Backward & Forward Chaining

Chaining is a way to teach a multi-step or complex skill. While often used as a component of ABA instruction, chaining can be used to teach anyone a complex skill. A complex skill is a skill that really consists of several small behaviors that are linked or chained together, to accomplish a terminal goal. An example of a skill consisting of several discrete behaviors is wiping a table.

Teaching a skill using chaining is commonly recommended if the child can only perform some of the steps, consistently misses/skips steps, or is completing steps incorrectly. For example, on a daily basis the child throws their wet toothbrush in the sink instead of putting it in the toothbrush holder. That would be a good situation to introduce chaining into. Another issue I see commonly is the child who independently uses the bathroom, and then consistently fails to button/zip their pants back up. That is a child who could benefit from a chaining program.

A way I like to explain chaining is by comparing it to cooking. I am a recipe person. Even if I have made something multiple times, I still like to have the recipe in front of me. Imagine I asked you to make me some oatmeal raisin cookies, but I gave you no recipe to follow and no expectations of exactly what to do. What kind of raisins do I like? Do I like cinnamon in my cookies or vanilla extract? Do I prefer chewy or crisp cookies? You would likely start or finish the cooking chain successfully, but have errors or missed steps in the middle. This is why using chaining to teach a skill can be so helpful. For a child with Autism, hearing a demand like “make your bed” may not mean anything. They may need a recipe to follow, which clearly states my expectations of how to complete the task.

The 3 types of chaining are: Backward chaining, Forward chaining, and Total Task chaining.

Backward Chaining- Backward chaining refers to teaching a behavioral chain beginning with the last step: you would completely prompt the entire chain of behaviors except the last step. Using the tooth brushing example, the child would be prompted to do every single step and then would independently put the toothbrush in the toothbrush holder. Backward chaining is recommended if the child can successfully complete more steps at the end of the behavior chain. Backward chaining also has the advantage of creating a link between the most work and the biggest reinforcer. If I am using backward chaining to teach a child to make French toast, then I would prompt every step and have the child independently use a spatula to move the toast from the pan to a plate. Then we get to eat! So the most work (independent step) led to the biggest reinforcement (consuming the food). Once the last step is mastered at an independent level, then move to the last 2 steps, then the last 3 steps, etc.

Forward chaining- Forward chaining refers to teaching a behavioral chain beginning with the first step: have the child complete the first step independently and then prompt all remaining steps. Using the tooth brushing example, the child would independently pick up their toothbrush out of the toothbrush holder, and then all remaining steps are prompted. Forward chaining is recommended if the child can successfully complete more steps at the start of the behavior chain. Forward chaining has the advantage of using behavior momentum, as the 1st step is often the simplest, easiest step. If I am using forward chaining to teach a child to make French toast, then I would have the child get the bread out of the refrigerator independently, and prompt every other step. Once the first step is mastered at an independent level, then move to the first 2 steps, then the first 3 steps, etc.

Total task chaining- As the name implies, total task chaining is when you teach the complete behavior chain one step after another. Total task is what most teachers or parents naturally use to teach a skill. E.g. "Okay turn the water soap up your hands....good, now scrub your hands together", etc. The adult walks the child through each step, prompting as necessary. For a child with Autism, this may still be too complex of a teaching style. For that reason, backward or forward chaining is usually more commonly used for kiddos with Autism. 

 Lastly, to create a chaining program you will need a Task Analysis. A task analysis isn’t as complicated as it might sound. It is basically the GPS step- by- step directions to completing the skill. A task analysis is typically created by completing the skill yourself or watching someone else complete the skill. It’s very important not to just write up a task analysis based on your memory. Even simple tasks, like making a sandwich, can have small important steps that you may inadvertently skip. If you don’t teach the step, then you really can’t blame the child for not completing the step. You could also consult with a professional or do some research on how to perform a specific task. I could easily create a task analysis for tooth brushing, but if I had to teach an older client to change the oil on a car, I definitely could not easily write a task analysis for that. I would need to do some research, perhaps talk with a mechanic, etc.

 Here’s a tip: after you create a task analysis, complete the behavior chain yourself to make sure you haven’t skipped any steps or placed steps out of order. It happens more often than you might think.


-Here is a link to a massive amount of free Task Analyses  covering a wide range of skills.

-A solid understanding of Reinforcement and Prompting is necessary to teach using chaining.


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