In ABA therapy, complex skills are often broken down into a series of small steps to allow a client to learn a skill in stages.

What is “Chaining” in ABA Therapy?

Aug 14, 2023

At Innovative Behavior Options, we like to use our blog to offer helpful tips, encourage parents, and share some insights on how and why applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy works for children and adults with autism. Today, we’re focusing on that last part and talking about an ABA therapy-specific concept: Chaining.

ABA therapy is often considered the gold-standard for helping individuals with autism, developmental disabilities, and behavior issues to master new skills and decrease problem behaviors. It works from the concept that behavior is acquired through interactions with the environment, and that changes in the environment can positively shape a behavior.

Here’s one way ABA therapy does just that.

How Chaining Works

In ABA therapy, complex skills are often broken down into a series of small steps to allow a client to learn a skill in stages. With chaining, a client will learn to put it all together. The first step is to perform a task analysis – a technique that carefully examines a task and breaks it down into a number of smaller, simpler steps that a child can learn more easily.

Forward Chaining

In forward chaining, a client is taught the first step of a task, with a parent or therapist completing the remaining steps. As they master the first step, a second is added. With positive reinforcement and mastery, the client is then taught the third step in the chain, adding it on to the first two. The sequence continues until the client can complete the entire task without assistance.

Forward chaining takes advantage of behavior momentum and is great for tasks where the client can successfully complete more steps at the beginning of a task. For example, if a client is learning to make breakfast, taking the bread out of the refrigerator would be the first step in the chain.

Back Chaining

Back chaining works in the opposite order. A parent or therapist works through a task up to the last step. The client completes the last step in the chain and is immediately rewarded. As they master the last step, the previous step is added on, continuing until the task is learned.

Back chaining works particularly well for teaching new skills because it clearly connects successfully completing the last step in the chain with the reinforcement.

Using Chaining and ABA Therapy to Teach Daily Living Skills

Chaining is particularly effective for teaching daily living skills, such as getting dressed or brushing teeth.

For example, to teach handwashing, we could use backward chaining. After performing a task analysis and listing each step in the process, we would start by teaching the last step, which might be hanging the towel back on the hook. After that step is mastered, we’d move on to the previous step—drying hands—continuing until the entire process is learned.

At Innovative Behavior Options, our mission is to promote independence and to help our clients reach their highest potential. To learn more about ABA therapy and the services we offer, give us a call at 770-250-0093.


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