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Behaviour Chaining

Behaviour Chaining

Last updated by Hannah Hobbs

What is Behaviour Chaining?

Description: A specific sequence of responses in which the completion of each response provides a cue to engage in the next response. For example, when an individual puts on a t-shirt, placement of the shirt on top of the individual’s head is a cue for the individual to pull the shirt over the head; having the shirt around the individual’s neck is a cue for the individual to put each arm through the armholes, etc. Other examples include independent living skills (e.g., brushing teeth), carrying out daily routines such as getting ready for bed (e.g., changing into pajamas may be a cue to go brush teeth; completion of this task may be a cue to go get a story book, etc.), and following activity schedules [see earlier entry]). Behavior chains also may be associated with disruptive behavior. For example, getting off the bus when arriving at school is a cue for walking into the school building; walking into the school building is a cue for walking down a particular hallway; walking down a particular hallway is a cue to engage in tantrum behavior. In this situation, having the child enter the school building by a different entrance and therefore walking down a different hallway may prevent the tantrum behavior.

To teach a behavior chain, a complex skill or sequence of behaviors is first broken down into smaller units that may be easier to learn than the entire chain. For example, if a child is being taught how to make a baloney sandwich, the first step taught is to take out the bread, followed by taking out the baloney, then getting a plate, etc. The instructor then chooses one of three strategies: Forward chaining, backward chaining, and total-task presentation. In forward chaining, the steps of the sequence of behavior in the task are taught in temporal order (first step to the last). Thus, in the example of making a sandwich, the instructor would focus on teaching the individual to take out the bread until this step is mastered, then on taking out the baloney, etc. Following the completion of each step, some reward (reinforcer) is provided for completion. In backward chaining, the last step in the chain is taught first (e.g., placing the second piece of bread on top of the baloney). Once learned, the second to last step is taught (e.g., spreading mustard on the baloney) followed by the last step. Then the third to last step is taught, etc. The potential advantage of backward chaining is that the learner always “knows” what the next step is whenever a new step is learned. In total task (or whole task) presentation, a child is guided or prompted through the entire behavior chain without requiring that each step is learned before proceeding to the next. As the child learns each step, the guidance or prompting is removed.

Research Summary: Behavior chains are well-established learning procedures and research evidence supports the use of all behavior chain procedures with children with autism. These procedures have been applied successfully to teach skills such as vocational tasks, and activities of daily living. Additional recent research in the use of behavior chains can be found in the area of activity schedules (see earlier entry).

Recommendations: Behavior chains are effective procedures for teaching children with autism a variety of multi-step skills, including self-help activities, vocational skills, and communication.

Selected References

Selected scientific studies

Azrin, N.H., & Foxx, R.M. (1971). A rapid method of toilet training the institutionalized retarded. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 4, 89-99.

Frank, A.R., Wacker, D.P., Berg, W.K., & McMahon, C.M. (1985). Teaching selected microcomputer skills to retarded students via picture prompts. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 18, 179-185.

Griffen, A.K., Wolery, M., & Schuster, J.W. (1992). Triadic instruction of chained food preparation responses: Acquisition and observational learning. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25,193-204.

Pelios, L.V., MacDuff, G.S., & Axelrod, S. (2003). The effects of a treatment package in establishing independent academic work skills in children with autism. Education and Treatment of Children, 26, 1-21.




Task Analysis & Chaining


Sometimes entire task presentation is overwhelming. Think of preparing a 5 course meal for a crowd of 200, building a car engine or completing a physics problem. Yikes! If we break down the entire skill into tiny, more manageable parts, it makes the entire task feel less taxing on us all.


Oftentimes, our kids also feel overwhelmed completing tasks that feel extreme to them, too. Examples such as hand washing, toothbrushing, face washing, loading/unloading dishwashers, making the bed, taking a bath or shower, taking out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom and navigating the school cafeteria line can all be daunting tasks to them.


Task Analysis = a list of written out steps that contain all of the components necessary to complete the task.


When writing a task analysis, we try to break the skill down into very specific steps, to create manageable steps. A task analysis often goes hand in hand with chaining.


Chaining = a set of teaching procedures used to teach a task analysis.


When using chaining, we teach skills in 1 of 3 ways until the entire sequence of a task analysis is mastered. We use the following teaching procedures: forwards chaining, backwards chaining or entire task presentation.


Forward chaining: Using this type of teaching procedure, the first step is taught first, and then the second step, the third step and continues until the entire sequence is able to be performed independently.


Backward chaining: In this teaching procedure, we focus on teaching the last step of the sequence first and then moving backwards through the sequence with the learner performing the last steps independently.


Total task presentation: This is actually a type of forward chaining procedure. What makes this different is that the child is being taught to complete all of the steps throughout the entire task analysis on each presentation.


