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Special Needs

Teaching Life Skills in Special Education: Chaining – Instructional Method Grounded in ABA

How to teach life skills in special education using chaining (ABA)

TEACHING LIFE SKILLS

Important life skills that most kids learn through observation and imitation, need to be specifically trained in kids with autism or learning difficulties.

In my post about independent living skills and autism, I explained that chaining methods are often very appropriate instructional methods for these type of skills.

In today’s, I will explain in a lot more of detail how to use chaining methods to teach a new skill.

I will also provide a simple example so that it is easier to understand how to put this method into practice.

What is Chaining in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

Chaining Methods are instructional techniques used in applied behavior analysis to teach complex behaviors by breaking them down into individual steps.

Complex behaviors are chains of individual behaviors that have to be executed in a sequence. And, a lot of useful life skills fall in this category of complex behaviors.

Behavior chains are also known as Stimulus-Response Chains because each response (or step in the chain) produces a change in the environment that acts as a discriminative stimulus for the next response.

I will use a simple example to explain the stimulus-response concept:

Let’s say we are teaching a child how to prepare a cheese sandwich:

Step 1: grab two bread slices

Step 2: put bread on the plate

Step 3: grab a slice of cheese

Step 4: put cheese on bread

Step 5: put the top slice on top of the cheese

So, in this very simple example, seeing the ingredients on the bench is the first discriminative stimulus (Sd) to start the sandwich preparation sequence (Response 1(R1): grab two bread slices).

Once your child completes step 1 and grabs the bread, the environment has changed. The bread in hand is the new stimulus that signals that the next response needs to be executed

This is how the sequence looks:

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on the plate

S3: Bread on plate →R3: grab the cheese

S4: Cheese in hand →R4: put cheese on bread

S5: Cheese on bread →R5: put top slice on the sandwich

Why Using Chaining Methods?

When we are teaching a new skill, it is very useful to break that complex behavior into individual tasks so that they can be trained and reinforced individually.

Types of Chaining Methods

There are several types of chaining methods depending on what step of the routine you start training.

  • Forward Chaining
    Every step in the chain is taught in the naturally occurring order. Success on the first step is reinforced (for example, praised), and training proceeds to the next step only when the first step has been successfully trained.
  • Total-Task Chaining.
    This is a variation of the previous method. In this method, the complete chain is taught in every session
  • Backward Chaining.
    The training starts with the last step of the sequence. It only moves to the next step once the last step has been successfully trained.

Irrespectively of the chaining method that you may choose, there are some previous steps that you need to go through:

Behavior Chain Task Analysis

Before you start teaching a new skill, you need to understand the steps involved in that sequence and the level of skill you child presents for that chain and its individual steps

  1. Break the skill you want to teach into steps
    Tip: practice the sequence yourself so that you can make a first assessment of:
    -how many individual steps the sequence comprises
    -order in which they need to be performed
  2. Establish “achievement criteria” for any given step.
    This will be really helpful for you to objectively assess when a step in the sequence has been learned.
    For example, step completed independently and successfully 8 times out of 10.
  3. Test the sequence you have identified.
    Ask your child to perform the sequence. This will allow you to:

    •  identify steps your child can already perform independently
    • identify the level of help required for other steps in the sequence
    • decide changes that you may need to incorporate into your initial sequence chain:
      • change the order in which some steps need to be completed
      • break a difficult step into more detailed steps
    • assess if your child needs prompting to connect the steps in the sequence

Forward Chaining, Total-Task Chaining & Backward Chaining Step-by-Step Examples

Now we´ll focus on the training process itself.

Forward Chaining.

In this method, you will start training the first step in the chain, and reinforcing its accomplishment.

Once the first step has been learned, you will move into teaching the second step. You will not reinforce the first one anymore, and will only reinforce the execution of the specific step that you are training.

Going back to our example:

  1. You place all the ingredients on the kitchen bench. This is our first discriminative stimulus.
  2. You help your child with the first step (e.g take her hand and help her grab the bread), and then you give your child reinforcement (it could be praise – some times you can add a little piece of cheese)
  3. You repeat this step, and when you feel your child is starting to execute this behavior you remove the help and give reinforcement when he successfully completed the step.
  4. Now you add the second step. You stop reinforcing the first step, start helping with the second step and reinforce only the second step.

