So what do you do when a child cannot independently complete functional or academic skills that have multiple, sequential steps? For children who have executive functioning challenges, or other neuro processing problems, a great deal of what they are expected to do during their school day can be overwhelming. In fact, most of the activities they participate in are sequential in nature.
What can make things worse, is that sometimes the measure of their success, failure, or perception of progress, is contingent on how much of the task the student can complete without support.
The task is modeled. The student can't initiate the first step. The task is modeled again. The student can maybe initiate the first step, but not the next. The step is modeled, and the student shows signs of frustration.
Day-to-day life skills have multiple, ordered steps. Brushing teeth, putting on socks and shoes, and just about everything a person does to care for himself has certain steps that must be completed in roughly the same order. Academic tasks are no different. Whether it's matching with manipulatives or picking up a book and reading it, the child has to start somewhere and finish somewhere.
With any skill, the first step in helping a student gain more mastery, is to do a task analysis of the skill. Each step of the task is identified and written. Becoming mindful of each step is critical in providing the intended, systematic level of support as the skill is presented. That support can be provided in the form of hand-over/under-hand assistance, modeling, picture schedules, or by simple verbal prompting.
Backward and forward chaining are strategies that can help students be more successful in gaining increased independence in skill objectives. Backward chaining involves providing full assistance to the student through each step in a task until the very last step, where the teacher/parent then removes or fades their support, steps back to see what the learner will do, and then provides the needed support to achieve the last step. A positive reinforcer occurs after the completion of the task, which helps to provide motivation and encouragement. This process is repeated with fading of full support to the next-to-the-last step that the student can successfully achieve in the task. Backward chaining works well because many students find the steps toward the end of a task more difficult to do.
Forward chaining seems to be the most common strategy used by teachers and parents. This strategy involves identifying the steps in a task using task analysis, and then teaching the first step in a task until the child can do it with either no support or whatever minimal support necessary before going to the next step. One of the problems with forward chaining, however, is that the powerful reinforcer usually comes at the end of the task. The reinforcers used between each step in the task itself sometimes lose their effectiveness. The child often never gets to the end of the task to enjoy that completion celebration. Backward chaining lets them relax a little during the initial steps of the task so they can anticipate and prepare for the achievement of the latter steps in the skill and the positive reinforcer at the finish line!
Whatever strategies are used to support children who have a hard time with sequential skills, it is important to keep expectations appropriately high. Executive functioning problems are not insurmountable. It may take trying different things to find out what works and what doesn't work for the student. Having a full understanding of how the child's disability affects his or her learning is another imperative starting point from which to build a plan of support. For more information on learning strategies, such as curriculum adaptations and modifications, see the links on the homepage.