Walden Preschool – Incidental Learning
I) Approach: The Walden Preschool model uses incidental teaching as a means to foster incidental learning
which is learning that is self paced and comes about incidentally or as a result of children’s interactions with
their environment. Incidental teaching allows children to demonstrate their curiosity and interests by
allowing them to choose the materials they want to play with. The specially trained staff then uses
systematic instruction along with the child’s choices to make their play more meaningful by developing and
fostering their language, social and academic growth. The learning is therefore guided by the child not the
Incidental teaching at Walden preschools occur during play and it is the belief that when children learn while
having fun they will learn more successfully because they are actively engaged.
The program includes children aged 3-4.5 with Autism Spectrum Disorders as well as typically developing
children in order for the children with delays to learn from their typical peers. Services provided at the
preschools include language and social intervention for the children with Autism.
The approach also incorporates a home/school component in which parents/families are trained to foster
naturally occurring learning opportunities at home and in the community.
II) The Theory: The theory of incidental teaching is that there is freedom within a controlled environment.
The children are allowed to progress at their own rate and learn with the materials they are interested in.
Learning is structured around teachable moments that children initiate by showing interest in a toy, an
environment etc. The teachers then encourage the child to expand on the interest in a meaningful way.
The Walden preschool operates on empirically based principles that have been identified as best practice
when teaching children with autism. The underlying principles are:
Early intervention is critical.
Home/ school collaboration is essential.
More intervention is better: Walden mandates at least 30 hours of intervention a week, but prefers 40
hours including home programs.
Individualized programs for families and children.
Systematic, planned teaching.
Walden incorporates research proven techniques into their program including ABA, incidental
teaching, aspects of discrete trial training and positive behaviour support.
They do not incorporate other programs such as sensory integration or visual programs because they do not
believe that more interventions are better, they believe in their own approach and that more of the same is
III) Research to support it:
Walden Preschool is based on empirically proven interventions for Autism and related disorders. Incidental
teaching as mentioned above includes techniques from ABA (applied behaviour analysis), DTT (discrete
trial teaching), and PBS (positive behaviour support) – all of which have a substantial amount of research to
substantiate them as effective interventions for Autism. Discrete trial training and incidental training both
utilize the concepts of errorless learning in which children are prompted to make the correct response before
they make an incorrect one and they both incorporate precise reinforcement delivery. The main difference is
DTT utilizes teacher initiated interactions in a controlled environment, whereas incidental teaching occurs
when the child initiates interaction within the natural, everyday environment. Research shows that although
DTT has shown to provide quicker results, incidental teaching is better for generalization across situations,
time and people. Ultimately generalization is key as there is no point in learning a skill that can only be
reproduced within a confined place with one or two people. The learning needs to be applicable to other
situations. Characteristics of PBS in incidental teaching are also evident and require that all participants
agree to be preventative in terms of behaviour support for all of the children at the preschool. Additionally,
when problem behaviours occur they must not deal with them in an overly restrictive or aversive manner.
IV) The research to challenge it:
No impartial experiments or studies have been conducted to challenge or substantiate the claims made by
Gail McGee and her colleagues of Walden Preschool. All the information available is either written or co-
authored by Gail McGee, the program’s director. The people at Emory University where the Walden lab
schools are located claim that 95% of students who graduate from the program integrate into a regular
kindergarten class in their community (with varying degrees of supports), while 92% left the preschool with
functional verbal language. There is no information indicating students’ abilities before entering the
program, the levels of progress made, how is functional, verbal language defined and what are the degrees of
supports in place for the children who go to ‘regular’ kindergarten classrooms. Perhaps they would be
included into typical kindergarten classrooms regardless because of inclusion laws. Furthermore, there is no
substantial evidence to either confirm or dispute the benefits of incidental teaching over other preschool
programs that have demonstrated effectiveness.
V) Harmful?: The program can be harmful to a child with Autism to the extent that in choosing this program,
you may be excluding your child from another program that may be more suitable to his/her needs, abilities
and preferences. This program does not have empirical data to support it or dispute it’s claimed success rate,
so it is potentially harmful if it does not produce the results claimed and hoped for by the families. There
may be other programs that do have solid evidence to verify its claims, so parents/families need to be careful,
discriminate consumers when choosing an intervention for their child. Each child is different and it is
unlikely that one program will suit the needs/abilities of all children with Autism.
VI) Who is doing the research?: Dr. Gail McGee and Michael Morrier at the Emory Autism Resource Centre
within the Emory Department of Psychiatric and Behavioural Sciences, Emory University School of
Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. McGee is the leading researcher at Emory and in this field. The Walden
lab preschool has spawned replication programs in Georgia, California, Alabama and West Virginia.
I could not find any information on a Walden-type preschool or agencies using specifically incidental
teaching locally or elsewhere in the world.
Dawson, G. & Osterling, J. (1997). Early intervention in autism: Effectiveness and common elements of current approaches. In
Guralnick (Ed.), The effectiveness of early intervention: Second generation research (pp. 307-326). Baltimore: Brookes.
Handleman, J.S. & Harris, S.L. (Ed.) (1994). Preschool education programs for children with autism. Austin, TX: PRO-ED Inc.
Hurth, J., Shaw, E., Izeman, S.G., Whaley, K., & Rogers, S.J. (1999). Areas of agreement about effective practices among
programs serving young children with autism spectrum disorders. Infants and Young Children, 12 (2), 17-26.
McGee, G., Morrier, M.J., & Daly, T. (1999). An incidental teaching approach to early intervention for toddlers with
autism. The Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps. 24 (3), 133-146.
Emory University Autism Research Centre:
West Virginia Autism Training Centre: