion, 37-48.

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

McLean, L.K. & Cripe, J.W. (1997). The effectiveness of early intervention for children with communication disorders. In M.J. Guralnick (Ed.), The effectiveness of early intervention. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing.

Raab, M. & Dunst, C.J. (2004). Early intervention practitioner approaches to natural environment interventions. Journal of Early Intervention, 27, 15-26.

Rush, D.D. (2000). Perspective. Infants and Young Children, 13(2), VI-IX.

Shelden, M. L., & Rush, D. D. (2001). The ten myths about providing early intervention services in natural environments. Infants and Young Children, 14(1), 1-13.

Trivette, C. M., Dunst, C.J., Hamby, D. (2004). Sources of variation in and consequences of everyday activity settings on child and parenting functioning. Perspectives in Education, 22(2), 17-35.