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Teaching Children to Perform Tasks Using the Forward & Backward Chaining Techniques in Applied Behaviour Analysis

Learning, practising and mastering the performance of everyday tasks is part and parcel of a child’s developmental process as they grow and gain independence.

However, for children with developmental or behavioural issues, learning to perform or to perform daily activities is not as straightforward or simple because of their learning and communication difficulties. As such, these tasks need to be broken down into smaller and easier steps to help them learn and pick up the skills easily.

For example, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may struggle to comprehend body language, inferences, expressions, and so on. Learning, let alone mastering, specific tasks can be a tall order for them as they find it a challenge to understand and perform every step successfully.

In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), an effective technique, “Behaviour Chaining” or “Chaining”, has been developed to help children who struggle with performing everyday activities. Chaining uses two types of methods – Forward Chaining and Backward Chaining – through a process called the Task Analysis.

In the later sections, we will explain how Forward and Backward Chaining work as well as share tips on how to develop a Task Analysis.

Mother Teaching Child

About Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

For over 50 years, ABA has effectively helped individuals of all ages. This intensive form of therapy is also one of the widely used evidence-based interventions for children with various developmental and behavioural delays and/or challenges, including children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

ABA leverages the principles of learning and motivation to teach skills in the areas of functional communication and language, social skills, play skills and academic skills. It is also used to reduce negative behaviours, teach new or replacement skills and shape positive behaviours. ABA adopts a scientific and data-driven approach to focus on fostering independence in a child and improving their ability to generalise and utilise learning across diverse situations, settings and/or people.

Children as young as 2 years old who are showing signs of developmental delays or have been diagnosed can receive individualised ABA therapy, which will be carried out one-on-one by ABA practitioners.

Behaviour Chaining

Chaining is an instructional method grounded in ABA theory. A task usually consists of several discrete actions or behaviours that are linked or chained together to accomplish this task. Learning each of these steps is called Chaining. Chaining uses Task Analysis, in which routine tasks can be broken down into smaller sequential steps to achieve mastery to learn and perform the tasks completely.

Chaining can benefit children with difficulties in communication and learning, especially for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Simply telling them to make their bed or brush their teeth may not mean anything to them. These children may miss out on some of the steps or perform certain steps wrongly. They require a step-by-step manual to know how they can go about making their bed or brushing their teeth. This is when Chaining is used by the ABA practitioners to teach the child the skills to perform each step correctly.

For example, a child is able to use the toilet independently but may forget to flush each time. Chaining is useful in this scenario to teach the child to include this step when using the toilet.

You might have also heard about the shaping techniques in ABA. Is there a difference between Shaping and Chaining?

Shaping, like Chaining, can teach children complex behaviours. The ABA practitioner will reinforce successive approximations, which are behaviours that are close to the targeted behaviour, and raise the bar each time to guide the child towards achieving the targeted behaviour. For example, a child is learning how to brush their teeth. The child may start with a quick brush and this behaviour is reinforced with praises. The bar may be raised by expecting the child to brush more thoroughly, and praises will only be given when the child does this. This continues until the child is able to independently perform a proper oral hygiene routine.

Whereas with Chaining, a task is broken down into smaller steps and the child is taught the steps one at a time until the child is able to independently perform every small task sequentially.

Chaining uses three methods: Forward Chaining, Backward Chaining and Total Task Chaining, although the more commonly used ones are Forward and Backward Chaining.

Children Playing

Forward Chaining

Forward Chaining is a method that guides the child from the initial step to the last step of a specific task. These steps are taught sequentially, where each step has to be performed independently by the child before the next step of the task can be added and taught. The child will be rewarded for their successful performance of the step, and once they are able to do it independently, the next step will be added.

To give you a clearer picture, here is an example of an everyday task. Let us say we are teaching a child how to wash their hands and the child is able to turn on the tap independently. We would then prompt the child to perform the subsequent step, which in this case, is to apply soap on their hands. Once the child is able to perform the first two steps independently, we can proceed to the next step, which is to rub their soapy hands for a certain duration. And once this step is completed successfully, we will do the same for the next step and so on.

Total Task Chaining

The Total Task Chaining method is not as widely used as the Forward or Backward Chaining methods as it can be rather complex, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Total Task Chaining involves teaching the chain of steps one after another at the same time. For example, an adult will walk the child through the entire process of hand washing, from turning on the tap to rubbing their soapy hands to wiping their hands dry with a towel – with prompts as needed and to slowly fade off the prompts.

Developing a Task Analysis

The chaining methods depend on a Task Analysis, that is, to determine the individual steps to successfully perform a specific task. Task Analysis details and teaches the small steps in chronological order so that the child can easily understand and perform the task.

Here are some tips to help guide you along if you intend to develop a Task Analysis for your child at home.

Before developing a Task Analysis, it is good to bear in mind these considerations for successful design and implementation:

  • Break down the task and review the required actions to perform the task.
  • Develop visual aids to enhance your child’s learning experience.
  • Determine the best chaining method for the specific task. As a guide, opt for the method that teaches steps requiring the least assistance first.
  • Offer praises, reinforcers and prompts at every stage.
Mom guiding child

Steps on developing a Task Analysis:

  1. Ask someone else to complete the task while you watch. It is advisable not to develop a Task Analysis based on memory as you may inadvertently miss out on certain important steps.
  2. Note down the steps of the task.
  3. Determine the best chaining method to use.
  4. After developing the Task Analysis, it is recommended to complete the chain yourself to ensure that no steps are missed out or arranged in the wrong order.
  5. Adjust the steps as needed.
  6. Implement the Task Analysis.
  7. Observe and monitor the child’s performance at every step of the task.

In chaining, it is also important to understand and use reinforcers and prompts to teach children effectively. To learn more about reinforcements in ABA, you can refer to our blog post here.

Do consult your child’s ABA practitioner if you intend to reinforce your child’s learning using any of these chaining methods at home. Your ABA practitioner can help provide insights on the best method for your child and show you effective ways you can implement either the Forward Chaining or Backward Chaining methods.

About Dynamics Behaviour Analysis

Our highly qualified ABA Therapists collectively have extensive experience working with children and adults from different countries and have been trained and worked with some of the best in ABA. Our team is led by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

Adept at using best practices and research-based intervention strategies and procedures, our dynamic team is committed to providing personalised and data-driven programmes and care, and actively partnering with parents and caregivers to enable every child to reach their full potential, achieve goals and enjoy an empowering learning experience. Our sessions are typically held 1:1 for more intensive therapy, with in-depth assessments, individualised education programmes, ongoing evaluations and feedback. Furthermore, we offer convenience through various service delivery models. Our sessions can be conducted at our centre, your home or a combination of both (hybrid).

We also ensure seamless and hassle-free integrated care and support by working closely with experienced healthcare professionals of Dynamics Therapy Group’ in-house multidisciplinary team, such as Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physiotherapists, Counsellors, Education Therapists, and more.