Many educators find task analysis a useful strategy for teaching students to complete multi-step tasks or skills. This evidence-based practice can be a helpful tool in planning individualized education program (IEP) goals and for instruction as well. It is a proven strategy for targeting academics and a variety of skills: self-help and adaptive, language and communication, and motor. Essentially, task analysis is used to break down complex skills into manageable, discrete steps. Students learn the individual steps in sequence in order to master the overall skill. Task analysis can be most beneficial for those who struggle with executive functioning skills related to sequencing and attention and for those who are responsive to positive reinforcement and benefit from immediate feedback.

Task Analysis as an Assessment Tool

An ideal starting point for planning any learning target, IEP goal, or instructional plan is a sound assessment. While formal assessments can give you a broad overview of students’ skill levels compared to their peers, an informal assessment of a specific skill can give you valuable information about which steps may require additional support or instruction. And using task analysis is a helpful way of looking more closely at discrete parts of a larger skill.

To carry out an informal assessment using task analysis, start by writing down each step of the skill (for example, two-digit addition with regrouping). Perform it yourself to be sure that you have included each step. Once your list is complete, observe your student performing the same skill. Keep in mind that you are assessing it, not teaching it. So, resist the temptation to give any instruction or direction before your student makes an attempt. While you observe, notice where they require extra prompting or support for steps and record what type of support is effective. Be aware of your student’s engagement, attention, and stamina. Also take note of any steps they take that were not included on your task analysis list and adjust it as needed.

checklist for folding towels

Once you have a clearer picture of exactly how your student goes about performing a skill, you have more information to use in planning learning targets and instruction in a way that best meets their specific needs. 

Writing IEP Goals

The information you gain about how your student performs each step of a broader skill or task can be helpful in writing goals that are more specific, measurable, and attainable (three elements of a SMART goal!).

Specific

Use what you have learned about your student’s strengths and needs within each step of the skill to directly target the area of high need when writing your IEP goal.

Measurable

Through your assessment, you have learned what type of support is meaningful for your student (visual cues, verbal reminders, etc.), which will allow you to set measurable criteria for mastery. By creating a task analysis, you also have a thorough way to segment the skill, making it easier to track data on specific steps.

Attainable

You know what your student is capable of since you just completed an informal assessment and observed your student attempting the entire skill. If their attention and stamina did not allow for completion of the skill, consider adjusting expectations by targeting only a portion of the skill in the IEP goal. Or include explicit levels of support within the goal that will increase your student’s likelihood of achieving it.

Example: When given a visual support, Samantha will independently and accurately add two-digit numbers with regrouping with 80% accuracy in 8 out of 10 trials within a 9 week period.

The remaining elements of relevant and time-bound can be addressed as you consider what both you and your student are capable of achieving (“Is this relevant within the context of my classroom?”) and as you are setting your criteria for mastery (“What is the specific time frame in which I expect my student to meet this goal?”).

Task Analysis in Instruction

There are three methods for using task analysis in your instruction. Select the method that best fits your learner’s strengths and needs.

Forward Chaining

Start by teaching and reinforcing the first step of the skill. Then provide as much support as needed for your student to successfully complete the remaining steps. Once the first step is mastered, teach and reinforce the second step. Continue likewise with the remaining steps until the entire skill is mastered.

Backward Chaining

Start by supporting your student through all but the final step of the task. Then teach and reinforce the final step. Once they have mastered that step, continue likewise with the preceding step until all steps are mastered. This method benefits students who respond to immediate success as prompting is not faded until the last step.

Total Task Presentation

Teach and reinforce each step of the sequence simultaneously. The student learns to complete the entire task at once. This method works best for those who already show partial or full independence with some of the steps in the sequence.

When evaluating which method to use, consider your student’s learning style and temperament. Also consider the learning environment and time available to teach; for example, total task presentation may require more time as you teach and reinforce each step of the skill. Think about any past experiences with using task analysis. What method has been successful for your student? In addition, look closely at the IEP goal related to the target skill. The method of task analysis to use may already be indicated in that goal.

Progress Monitoring

As always, effective progress monitoring will not only inform you of your student’s progress but also can help you evaluate your instruction. Examine your data regularly to adjust your instructional plan, as needed. If your student shows a lack of or plateau in progress, look at your data to help answer the following questions:

  • Is the learning target clearly defined and measurable?
  • Is the skill completely task analyzed and in the order that makes the most sense for your learner?
  • Is your team consistently using the same method of chaining?
  • Is the reinforcement meaningful and powerful enough for your student? Is it being used consistently?

Remember that instruction is an ongoing process of assessing, planning, teaching, and evaluating. Your data can inform decisions on what adjustments to make in order for your student to achieve success.

There are many benefits of using task analysis for assessment, goal writing, and as a teaching strategy. It is user friendly because it is inexpensive and requires few materials. It is an evidence-based strategy proven to increase students’ independence. And finally, it supports students with executive functioning difficulties by breaking down complex skills into manageable parts.
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About the Author
Becky Dees is an Educational Consultant who specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder. She has worked as an autism clinician, an educational coach, and a special education trainer. She currently works with the autism group in research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Becky received her degree in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill.