Using Task Analysis to Teach Daily Living Skills

Becky Dees

Educational Consultant

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Task analysis (TA) is a practice often used in the classroom to teach multi-step skills or behaviors related to academics, communication and social skills. It can also be effective for teaching daily living skills. As the school year winds down, now is a good time to focus on them. Your students can end the school year having gained new skills that they can use throughout the summer in their homes.

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 easy to use as it often requires few materials, can be inexpensive and can be used in a variety of settings. Most importantly, it supports students who have difficulty with executive functioning skills like sequencing, working memory and attention.

Start to think beyond academics and imagine the impact that task analysis can have in supporting your students’ daily living skills. Sequence the steps for hygiene activities like handwashing, toothbrushing or toileting. Provide supports for steps involved in household chores like dusting, cleaning the bedroom, clearing the table or picking up toys. Teach complex tasks in the kitchen like making a sandwich, putting away groceries and setting the table.

Planning for Task Analysis

In planning to use task analysis, be sure to select a skill that is achievable for your student. If you plan to teach your student how to follow a recipe, they must have the motor skills to pour, scoop, stir, etc. It may be necessary to isolate individual steps to teach first before using task analysis to teach the entire skill. Additionally, look to your student’s individualized education plan (IEP) for goals that require task analysis or goals that could more easily be taught by breaking the skill down into manageable steps.

Have a concrete goal in mind by clearly defining the expected behavior. Rather than simply saying that your student will wash their hands, it is helpful to explicitly state that your student will wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds and dry their hands when finished.

Before teaching the skill, ensure that each individual step is identified and put in the correct sequence. It can be helpful to perform the skill yourself, or observe another adult performing the skill, and record each individual step. For example, to develop a task analysis for washing dishes, start with the step of turning on the water. Complete and record each individual step, being careful not to leave out any detail.

As part of the planning process, take time to observe your student completing the target skill. This will give you a clear idea of what level and types of support to provide for each step of the task. It may also highlight any routines that your student has already developed around this activity as well as reveal areas of strength.

Once you have identified each step and observed your student engaging in the activity, think about how best to present the task analysis to your student. Line drawings or photographs like those in decision trees may be helpful to support some students. A written checklist might be appropriate for others. Even video modeling can be meaningful and appropriate for some students. Consider your student’s level of learning to determine the best presentation.

Tips for Implementing Task Analysis

There are three methods for using task analysis: forward chaining, backward chaining and total task presentation. Select the one that best fits your learner’s strengths and needs. When evaluating which method to use, consider your student’s learning style and temperament. Backward chaining benefits students who respond to immediate success. Consider the learning environment and time available to teach. Total task presentation may require more time as you teach and reinforce each step of the skill. Think about past experiences with using task analysis. What method has been successful for your student? Also, 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.

Forward Chaining

Start by teaching and reinforcing the first step in the chain. Then support your student’s completion of the remaining steps by starting with the least amount of prompting necessary to help your student complete the step successfully. Again, an initial observation of your student’s skill can provide some insight into what level of support is appropriate. Once the first step is mastered (i.e., once your student can independently complete the first step), teach and reinforce the second step while continuing to support the steps that follow.

Backward Chaining

Start by teaching and reinforcing the last step in the chain as you provide a model and support for all steps prior to the last. As the last step is mastered, move backward in the sequence by teaching and reinforcing the second-to-last step. Backward chaining lets your student end every teaching session with success and positive reinforcement.

Total Task Presentation

Present all steps of the sequence at one time. Teach and reinforce each step of the process. This allows your student to learn a complete routine and understand the expectations of the full task from the start.

Task analysis is most effective when paired with a positive reinforcement. As your student performs an individual step or completes the total task (as described above), reinforce their behavior. Consider what reinforcers are motivating and meaningful to your student. This could be verbal praise, a high five or a small token. Keep it simple, and be sure that the selected reinforcer is effective for your student.

In addition to reinforcement, use task analysis in combination with other evidence-based practices. Various levels of prompting can support your student’s learning. Video modeling and visual supports, such as social narratives and decision trees, may also be used to clarify expectations and increase understanding of the skill being taught.

Monitor Your Intervention

Monitoring your task analysis is just as important as thoughtful planning and implementation for two reasons. First, by taking data on your student’s progress, you can objectively determine when your student has met the goal or whether there is a lack of progress. Be sure your progress monitoring indicates your student’s required level of support for each step of the skill. Second, by analyzing the data you can identify whether changes need to be made to your instructional plan. If progress is not being made, think carefully not only about your student’s abilities, but also about your approach to teaching this skill.

Consider the Skill Itself

Has it been clearly defined? Is it truly measurable? Without these characteristics, student progress is difficult to accurately monitor. Also revisit your student’s skill level. Are the prerequisite skills truly present? Is the skill aligned with the IEP and achievable as it is written?

Look Closely at the Task Analysis

Is the skill completely task analyzed? Is there a step missing? Be sure that every step of the sequence is a discrete skill, and not a series of steps collapsed into one.

Review Implementation

If other team members are also teaching this skill, be sure that everyone is using the same chaining method for using task analysis. A thorough task analysis will support consistent implementation as well. Ensure that additional supports (video models, social narratives, visual supports, etc.) are being used in the same way each time.

Reconsider the Positive Reinforcement

If your student is showing a lack of progress, interest or engagement, it may be necessary to find a more effective way to reinforce the skill.

Task analysis can effectively be used to teach daily living skills by breaking down tasks into manageable parts. With thoughtful planning, consistent implementation and careful monitoring, you can support your student’s growth in this area.

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. Becky 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.