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“How Do You Eat an Elephant?”: Chunking and Chaining with Task Analysis

by Blaine Campbell

When I first left the classroom to become an Autism Specialist, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of opportunities to support my district. I knew support was needed, but I didn’t know where to begin. Sensing my anxiety, my mentor took me aside. She looked at me and said, “How do you eat an elephant?” Seeing that adding confusion to anxiety wasn’t helping, she explained further. “The task that’s stressing you is your ‘elephant.’ You’re stressed because you know what you want to do, but you don’t know how to get there. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

Recently, I went to the grocery store for the first time since the stay-at-home order was put in place. A familiar routine had turned strange and confusing in an effort to promote social distancing. I didn’t understand where the line to enter began, or even why there was a line in the first place. Do I get my basket first, or get my place in line? What are they handing out? How long will I be standing here?! With a wait time of an hour, I definitely didn’t want to make a mistake, but there were new expectations just to get in the store. I did not know all the steps to calmly and successfully complete the task.

Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have their own academic and social “elephants,” due to struggles in communication, restricted interests, and social interaction. Often what may present as disruptive behavior in the classroom is the student not understanding the task being asked of them.

Task Analysis is an evidence-based practice where an activity is “chunked” into smaller, manageable sections. As the chunks are mastered, they are “chained” in order to complete the activity independently. In forward chaining, the learner first masters the beginning steps, and is taught the remainder of the steps in sequence to completion. However, in backward chaining, the learner first masters the final step. Prompting is then focused on the second-to-last step, and so on, until the sequence is mastered. Whether forward or backward, always reinforce successful learning. Remember, positive reinforcement increases behaviors!

Task analyses must be individualized for the user. They can be as detailed as necessary, depending on the learner’s needs. Recently, a teacher shared that her husband scoffed at her SEVENTEEN-STEP task analysis for hand washing. When he followed the steps as written, he found that EVEN MORE steps could be added for clarity!

In order to create a task analysis, you must:

  • Identify what skill you want to teach
  • Identify what the learner already knows about this skill
  • Break the skill down, or chunk
  • Confirm your breakdown by having a peer follow verbatim
  • Decide how you will teach the skill
  • Implement with the learner and collect data

Task analysis can be used in school and at home to teach a variety of skills. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, handwashing has become a very popular skill to break down for the safety of all learners. Classroom teachers can use task analysis chains to teach academic lessons and classroom routines. Parents can use them to break down household chores and bathroom routines. The reinforcement of these steps will speed their acquisition.

Task Analysis is an important tool that can support the learning and independence of learners with ASD. For further information on this, and many other interventions, visit the TARGET section of the TSLAT website. Are you using task analyses with students? Friends? Family? EMAIL ME! I’d love to hear your successes and challenges!

Together we can get through get through life’s big challenges, ONE BITE AT A TIME!


AFIRM Team. (2015). Task Analysis. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from

*Blaine Campbell, M. Ed., is an Autism Education Specialist and virtual coach for the Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism Training (TSLAT) at Region 13. He has provided clinic-based ABA instruction, and has been a private social skills instructor, paraprofessional, resource teacher, behavior support teacher, and district Autism specialist. Having taught across Texas for almost 20 years, in both urban and rural districts, Blaine has provided direct support for learners with Autism from 6 months through 19 years in inclusive and self-contained settings. Blaine serves as coach and cheerleader for educators completing the intensive training of the Autism Circuit statewide cohort.