The sequence would look as follows:

1)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench HELP → R1: grab two bread slices → PRAISE or PRIZE

 

2)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices (NO REINFORCEMENT)

S2: Bread in hand → HELP → R2: put bread on plate → PRAISE or PRIZE

 

3)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on plate

S3: Bread on plate → HELP → R3: grab cheese → PRAISE or PRIZE

 

4)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on plate

S3: Bread on plate → R3: grab the cheese

S4: Cheese in hand → HELP → R4: put cheese on bread → PRAISE or PRIZE

 

5)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on plate

S3: Bread on plate → R3: grab cheese

S4: Cheese in hand → R4: put cheese on bread

S5: Cheese in bread → HELP → R5: put top slice on sandwich → PRAISE & PRIZE (= eat the sandwich)

 

6)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on plate

S3: Bread on plate → R3: grab cheese

S4: Cheese in hand → R4: put cheese on bread

S5:  Put top slice on sandwich → PRIZE (= eat the sandwich)

 

As you can see, we are only helping and reinforcing the specific step we are teaching. In the end, the reinforcement for this chain will be the natural consequence of eating the sandwich. If you are teaching other skills where the natural prize is not so obviously reinforcing, remember to still praise from time to time (intermittently) the successful performance.

Total-Task Chaining

This is a variation of the previous method, in the sense that it also starts with the first step of the chain. In this method though, the complete chain is taught in every session.

So, if we take our sandwich example, you would help your child complete all the sequence, guiding him through the sequence. In the end, you would reinforce (praise and in this case, a prize in the form of a ham sandwich). You will progressively remove the help you are giving as your child starts completing steps successfully.

Backward Chaining.

In this changing method, the training starts with the last step of the sequence. It only moves to the previous step once the last step has been successfully trained.

Let’s go back to our sandwich example:

You prepare the sandwich yourself, except for the last step:

1)

S5: Cheese in bread → HELP → R5: put top slice on sandwich → PRAISE & PRIZE (= take a bite of the sandwich)

2)

S4: Cheese in hand → HELP → R4: put cheese on bread → PRAISE ONLY (your child will have the “prize” after completing the next step)

S5: Cheese in bread → R5: put top slice on sandwich→ PRAISE & PRIZE (= take a bite of the sandwich)

3)

S3: Bread on plate → HELP → R3: grab cheese → PRAISE ONLY

S4: Cheese in hand → R4: put cheese on bread

S5: Cheese in bread → R5: put top slice on sandwich → PRAISE & PRIZE (= take a bite of the sandwich)

 

4)

S2: Bread in hand → HELP → R2: put bread on plate → PRAISE ONLY

S3: Bread on plate → R3: grab cheese

S4: Cheese in hand → R4: put cheese on bread

S5: Cheese in bread → R5: put top slice on sandwich → PRAISE & PRIZE (= take a bite of the sandwich)

 

5)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → HELP → R1: grab two bread slices → PRAISE ONLY

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on plate

S3: Bread on plate → R3: grab cheese

S4: Cheese in hand → R4: put cheese on bread

S5: Cheese in bread → R5: put top slice on sandwich → PRAISE & PRIZE (= take a bite of the sandwich)

 

6)

S1: Ingredients on kitchen bench → R1: grab two bread slices

S2: Bread in hand → R2: put bread on plate

S3: Bread on plate → R3: grab cheese

S4: Cheese in hand → R4: put cheese on bread

S5: Cheese in bread → R5: put top slice on sandwich → PRAISE & PRIZE (= take a bite of the sandwich)

Conclusion: Which Chaining Method is Better?

If your child can already perform most of the steps in the chain or if the sequence is not too difficult for the child’s abilities, total chaining may be better.

If we are working on a difficult task or your child needs to learn all the steps, backward or forward training may be better.

The initial assessment of your task analysis will be very helpful to assess what the best option is. For example, if your kid can complete the last step, it may be good to use backward chaining, as your kid will easily achieve that first step and will enjoy the praise and reward accompanying it.

Don´t forget to check my post on Life Skills Training and download the free Independent Living Checklist.

Books for Parents about ABA

(Disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. You can also read our Disclosure & Disclaimer policy here)

Would you like to know a bit better what ABA is? Most books about ABA are instructional books for therapists and students. But you can also find some books that have been written to answer some of the questions that parents may have before or as they start an in-home intervention program.

These are some of those titles:

 

Teaching Life Skills in Special Education: Chaining – Instructional Method Grounded in ABA

special education chaining aba pin

 

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