Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Nov 05
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by Jess

Recently, I’ve  been putting together a shaving program for an adolescent learner I work with. When creating a program for adaptive behaviors, I use Task Analysis to identify the steps needed to complete the targeted skill.

Task analysis “involves breaking a complex skill into smaller, teachable units, the product of which is a series of sequentially ordered steps or tasks” (Cooper, Heron & Heward p. 437).

Task analysis is helpful in determining the “sequence of behaviors that are necessary and sufficient to complete a given task efficiently.” (p. 437).

Additionally, task analysis allows a teacher to identify steps needed to complete a complex skill that are “individualized according to the age, skill level, and prior experience of the person in question” (p. 437).

A cooking recipe is a common example of task analysis.  Each step needed to create a dish is specified in sequential order; if we follow the steps, we create an edible dish (well we should be able to.  Remind me to tell you about my falafel debacle some time.  What a mess that was).

As is always the case with an adaptive behavior program, I was enlightened by the number of behaviors that comprise the mundane task of shaving. Clearly I’ve been taking the complexity of this morning ritual for granted:

  1. Open the cabinet
  2. Retrieve the razor
  3. Place the razor to the left of the sink
  4. Retrieve the shaving cream
  5. Place the shaving cream to the left of the sink
  6. Close the cabinet
  7. Open the tap
  8. Cup hands
  9. Place hands under running water
  10. Fill cupped hands with water
  11. etc….

You get the idea.

When finished, the shaving program included 55 steps; 55 separate behaviors that this learner needs to acquire, in a specific order, before we can consider shaving “mastered.”


Consider other programs I’ve recently worked on:  Toothbrushing (61 steps), Washing the dishes (43 steps), Doing laundry (53 steps), Riding the bus (19 steps), Getting dressed (24 steps).

Most of us adult folks have mastered these skills and likely don’t think much about the number of specific behaviors we must emit in order to complete these everyday tasks.  Fortunately, for most of us (my dressing ability is debatable), our behaviors have been shaped; we’ve contacted reinforcement for completing these daily activities: a cavity free dental visit, a clean coffee mug in the morning, fresh clothing, arriving at a destination, not walking around naked! We get better at certain tasks, make changes to our behavior when necessary (I won’t be wearing my red velour shirt anytime soon, but you should’ve seen it in 1992).

The result?  Through the process of reinforcement, we continue to engage in sequences of behavior necessary to complete the afore mentioned tasks.

I think this is an important notion to consider as teachers:

Are the simple tasks we ask our students to engage in, often without any teaching, really that “simple?”

Furthermore, are the conditions of reinforcement that maintain our continued engagement in everyday tasks (e.g., a clean dental visit, a stain free shirt) really that valuable/relevant to our learners?

Case in point: The other afternoon I was visiting a special education classroom.  The teacher indicated that the student I was observing couldn’t get himself ready to go home.

“I don’t get it”  she said.

“It’s so simple.  He just gets distracted and he’s so slow.  Sometimes he almost misses the bus!”

Clearly, the teacher felt that getting ready to go home was an easy task.

“All the other students can do it. He just fails to get it done.”

However, upon further investigation this task of “Getting Ready to Go Home” was actually, a fairly complex sequence of behavior:

  1. Retrieve homework journal
  2. Retrieve pencil from desk
  3. Open journal to first clean page
  4. Date homework journal
  5. Copy homework assignments from the board in corresponding sections of homework journal
  6. Close homework journal
  7. Put pencil in desk
  8. Retrieve backpack
  9. Open backpack
  10. Place homework journal in backpack
  11. Retrieve notebook from desk
  12. Place notebook in backpack
  13. Close backpack
  14. Retrieve any paper scraps/garbage from floor within 2ft. of desk
  15. Place trash in trash can
  16. Retrieve jacket from back of chair
  17. Put jacket on
  18. Put backpack on
  19. Push chair under desk until back rest makes contact with desk-top.
  20. Walk towards classroom door
  21. Stand at end of line
  22. Exit classroom when door is openend

The learner needed to engage in no less than 22 separate behaviors to effectively “get ready to go home.”  That’s 22 separate opportunities to make a mistake and “fail” at the task.  And “failing” at the task really didn’t mean much.  If the student was moving too slow, the teachers would intervene so he wouldn’t miss his bus.

Additionally, there were a host of potential variables that served to confound the process:

What if the student didn’t have a pencil in the desk?

