Total task chaining is an approach to applied behavior analysis that involves teaching a complex task in a step-by-step, highly structured procedure using direct instruction.
This approach is often used in applied behavior analysis and by aba therapists for children with autism (Price, Marsh & Fisher, 2018; Veazey et al., 2016).
The total task method is distinctive from the other chaining methods (backward and forward chaining) in that each step of the procedure is taught during every session, rather than the instructor insisting on mastery of each step before moving onto the next step. Rewards are provided whenever a step is newly mastered (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).
Total Task Chaining in ABA: Overview
The total task procedure involves having a learner attempt each step of a task systematically and chronologically, giving direct and explicit instruction along the way (Veazey et al., 2016).
Importantly, the educator does not stop and insist on repetition of each step until mastery. Instead, each step is taught and practiced, regardless of the student’s ability to complete the step. This differentiated the total task procedure from forward chaining.
Here are the general steps:
- Identify the Task or Behavior: Clearly define the complex procedure that the learner needs to acquire, ensuring that it can be broken down into smaller, sequential steps.
- Break Down the Process (Task Analysis): Complete the task yourself, taking clear notes on every action to create a procedure or ‘recipe’ for completing the task (Snodgrass et al., 2017). I will discuss the full task analysis procedure after the listed examples on this article.
- Teach the First Step: The learner practices the first step of the sequence, with reinforcement provided upon successfully completing this step (i.e. a reward).
- Teach the Next Step: After attempting the first step, the learner moves onto the next step, regardless of whether they have mastered the first one.
- Progressive Learning: Continue this process, progressively introducing each preceding step and allowing the learner to perform more of the task, providing positive reinforcements whenever a stage is successfully compelted.
- Achieve Full Mastery: Continue attempting total task process until the learner has mastered all the steps can perform the entire task or behavior independently.
- Generalization and Maintenance: Encourage the learner to apply the acquired skill or behavior in different contexts and settings, and provide periodic opportunities for practice and reinforcement to ensure maintenance of the learned task (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020; Price, Marsh & Fisher, 2018).
Total Task Chaining Examples
1. Making a Sandwich
In total task chaining, a learner practices gathering ingredients, spreading condiments, assembling, and cutting the sandwich in every session, compared to forward chaining where each step would be learned and mastered individually before moving on to the next.
2. Tying Shoes
The learner practices crossing the laces, forming loops, creating a knot, and tightening the bow in each session. They are not required to master each step sequentially, as support is provided for the steps that the child can’t yet do themselves.
3. Baking Cookies
A child practices measuring ingredients, mixing, scooping dough, baking, and cooling cookies in every session. They tend to struggle with scooping the dough. So, their parent helps them with that step each time (helping the child to gradually develop that skill over time), but they do not let this one difficulty prevent them from fully baking cookies.
4. Washing Hands
The learner practices turning on the water, applying soap, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying hands during each teaching session. Each time a new step is mastered, a reward is provided.
5. Setting the Table
In each session, the learner practices placing placemats, dishes, silverware, glasses, and napkins. Mistakes are made, but unlike forward chaining, the procedure isn’t interrupted because of those errors. Support is provided, then the task continues.
6. Riding a Bicycle
The learner practices mounting, pedaling, steering, and stopping the bicycle in every session, compared to the gradual introduction and mastery of each step. Supports, such as training wheels, are used, so the whole task can be completed even if mastery isn’t achieved for all steps.
7. Assembling a Puzzle
The learner practices sorting pieces, assembling the border, filling in the middle, and placing the last piece in each session. When mistakes are made, the instructor gives direct instruction and support, moving through the mistakes to the next step, so that the puzzle can be completed each time.
8. Planting a Seed
The learner practices digging a hole, placing the seed, covering it with soil, watering, and labeling in every session. Contrast this to the backward chaining method (common with introducing children to gardening), where the learner is shown how to water plants first, then shown the other steps in reverse, until the last step is digging the hole.
9. Writing a Letter
In each session, the learner practices writing the date and address, salutation, body, and closing the letter. Each step is introduced sequentially, but the child struggles writing the date, so the parent scaffolds this step, then they continue.
10. Folding Laundry
The learner practices smoothing out wrinkles, folding in halves or quarters, and placing the item in the designated area in every session. Rewards are provided for successfully completed tasks, while support is provided for tasks that are not successfully completed.
11. Preparing a Salad
The learner practices washing vegetables, chopping, mixing in a bowl, and adding dressing in each session. Rewards are provided for successful completion of any step that did not require the support of the aba therapist.
12. Painting a Picture: In every session, the learner practices sketching, applying base colors, and adding details. They often have trouble mixing colors, so support is provided at this stage, but each time, the learner gets closer and closer to mastery in this step.
