There are numerous hidden tasks that we undertake while at the grocery store. We process them so quickly or subconsciously that we are not aware of these steps.

As a result, we may overlook these steps while educating students on life skills such as grocery shopping. Subsequently, these steps may not be part of the programming or teaching at school and therefore generalization is left for another day. Yet, the purpose of IDEA is, in essence, preparing students for life, including “independent living.”

To address this, we can take a task analysis approach in which we break down the act of shopping at a grocery store into a sequence of discrete steps or tasks (see excerpt of the task analysis document below).

Step 1 is to administer a baseline pretest during which we start with no prompting to determine if the student performs each task and how well each is performed. As necessary, prompting is provided and respective documentation is entered into the table (to indicate prompting as opposed to independent completion). For example, I worked with a client who understood the meaning of the shopping list but started off for the first item without a basket or cart. I engaged him with a discussion about how he would carry the items. At one point I had him hold 7 grapefruits and it became apparent to him that he needed a cart. (I documented this in the document.)

Other issues that arose were parking the cart in the middle of the aisle, finding the appropriate section of the store but struggling to navigate the section for the item (e.g. at one point I prompted him to read the signs over the freezer doors), and mishandling the money when prompted to pay by the cashier announcing the total amount to pay.

Step 2 is to identify a task or sequence of tasks to practice in isolation based on the results of the pretest. For example, this could involve walking to a section of the store and prompting the student to find an item. Data collection would involve several trials of simply finding the item without addressing any other steps of the task analysis.

Step 3 would be to chain multiple steps together, but not the entire task analysis yet. For example, having the student find the appropriate section and then finding the item in the section.

Eventually, a post-test can be administered to assess the entire sequence to identify progress and areas needing more attention.

Problems like the addition problem below are often viewed by adults as straight forward. This perception can make it difficult for adults, including teachers and even special education teachers to help students who struggle with it.

I find that the math teacher candidates and special education teacher candidates struggle with breaking down math topics, especially “easy” ones like the one below, into simple steps. To help students who struggle with math breaking down the math topic is imperative. The analogy I use is to break the topic down into bite-sized pieces like we cut up a hot dog for a baby in a high chair.

For new teachers I use a formal task analysis approach to teach candidates how to cut up the math into bite-sized pieces. A task analysis for the problem above was an assignment given to a group of graduate level special ed candidates. As is common, they overlooked many simple little steps hidden in the problem. These steps are hidden because they are so simple or so automatic in our brains that we don’t think about them. See below for how I break this topic into several pieces or steps. For example, before even starting the addition the person doing the problem has to identify that 43 is a 2-digit number with 4 in the TENS place and 3 in the ONES place. Understanding that the problem is addition which entails pulling the numbers together to get a total (sum) is an essential and overlooked step. If a student struggles with a step the step can be addressed in isolation, as I show in another blog post.

Shaping is a term in special ed which basically means to train a student to incrementally follow through on a sequence of substeps to accomplish a task. B.F. Skinner coined a different name for this which he called operant conditioning. The top photo below shows “Skinner’s box.” The pigeon was placed in the box and when it pecked at the metal wall a pellet of food was presented to it. Eventually the reward was given as the pigeon pecked closer and closer to the disk in the wall where its beak is in the photo. Finally, it learned that by pecking this disk was the only means of getting the pellet.

In special education, this shaping is used to train a student to achieve specific outcomes. In the bottom photo below my son Gabriel is playing with his favorite all time toy, Legos. As is the case with many with autism, he would not look at people in the eye. His therapists trained him to make eye contact by first holding his Legos in the air until he requested them. Eventually the Legos were held incrementally closer to the therapist’s eyes. The second to last step was to hold them next to the eyes and finally he had to look into the therapist’s eyes before getting the Legos.

This same approach can be used to train students to attempt problems, think critically, follow classroom norms such as the appropriate steps for starting classs and any other desired behavior.

A teacher friend of mine in the ASD community shared an anecdote for me to share. Her son had trouble figuring out perimeter. He was counting the squares and didn’t want to count the corner squares twice. The solution? The squares were pieces of sod to fill in the inside while the outer sides of the squares were fence pieces. This shows how kids can get caught up on the smallest details that teachers overlook.

This can be addressed using task analysis which is a process of breaking a skill into small steps. This is common in special education but not as much in math. While math teachers can be effective in the process, there are often little steps that are overlooked or not addressed as much as necessary. Effective task analysis also allows for more effective scaffolding.

The photos above are examples of task analysis. The top photo taken at Burger King shows a sequence of photos showing how to pour a soft cream ice cream. The bottom is a task analysis break down of all the steps in solving a linear equation – ALOT of steps!