ABA Jargon: Chaining Procedure


Our jargon of the day is Chaining. All of this sounds so innocuous. I don't know about you, but it brings up little memories of putting together a paper chain, those early preschool kinds of activities where you make something. Doesn't that sound wonderful? So what has this got to do with autism? Quite a bit. So let's take a look at our actual definition and it's a mouthful. You ready?

Chaining: A procedure for teaching behavior chains, don't you love it when they include the word in the definition, where initially the teacher completes all steps in the chain except for the first or last step, which is completed by the child. Forward chaining involves completing the first step. Backwards chaining involves starting with the completion of the last step. The child receives reinforcement once the chain is completed. When the child shows competence in completing the first or last step in the chain, the teacher performs all but the mastered step and the next step in the chain, and so on until the child is completing the entire behavior chain independently.

Now, it's a really long one, but it's not the worst actual definition. But let's see if we can condense it down, make it a little bit more user-friendly. Let's go on to our working definition for you.

Chaining: A procedure for teaching a behavior sequence where the child masters one step at a time, while the teacher completes the remaining unknown steps, until the child has mastered all the steps in the chain and is completing the whole sequence independently. Not that much better, a little less wordy.

Okay, we've been talking about this all week long because we talked on Tuesday about a task analysis. Whenever you go to do anything, we find that you can break it down into smaller amounts. And by the way, the reason why we do that is to make it easier to teach. If you were going to teach me how to downhill ski, I can just tell you, I would be overwhelmed. Because it involves balance, it involves being in heights. It involves being on the lift, it involves cold. All of that is going to take up space in my brain. You're trying to teach me how to point my skis and I'm thinking about how cold it is.

So if we were going to do a task analysis on skiing and look at all of the different skills and all of the different behaviors we have to engage in to be successful, I would imagine after we did the task analysis, that we could pick some of those out and say, "You know, we don't necessarily have to work on that in the cold." But even if we were going to work on it in the cold, we wouldn't work on everything all at the same time because I would get overwhelmed as a learner. This is not going to be true of all things that we're teaching. But when we see that someone is having difficult learning something, we can use our task analysis and we can use chaining to make it really possible to make learning fun and not overwhelming.

So for instance, I was talking about skiing but let's go back to the example that we were using the other day when we were talking about a task analysis with brushing your teeth. If you think about teaching an individual who is on the autism spectrum how to appropriately brush their teeth, depending on their age, the task analysis is going to look different. How we teach a 4-year-old and what our expectation of what a 4-year-old is going to do is going to be different than a 14-year-old.

But let's imagine for a moment that we're teaching the four-year-old and we're saying that when we do the task analysis, it's turning on the water, taking the tube off the toothpaste, squeezing the toothpaste, putting it onto the toothbrush, brushing the teeth. Spitting, rinsing the toothbrush, brushing, rinsing the whole mouth out, putting the toothbrush away, putting the cap back on it. It's a lot of steps. A four-year-old is going to have a great deal of difficulty with all of this. But we're going to start chaining. We are going to pick one part of this. In chaining typically you start at the beginning or you start at the end. It's forward chaining, backward chaining. But you don't necessarily always have to do that. Sometimes it makes more sense to pick something in the middle, depending on the task.

Let's imagine for a second that we know that the child is able to wipe their hands on a towel. Great! We look at our task analysis and we go, "That's the last step in the brushing the teeth so we're going to start with that and we're going to go backward chaining." So we take the child into the bathroom and we do everything else and we talk it through while we're going it. We're showing the child all of it. "Look at mommy, I'm putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush. And now I'm going to brush your teeth and you're going to spit." And we're making it as pleasant and wonderful and the child is basically hanging out. If we have to, we can have something external going on like music if that's what calms them down or even an iPad playing something that they like on it. Making it as pleasant as possible. Then we get to the end and we help them to wash their hands and then we say, "Okay, now, dry your hands on the towel." And they dry their hands on the towel and we go, "Yay! You did it! You did it! We brushed teeth!" They didn't brush... well, we brushed teeth, but they didn't do it. But we're rewarding the thing that they can do.

Now, we're going to go backward. So what is the last step that comes right before the drying the hands? It was putting the toothbrush away. So once we know that we've got the hand drying down and everything is fine, we're going to go back to putting the toothbrush away and make them do it. We want to teach it to them, we might need to prompt them how to do it. We're going to fade the prompt, but now we're going to do the whole thing ourselves, not asking them to do it. We get to the point where it's time to put the toothbrush away. And after we faded back our prompts, we say, "Put the toothbrush away." Or we don't even say it anymore, they do it. "Yay!" And they dry their hands. Great. We've got two parts of the step and you keep working backwards.

You could make the choice to start from the beginning. When we have things like riding a bike, tying your shoes, all of these different multi-step tasks that we get overwhelmed as teachers and as parents and we go, "Ah! They are just not getting it," that's a key time to step back, do a task analysis. And then when you've got the task analysis, look at it and go, "All right, how do I want to chain this baby?" It's just like the paper chains that we made in first and second grade. Think of each one of those paper links as one little teeny, tiny behavior that then we are going to interlock with another one until we end up with a really long chain.

Does it take a long time? You bet that it does. Is it something that requires a great deal of patience and forethought? Yes, it does. But I guarantee you that if you just try this with one thing, try take it on, chaining one new behavior for your child, it may take you six months, depending on the activity. It may take you a year for your child to do it by themselves. But I guarantee you, it takes less time and less stress to chain this behavior and get it so that they fully can do it by themselves and have the pride and the happiness. It takes less time to do it the chaining way than it does to sit and be frustrated and go, "Why aren't they getting it?" You'll see that a year will go by, they still don't have it. This works. We know from science that this method of teaching absolutely works. Chaining, it can make all the difference.

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