Task Analysis

This article originally appeared in START Connecting in October 2020. 

As teachers and school professionals, one of our primary goals is to teach students new skills. No matter the age of the student, the academic, social and independence skills we teach can have a profound impact on participation and quality of life. It is important to understand some students may need more assistance in learning certain skills. A task analysis breaks down a skill that has multiple components into individual steps. Each step builds on the prior step to assist in reaching the higher-level skill. This is called chaining steps to reach a target skill. The steps are learned sequentially leading to mastery of the target skill. A target skill should not be a single action (i.e. give me the cup), rather, it involves a series of steps. Some examples include getting hot lunch in the cafeteria; bedtime, before or after school routines; handwashing or masking procedures; using public transportation; or beginning the workday at a job site.

To create a task analysis, explicitly walk through each of the steps in the target skill. The best way is for you or one of your colleagues to go through each of the steps slowly and deliberately while documenting the order it occurs. We often think about completing a task but give little thought to the steps needed to actually be successful. Deliberately moving through and documenting each step will ensure an accurate task analysis for the skill being targeted. When identifying target skills and creating a task analysis, individualize to meet the needs of that student.

Considerations for an effective task analysis: 

  • Clearly define the desired target skill and each of the steps, making sure that each step is observable and measurable.
  • When the task analysis is being developed, each step is defined sequentially by physically performing the steps.
  • To gain mastery of the target skill, each step must be performed independently.
  • The difficulty of the task analysis should be based on the needs and abilities of the student. For example, if the target skill is clearing the table, start with one or two items on the table, adding items to build tolerance as well as to increase success and motivation.
  • Make it fun--find ways to use high interest areas with the task analysis such as offering a reinforcer related to the student’s interest, using pictures of the interest area on the task analysis, or using motivating stickers when a skill is mastered, etc. 

Teaching each of the steps or components in the task analysis may take some time, depending on how difficult each step is for the student. In order to make sure that the student is successful, school staff might need to prompt or model specific steps, provide appropriate reinforcement, assure that learned skills are maintained and generalized, and collect data.

The following explains how the procedures above might be used for an individual student:

  • Prompt: Show the student a visual of the step being completed.  This can be in the form of a picture of the student or another student completing the task or PECS or picture card. The goal is for the student to be successful and increase some level of success toward mastering a step and ultimately the target skill. A gestural prompt such as pointing, a verbal prompt such as reminding, or other prompts can also be used to help the student complete the step. The goal is for the student to be successful and increase some level of success toward mastering a step and ultimately the target skill.  
  • Model: Demonstrate the skill for the student by modeling it yourself or show a video of the student or another student doing some or all of the steps in the task analysis. Remember to make it fun and engaging for the student, labeling what is being done while demonstrating the skill (i.e. I like helping mom clean up the dishes!). 
  • Reinforcement: Provide reinforcement for all progress, including the student's attempts and successes. Reinforcement is very important! This can be in the form of praise, toys, or other motivating activities for that student. To be effective, reinforcement must be individualized based on what motivates that student.
  • Maintenance and Generalization: Continue practicing the steps in order from beginning to end even after the student     masters steps. Practicing from the first component through the last component assures the skills are being learned and retained. After the target skill is mastered, it should be attempted at multiple locations to assure the skills are maintained and generalized to other settings such as at grandma’s house, an aunt’s house, a friend’s house, or at school.
  • Data collection: Record whether or not the student is making progress, as this data can guide decisions about the effectiveness of an intervention. If the student is not making progress it may be appropriate to consider a different intervention or whether the student has the needed prerequisite skills. 

View the Task Analysis webinar for more information. 

Written by: Stacie Rulison, M.S., M.Ed., BCBA 

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