What is “Chaining” in Applied Behavior Analysis?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a popular therapy method used with individuals with autism and related conditions.  Those interested in the field often inquire what is chaining in ABA? ABA chaining is a method that therapists use to help children gain proficiency in complex, multi-step directions. Chaining is closely related to task analysis.  Once a task analysis is developed, chaining is used to teach each step.  The method breaks down the task analysis into specific instructions that link together.  These steps enable kids to complete the entire task. These create a behavior chain.  Behavior chains are strings of individual behaviors, that when connected together form a terminal behavior.

Chaining involves three main approaches:

  • total task chaining
  • forward chaining
  • backward chaining

Read on to learn about each of these approaches and how they can fit into an applied behavior analysis framework.

Featured Programs

Related resource: Top 20 Online Applied Behavior Analysis Bachelor’s Degree and BCaBA Coursework Programs

Total Task Chaining

In total task chaining, the child learns the task as a whole.  Task analyses are created as chains of activities that lead to the completed task.  The behavior analyst or parent walks the child through each step and provides the necessary prompts. As the child attempts the task on their own, the analyst or parent constantly repeats the steps. The analyst or parent tells the child every move to make.  They guide the child through the actions. The chain is taught until the child is able to complete all behaviors in the sequence correctly.  Throughout the task, the behavior analyst or parent uses praise or supplemental reinforcement.  This reassures the child when they complete the correct steps.

Total task chaining is the technique used most often to teach functional skills to children with developmental disabilities. The disadvantage of this method is that the supplemental reinforcers at every step need to be diminished as the child acquires the skill. The behavior analyst or parent must provide the strongest reinforcement at the end of the activity.

Forward Chaining

In forward chaining, the child learns the behavior in the logically occurring order. Every step of the sequence is taught.  The child learns the first step independently. Each phase is reinforced when completed correctly. After the first step is finished with a predetermined standard of accuracy, the student is taught the second step of the series.  They receive reinforcement depending on the completion of all the previous steps. When the child can finish the first step successfully, without being prompted, then he or she can start completing the next. Every step builds on the previous to further the reinforcement. Typically, once the first step is successfully completed three consecutive times, the child is taught the next step.

A good example of forward chaining is tooth brushing.  Creating a task analysis helps a therapist ensure that no parts of the process are overlooked.  While a neurotypical child may be ok with directions like, “put the toothpaste on the toothbrush,” creating a task analysis and forward chaining the steps ensures that aspects like taking the lid off or rinsing the toothbrush don’t get missed.

Backward Chaining

Backward Chaining is defined as the opposite of forward chaining. All behaviors in the analysis of the task are firstly completed by the parent or behavior analyst.  The exception is the final behavior in the chain. When the child performs the last behavior in the series at the fixed benchmark level, reinforcement is provided. Next, reinforcement is presented when the last and the next-to-last steps in the series are performed to standard. The series proceeds backward through the chain until all the activities are introduced in reverse order and practiced accumulatively. The child finishes all steps of a task without any reminders, except for the last one.

Depending on the activity, The Behavior Exchange shares how backward chaining has a clear advantage as it directly connects the independent finishing point of the task to the immediate reward or reinforcement. After the child can complete the last step successfully, he or she can work on completing the second to last step.

Featured Programs

Putting It All Together-Chaining in ABA

ABA is a complex treatment approach that makes a difference in the lives of those with autism and related conditions. Chaining is an instructional strategy in ABA to help individuals learn complex tasks by breaking them down into short, manageable steps.  These behavior chains help students master complex behaviors with greater independence.  The description of total task chaining, forward chaining, and backward chaining help answer the question of what is chaining in ABA?