Choosing which procedure to use is based on the number of steps the learner can complete either partially or independently now. Each task analysis is individualized specifically to each child, so what one child may be able to complete in 8 steps, another is able to complete in 100. Revisions to task analysis should be made depending on the child's progress.


Below is an example of a task analysis of teaching a learner to turn on the Wii.

1) Find remote

2) Press power button on remote for TV

3) Press channel 3

4) Walk to Wii

5) Press power button on Wii

6) Go to shelf

7) Pick out game

8) Take game out of case

9) Press Wii game into Wii

10) Put case on shelf

11) Sit on couch

12) Play!



Types of Chaining


The new behavior you want to build may be a series or chain of behaviors.  A behavior chain is a series of related behaviors, each of which provides the cue for the next and the last that produces a reinforcer.


Almost everything we do can be considered part of a behavior chain.  For example, when you are reciting the alphabet, you start with “A”, then “B”, then “C” and so on until the task is completed at “Z”.


Each step serves as a cue for the next step; a chain is really a series of signals and behaviors.  The completion of one behavior in a chain produces the signal for the next action.  Saying “G” is the signal to say “H” next.


Practically any complex behavior we do in the way of operant behavior is part of a chain or a multitude of chains: eating, getting dressed, using the computer, counting, brushing your teeth, riding a bike, walking to school and so on.  Behavior chains are very important to all of us; as is the procedure for building chains, which is called chaining.


Chaining is the reinforcement of successive elements of a behavior chain.  If you are teaching your child the alphabet, you are attempting to build a chain, if you are teaching the tying of shoelaces, you are also attempting to build a chain.


There are two chaining procedures, forward and backward chaining.




Forward chaining is a chaining procedure that begins with the first element in the chain and progresses to the last element (A to Z).  In forward chaining, you start with the first task in the chain (A).  Once the child can perform that element satisfactorily, you have him perform the first and second elements (A & B) and reinforce this effort. Do not teach “A”, then teach “B” separately; “A” and “B” are taught together.  When these are mastered, you can move to “A”, “B” and “C”.  Notice they are not taught in isolation; hence the term ‘chain’.




This is often a very effective way of developing complex sequences of behavior.  In forward chaining, you are teaching A to Z; in backward teaching, you are teaching Z to A.  Backward chaining is a chaining procedure that begins with the last element in the chain and proceeds to the first element.


To illustrate backward chaining, consider the following example:  I want to teach my son complete a six-piece puzzle. The steps are:


put in first piece

put in second piece

put in third piece

put in fourth piece

put in fifth piece

put in sixth piece

To backward chain this task, I would follow steps one through 5 myself, presenting the task as completed except for the last piece.  Then, I would (using whatever prompt level necessary) teach my son to put in the sixth piece (step 6).  When he can successfully do this a number of times, I will teach step 5 & 6 (completing steps 1 through 4 myself beforehand).


Backward chaining this puzzle gave my son the idea of what he was doing ahead of time (there weren’t just a bunch of puzzle pieces laying there) and teaching in this way gives an even more clear clue of the next step.  I would be reinforcing each step as I am teaching it, but once my son learns step 6, I will only reinforce steps 5 & 6 together (next link in the chain).




Define the target behavior:  To teach someone to perform the links of a chain, you need to know exactly what those links are.  Sometimes the links are very obvious as in the examples of teaching the alphabet, or the six-piece puzzle, other times links are not so obvious.  It may be helpful to perform the target behavior yourself and take notice of all the steps involved, even have someone else watch you and compare notes.  When teaching my son a bathroom routine, I was so proud of the links I thought up to produce the chain.  I presented it to one of my workers who took one look at it and said “where does it say where he flushes the toilet?”.

Breaking the chain into small manageable steps is called performing a task analysis and a simple way of describing it is teaching A to Z and every single letter in between.  Children with autism/pdd have shown that they can learn very effectively using this method.


Reinforce successive elements of the chain: The elements in the chain must be reinforced in sequence.  Reinforce them as they happen.  Once your child has mastered step 6 and you begin to teach step 5, you will be reinforcing steps 5 and 6.  You will either be reinforcing at the end of the chain or at the end of as much of the chain as the child has learned.  What you learn in a chain is not just a number of tasks; you learn to perform those tasks in the right order.  You can start at the beginning of the chain and work your way to the end or vice versa.

Monitor Results: As with any intervention, you must keep track of the effects of your efforts.  Has a particular element been mastered?  Should it be taught and reinforced a few more times?  Is it time to move on to the next element?  These are judgments that must be made during the chaining process, and they can be made accurately only if you carefully monitor the results you are getting.

The similarity between shaping and chaining is that the goal in each case is to establish a target behavior that doesn’t yet occur.  The difference is that shaping always moves forward.  If progress breaks down, you may have to take a step back before moving forward