Naturalistic observation

naturalistic observation, naturalistic observation for speech therapy, naturalistic observation in speech therapy

Naturalistic observation in the context of speech therapy is defined as the “observation of the individual in everyday social settings with others, including academic settings,” according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association. 

Observing clients in their natural environments provides speech therapists with a holistic understanding of their clients’ communication abilities.

Naturalistic settings capture how an individual communicates with others during real-life situations. This may be a more accurate representation of the client’s strengths and challenges with regards to communication. Therefore, these observations can help SLPs more appropriately develop a unique intervention plan for their clients. 

What is a naturalistic observation example?

Selecting the appropriate settings for naturalistic observation is key to obtaining meaningful information for a speech-language pathologist. The observation may take place in the client’s home, school, or a community setting (such as a park or store).

In order to determine the most appropriate setting for the observation, the clinician should consider important factors, including the client’s age, daily routines, and interests or motivators. This can help yield an accurate representation of the client’s communication skills.

Prior to the observation, the SLP will need to obtain informed consent from the client and/or caregiver, and any other individuals present (such as a teacher). The clinician should clearly explain what the observation will entail, the purpose of the naturalistic observation, and the desired outcomes or benefits.

Observing communication behaviors

During a naturalistic observation, the speech therapist will observe the client’s communication behaviors. How is the client primarily communicating their thoughts, wants, and needs with others? The SLP should note both the client’s nonverbal (pointing, signs, reaching) and verbal (vocalizing, saying single words, using sentences and questions) means of communication

Documenting language use

During a naturalistic observation of a client’s language skills, the SLP will want to document specific areas of language use. This includes noting the client’s vocabulary, sentence structure, and speech clarity.

The SLP should also aim to identify any patterns of language difficulties or strengths. Documenting these areas can enable a therapist to determine appropriate intervention strategies and goals for speech therapy.

Analyzing social interactions

Observing how a client socially interacts with others can be one of the most valuable aspects of a naturalistic observation. The SLP can note if and how the individual initiates and maintains conversations.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have been shown to have fluctuations in motivation and attention to standardized tests. This can result in an inaccurate representation of their abilities, according to research. However, a naturalistic observation can more accurately depict areas such as social skills.

Clinicians should note any specific challenges in social communication or pragmatic skills. These can be targeted as goals during intervention.

Monitoring speech fluency

Obtaining an adequate, natural speech sample to analyze for a fluency disorder can be difficult during a formal assessment. In a naturalistic observation, the SLP can record instances of stuttering or other fluency-related issues.

The clinician can identify certain speaking situations, topics, or environments that appear to affect the client’s speech fluency. The SLP may also observe strategies that clients use to manage their speech fluency, observing whether they appear to be effective or could benefit from modifying.

Noting nonverbal communication

Understanding and using nonverbal communication allows an individual to convey and interpret specific feelings, information, and thoughts. SLPs can document the gestures, facial expressions, and body language that the client uses.

It’s also important to assess how nonverbal cues complement or impact how effective the individual’s communication skills are.

Identifying environmental influences

Naturalistic observations should occur in several different environments. This allows the clinician to observe how different environments affect an individual’s communication skills.

It’s important to note any sensory factors that may impact the client’s speech and language. For example, the SLP can observe how the client communicates within a noisy, busy classroom setting.

Analyzing client reactions

An important component of a naturalistic observation is analyzing the client’s responses. The SLP can record the individual’s emotional responses during communication, which may include signs of engagement, enjoyment, or frustration. These reactions can guide the therapist in developing a unique treatment plan that includes creating experiences to yield effective and positive communication.

Maintaining objectivity

It’s important for clinicians to maintain objectivity for accurate data collection. Therapists should minimize interference with natural interactions for example, by avoiding prompting the client in their responses. An unbiased analysis of communication behaviors ensures a more accurate representation of the client’s speech and language skills.  

Reflecting on observation findings

When analyzing the data collected from a naturalistic observation, an SLP can look for patterns or trends that exist within an individual’s communication behaviors. This can highlight specific areas of strengths and difficulties.

Areas of strength can be considered when selecting intervention techniques. Trends in communication challenges (such as expressive or receptive language skills, speech fluency, or social skills) can be identified as areas to target in speech therapy. 

Informing intervention strategies

Therapy techniques can be tailored based on observation results to increase their effectiveness. For example, if a client demonstrates the ability to follow directions and understand age-appropriate concepts, he or she may be responsive to the use of direct instruction and video modeling as intervention strategies.

Challenges identified through naturalistic observation can be developed into therapeutic goals. These measurable, achievable goals can improve an individual’s functional communication skills.

Implementing targeted interventions

Observing communication skills in a client’s natural environment can help bridge the gap between therapy and real-life scenarios, and this should also be incorporated when targeting intervention goals.

Observation data can be used to create relevant exercises and activities that simulate functional daily activities, such as initiating conversation with a friend and ordering at a restaurant.

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Tracking progress over time

Continued monitoring of a client’s progress is essential to ensure that the therapeutic interventions being used are effectively improving the individual’s communication skills. Follow up observations can be conducted in order to monitor a client’s improvements. Therapy interventions and goals can be adjusted based on the outcome of these subsequent observations.

In speech therapy, it can be difficult to gain an accurate representation of a client’s true communication skills through a formal assessment alone. Naturalistic observation can be a valuable tool in providing SLPs with a more comprehensive understanding of their clients’ communication abilities in real-life contexts.

Including naturalistic observations can help speech therapists develop unique, individualized treatment plans that can effectively foster a client’s authentic, functional communication skills.


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