What if the pencil wasn’t sharpened?

What if the backpack was already full?

What if the student couldn’t locate his homework journal or his notebook?

This particular teacher had made the mistake of assuming that the task of “getting ready to go home” was simple, easy and achievable given this learner’s skill set.  Despite his repeated inability to effectively get ready to go home, the teacher never sought to “teach” the learner how to complete the task; the teacher never considered the multitude of steps comprising this activity.

When we created a task analysis comprised of the steps listed above the teacher was shocked.

“I never thought it about it like that.  What can we do?”

In this instance, we simplified the process of getting ready to go home.

  • When assignments were written on the board throughout the day, the student wrote them in his homework journal immediately; he put his homework journal in his backpack when the last assignment was recorded, usually a good 20 minutes before dismissal.
  • Several “clean up” sessions were interspersed during class time so the area around his desk was free from rubbish by the end of the day.
  • Rather than removing his notebook from his backpack every morning, he kept it in his backpack throughout the day, removing it when needed and returning it when finished.
  • We taught the learner to identify when his pencil needed sharpening and reinforced instances when he independently sharpened his pencil throughout the day.
  • With the help of the student’s parents, we taught him to clean his backpack out when he arrived home.  This helped to ensure that there was always adequate space for his take home materials.

The last seven steps of the task analysis (Exiting the Classroom) were taught to the student using a backward chaining procedure.  In backward chaining “you use prompting and fading to teach the last behavior in the chain first” (Miltenberger p. 220).

Once the last step of the chain is “mastered” (i.e., completed independently) you move to the second to last step, etc., until the entire chain is completed independently.

Backward chaining allows the learner to complete the entire chain of behaviors each time you teach it.

Our behavior chain looked like this (numbers indicate the sequence of taught steps):

Exiting the Classroom

7) Retrieve jacket from back of chair

6) Put jacket on

5) Put backpack on

4) Push chair under desk until back rest makes contact with desk-top.

3) Walk towards classroom door

2) Stand at end of line

1) Exit classroom when door is opened

We reinforced the completion of the chain with a quarter (the student saved these to buy a preferred beverage from a vending machine at lunch).  After 8 school days, he completed the steps needed to exit the classroom independently.

Additionally, the student received quarters for completing other tasks needed to efficiently get ready to go home (e.g., writing homework in journal, placing notebook in backpack after lesson).

It’s easy to overlook the complexity of everyday tasks.  Do you remember learning how to tie your shoes? Figuring out how to make a pot of coffee? Learning how to wash your hair?  Think about all the steps required to complete these tasks.  There are a lot.

As educators we will be faced with situations that make us wonder:

“Why aren’t they ‘getting it?’”

Consider the task we are asking our students to do.  It may be more complex than we realize.

Zachary Ikkanda is a Board Certified assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) who has been working with children with autism for 10 years. Mr. Ikkanda has worked in educational and clinical settings in California and New York, utilizing the principles of behavior and B.F. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior. Currently, Mr. Ikkanda serves as a therapist and consultant developing home and school based educational and behavioral interventions for children with Autism and other Pervasive Developmental Disorders. He is a member of the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis, the Council for Exceptional Children and the Association for Behavior Analysis International. Mr. Ikkanda is currently pursuing a masters of science in childhood special education, with a focus on behavioral disorders, at Hunter College in New York.  You can visit his blog at: www.zachikkanda.com


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007).Applied behavior analysis. (2nd ed., p. 437). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Miltenberger, R. G. (2004). Behavior modification, principles and procedures. (3 ed. p. 220). Wadsworth Pub Co.

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2 Responses to “The Complexity of “Simple” Tasks”

  1. Great post! It is so important that we understand that functional skills we take for granted – that are integral to everyday life – must be taught – explicitly.

    Kids need an opportunity to learn and practice the functional skills that add to their independence and quality of life.

    Too often we “assume” students have skills they have never mastered. Often they haven’t mastered the skills because we haven’t explicitly taught them.

    Thanks for this post!

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  2. I’m the mother of a teenager with autism. This article is a fabulous read! It really tells exactly what it takes to teach our children, and it demonstrates so well how we can figure out for them the structure they need in order to organize and complete tasks. My son, in spite of his significant deficits, responds so well to effective instruction when we take the time to analyze and teach!! May I print and share this article? I like to help support parents, and spread autism awareness. I also help promote the inclusion of people with autism in our local community. Thanks!

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