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From Chapter 6: Using Effective Tools for Change
Ms. Cruz Writes a Behavioral Goal for Ricky
Ms. Cruz decides that she needs to set goals for learning that will prepare Ricky for toilet training. She sets her first teaching goal as follows: "When I call his name, Ricky will walk into the bathroom without hitting or kicking for three days in a row." Ms. Cruz specified an observable behavior: Ricky will "walk without hitting or kicking." She can easily observe this and write down whether or not it occurs. Notice that she did not begin to address his physical sensation to use the bathroom, since that is not something she can directly observe. Ms. Cruz knows that Ricky has been successful walking to the bathroom several times in the past and feels confident that the goal is small enough to attain within a week or two. Finally, she decides that she will be confident that Ricky has acquired the skill when he does it for three days in a row. Now that Ms. Cruz knows how to write a goal, it is time to begin breaking the skill that she wants to teach into small teaching steps.
Step 2: Breaking Complex Skills Into Smaller Steps for Learning
A complex skill target may consist of many component skills, steps, or sub-skills (we will use these words interchangeably). For example, learning to wash your hands can be broken down into very few steps or many steps depending on your child's needs. ( See Table 6-2 for examples of a short and long task analysis for handwashing.) If your child cannot complete much of the task then more steps are better because it helps break the complex skill into smaller, learnable actions. This will increase your child's chances of success. Breaking skills into many steps is even more important if the goal is broad, such as, "Sam will learn to dress himself, including underwear, pants, socks, and shoes," versus a more specific goal such as, "Sam will learn to put on his socks and shoes."
Breaking complex target skills into small, learnable steps or actions is called a task analysis. Typically the steps are arranged in sequence or order in which they are to be performed (again, see Table 6-2). Although task analysis is a common and very effective tool for teaching children with autism, it also is the way we all learn many complex things. A set of directions to assemble a new swing set is an example of a task analysis. Manufacturers often break the task into a series of steps with illustrations. Each step builds on the previous step and sets the conditions for the step to follow.
An even more complex behavior that is broken into step is learning to drive a car. Think about how you learned to do it. You probably did not immediately turn on the car and start driving down the highway--or at least we hope you didn't! After you break the skill into its many component parts, you have to marvel at how anyone ever learns to drive! It involves gross motor actions including opening the door, sitting in the seat, and moving the gear shift; precise fine motor tasks, including steering and breaking; visual perceptual skills, including judging distance, making turns, and maintaining speed; and cognitive tasks involving split-second decision-making that link the entire process together.
So, you probably began by simply sitting in the driver's seat, studying the instruments on the dashboard, experimenting with the lights and turn signals, and pushing the break and gas pedal a few times. Next, you turned the key and started the engine and once you mustered up the nerve, you took it in and out of gear a few times. And so on. But amazingly, most adults learn to drive, and after a few years most are hardly conscious of all the component steps. Well, this is the same thing that we are trying to accomplish by writing and using a task analysis. It breaks complex skills into smaller steps for learning.
Now, you may not intend to teach your child to drive, but teaching self-help skills involves a similar approach, i.e., breaking the complex tasks into smaller steps for learning. Unlike you, however, children with autism may spend a lot more time on each step before master the entire sequence of sub-skills. An added benefit of breaking complex skills into smaller steps for learning is that it increases the number of opportunities to reward your child's accomplishments. Very few children are able to sustain attention and motivation to complete a difficult and lengthy task, and children with autism find it even more challenging. It is not quite an errorless process (i.e., occurs with few or no errors), but it comes close, as you will see later. A task analysis also helps you organize your teaching approach and establishes many check points to either praise your child for good work or help if he is struggling to be successful. As your child masters one step and links it to the previously learned step, he is more motivated to continue learning and soon will form strings of individual skills or actions into complex behaviors.
Mr. Turner & Charlie
Mr. Turner was determined to teach his son, Charlie, to remove his pajama bottoms and put on his underwear independently each morning. He began with a reasonable goal, "When he is told to get dressed and his underwear is placed on the bed next to him, Charlie will remove his pajama bottoms and put his underwear on with one or no prompts for three consecutive days." It seemed like a simple, achievable goal. But no matter how much Mr. Turner coached and prodded, after two months, Charlie was still completely dependent upon his dad. What Mr. Turner began to realize was that it was not enough just to set a goal and start teaching. He also needed to break the target skill into a series of smaller, learnable steps. Although learning to remove pajamas and put on underwear seemed simple enough, Charlie really didn't understand what was expected of him and he lacked some of the component skills. Mr. Turner decided that the task had to be broken into smaller steps for learning, so he developed the task analysis shown in Table 6-3.
Mr. Turner clearly numbered the steps so they were easily taught in sequence each time. Numbers also made it easy for him to monitor progress on each of the steps (something we will discuss further in chapter 7). Once he began teaching these small steps systematically, he discovered that Charlie was significantly more interested and responsive. And, of course, greater responsiveness resulted in more frequent praise and attention--a formula for ultimate success.