13. Building a Model Airplane
The student practices assembling various parts, attaching wings, and adding final details in each session. Each step is sequentially introduced, but all steps are done until the airplane is completed, rather than forcing mastery of each step before moving onto the next.
14. Programming a Computer
The learner practices planning code, writing, and running it in every session. They do the whole code, then the computer highlights the stages where mistakes are made. Note how the whole code is written each time, rather than pausing at errors, then errors are deconstructed at the end.
15. Creating a Craft Project
In each session, the learner practices gathering materials, cutting or shaping, assembling pieces, and adding decorations. Rewards are provided for successful steps, while support is provided at points of failure so they can move onto the next step.
Using Total Task Chaining with Task Analysis
Task analysis is an important preparative activity for the total task procedure. It involves the instructor completing the task themselves, analyzing each step, and writing-out a recipe-like multi-step breakdown of how to do the task (Snodgrass et al., 2017).
This is very important because people who have completed a complex activity thousands of times rarely pause to think about all of the small movements and activities involved in completing the task (Snodgrass et al., 2017). You actually need to think through what you did an explicitly write it down in order to know exactly how to teach it.
Don’t take this for granted or do it from memory – actually doing the activity yourself will help with creating a much more detailed and effective procedure for the learning process.
Total Task vs Backward vs Forward Chaining
There are two other types of chaining in the operant conditioning method. These are backward chaining and forward chaining:
- Forward Chaining: This involves teaching and reinforcing the first step of a sequence, then progressively adding subsequent steps until the entire task is mastered (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020). This method ensures structured and sequential learning, building confidence with each mastered step. However, it may be less motivating initially as the learner does not experience task completion until all steps are learned.
- Backward Chaining: This involves teaching the last step of a sequence first, then preceding steps are added in reverse order until the entire task is mastered (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Radley & Dart, 2021). New steps are not taught until the one being learned is mastered. This approach builds confidence and motivation through immediate task completion and success. However, this procedure may not be suitable for tasks where understanding the initial steps is crucial for task completion.
- Total Task Chaining: By contrast to the above methods, in this one, every step of a task is taught and practiced during each session, allowing the learner to experience the entire sequence from start to finish (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020). This approach promotes a holistic understanding of the task and potentially accelerates learning by integrating all components. However, it may be overwhelming for some learners and cause cognitive overload, especially if the task is complex and the learner struggles with multiple steps simultaneously (Price, Marsh & Fisher, 2018).
|Feature||Total Task Chaining||Forward Chaining||Backward Chaining|
|Definition||A method where every step of a task is taught during each session, practicing the entire sequence from start to finish (Veazey et al., 2016).||A technique where the first step of a sequence is taught and mastered before subsequent steps are introduced in order (Al-Ajlan, 2015).||A strategy where the last step of a sequence is taught first, then preceding steps are added in reverse order (Al-Ajlan, 2015).|
|Teaching Approach||All steps are taught in every session (Price, Marsh & Fisher, 2018).||Steps are taught and mastered sequentially from the beginning of the task (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).||Steps are taught and mastered sequentially from the end of the task (Radley & Dart, 2021).|
|Reinforcement||Provided when a step is completed independently during every session (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).||Provided upon mastery of each individual step before moving to the next (Al-Ajlan, 2015).||Provided upon mastery of each step, starting with the last (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).|
|Application||Suitable for tasks where understanding the whole process is beneficial from the start.||Useful when tasks need to be learned in a specific order, building on previous steps.||Ideal for tasks where experiencing completion and success early on is motivating (Al-Ajlan, 2015).|
|Benefits||Promotes integration of all components of a task and potentially accelerates learning (Veazey et al., 2016).||Ensures structured and sequential learning, building confidence with each mastered step (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).||Builds confidence and motivation through immediate task completion and success (Radley & Dart, 2021).|
Al-Ajlan, A. (2015). The comparison between forward and backward chaining. International Journal of Machine Learning and Computing, 5(2), 106.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied Behavior Analysis. New York: Pearson.
Radley, K. C., & Dart, E. H. (2021). Social Skills Teaching for Individuals with Autism: Integrating Research Into Practice. London: Springer International Publishing.
Price, R., Marsh, A. J., & Fisher, M. H. (2018). Teaching young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities community-based navigation skills to take public transportation. Behavior analysis in practice, 11, 46-50. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-017-0202-z
Snodgrass, M. R., Meadan, H., Ostrosky, M. M., & Cheung, W. C. (2017). One step at a time: Using task analyses to teach skills. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45, 855-862. doi: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10643-017-0838-x
Veazey, S. E., Valentino, A. L., Low, A. I., McElroy, A. R., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2016). Teaching feminine hygiene skills to young females with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 9, 184-189. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-015-0065-0
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]