Guest Blog – What You Need to Know About Teaching Independent Living Skills

Guest blog, boom! This is written by Holly Cowlam, an awesome BCBA in the making who has (almost) finished studying her MSc in ABA at the Tizard Centre. She has recently done a lot of work around self help skills, so it seemed fitting to tag her in! 

Many skills that we come across in our daily lives involve complex sequences of behaviours that are completed fluently and in a specific order to achieve an outcome. Think about your morning routine; every morning you get in the shower, get dressed, make breakfast, eat breakfast and so on. Often we complete these tasks without thinking, unaware even of the steps we are completing to achieve the outcome. Take a minute to break down just one of the components of your shower routine and you will be surprised at just how many skills you need to be able to complete before achieving the outcome. You might first collect each item of clothing from your drawers that you need for the day, then find your towel and head to the bathroom. Before you have even entered the shower you have emitted many different complex behaviours such as opening the correct drawer and selecting your underwear, opening the drawer to get your socks, opening your wardrobe and selecting a shirt and so on… Many children struggle to learn these skills during natural routines, and need extra help and practice to learn to complete the tasks on their own.


Behavioural chains

Behaviour analysts describe complex sequences of behaviours as behavioural chains. When you want to have a shower, the completion of each step that leads to the consequence becomes reinforcing due to its instrumental role in reaching the ultimate goal, and the completion of a given step acts as the antecedent or trigger for the you to complete the next behaviour in the sequence until you reach your ultimate goal.


                                                                                      Task analysis

task analysisIn order to teach behavioural chains we design task analyses to facilitate teaching, which involves writing a comprehensive list of the steps to achieve the desired outcome. The steps are written with enough detail that someone who doesn’t know how to complete the skill would be able to follow it. We can then systematically teach the steps and take data on performance.



One of the most important things to remember when teaching behavioural chains is that we teach individuals the steps in the sequence they occur, without breaks in between each. We want our learners to be fluent in the tasks and be able to complete the skills without any help.

You can teach behavioural chains in a few different ways:

  • Forward chaining: you prompt the first step in the chain and reinforce immediately before completing the rest of the steps yourself (sometimes the learner might be fully guided through the rest of the steps, however this is not a necessity, they may just watch as you complete the rest of the steps for them). Once the individual is reliably completing the target step you will start teaching the next step in the chain and reinforce after the new target step. You continue this process until all the steps have been learnt and are completed in sequence.
  • Backward chaining: you complete the sequence for the learner (or fully guide them through the steps) until you get to the last step which you prompt and then deliver reinforcement for. Once the last step is mastered you can begin to teach the prior step in the chain. You repeat this until all steps are mastered.
  • Total task chaining: you prompt all steps in the chain, by delivering support as and when it is needed for each step. This method may not be appropriate for more difficult or longer tasks. It may also not be appropriate if the learner often displays problem behaviour following demands.
See example of the beginning of a stimulus response data sheet for washing/drying hands (data sheet devised by Carbone Clinic)Wash hands


Different prompts can be used to show the learner how to complete each step. Generally prompts are derived from 3 categories:

  • Model: showing the learner what to do and then having them copy
  • Physical: physically guiding the learner to complete steps
  • Gestural and vocal: pointing, tapping, delivering vocal instructions

Generally I would recommend providing a model or physical prompt without any vocal or gestural prompts, as they can be difficult to fade.

Fading prompts

During teaching you should fade your prompts so that the learner can complete the task independently. You can fade the amount of prompt you give e.g. after fully guiding the individual to complete a step you can try only nudging their arm in the direction of the task instead of fully prompting. You could also introduce a time delay to your prompt; so after the learner completes a step a few times with a prompt, on the next attempt you can wait for 5 seconds before delivering your prompt so that they have the chance to complete the step alone. More reinforcement should be delivered for less prompted responses in order to support more independent completion of the task.


As with any skill or teaching procedure, reinforcement is key. Reinforcement may come in the form of a token, a pat on the back, social praise or in the form of a favoured edible or toy. Be sure that your learner is reinforced for his or her efforts differentially based on less prompted performance of the task. All that means is more tokens, social praise or access to preferred items when the learner completes steps with less prompts.

We only stop teaching and fading our prompts when the learner can complete the skill without anyone else there; this is true independence and will make sure our learners are able to play a valued role in their communities and live independently in the future.

      I love teaching self-help skills; I hope you do too!

Another big thanks for my first guest blogger, Holly Cowlam!

Ind Living Skills References


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