Behavior Chaining

Written by Jack Levinson

If you are an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) practitioner or a newcomer to the field of behavior intervention, it’s possible you have heard of behavior chaining. This is a popular form of ABA treatment that has been shown to greatly help those with autism acclimate to expectations and learn to independently perform the functions expected of us throughout the day.

stopping domino from falling

There are different types of behavior chaining lessons, and many ABA therapists incorporate all or several of them into their practices. To learn more about behavior chaining examples and uses, read on.

What is Behavior Chaining?

Though you may not have known the name for it, behavior chaining is a regular part of your life. Throughout the day we perform tasks, many of which have multiple steps, with each new one being contingent upon the last. When linked together to form a completed action, the series of tasks in a behavior chain are called a terminal behavior.

For some people, behavior chaining is a major source of frustration and alienation. It can be difficult for those with autism to intuitively pick up on the expectations that wordlessly define many of our day to day functions. For this reason, ABA professionals have developed behavior chaining techniques to help teach those with autism how to approach the tasks that will recur throughout their days.

In addition to teaching new skills and behaviors, behavior chaining can be used to help students reform their abilities in areas where they are having problems. By strengthening a student’s understanding of how to successfully complete a behavior chain and by using positive reinforcement to encourage correct actions, ABA therapists can make a world of difference in turning someone’s behavior around.

mom dressing boy

How Behavior Chaining Works

In order to teach a behavior chain, an ABA therapist must break down a terminal behavior into component steps. This is known as a task analysis or behavior chain analysis. Take, for example, putting on socks and shoes. This action contains the following steps:

  1. Put a sock on one foot.
  2. Put a sock on the other foot.
  3. Put a shoe on one foot.
  4. Secure that shoe in whatever way it is meant to be fastened (tied, velcroed, buckled, etc).
  5. Put the remaining shoe on the other foot.
  6. Secure that shoe.

(In fact, a task analysis could break this down into even further steps – finding the matching socks and shoes in the first place, identifying which hand is supposed to be used for each task, etc., but the simplification above gives a sense of how this process works.)

Every person’s day features numerous behavior chains, from brushing your teeth to getting dressed to going to the bathroom. Most of us don’t tend to think about the different steps required to complete these tasks because they have become nearly unconscious processes that we take as a given. However, breaking them down in this way helps us see how complex the activities are that we perform in our day to day lives.

Using task analyses like the one demonstrated above is a crucial part of behavior chaining as taught by ABA specialists. To learn how ABA practitioners incorporate task analysis into their behavioral intervention procedures, take a look at the next section.

Behavior Chaining Examples

There are three prominent types of behavior chaining that each use task analyses as the basis to teach common actions and routines. They are forward chaining, backward chaining, and total task presentation, and all three are typically used with a single ABA therapy patient. The difference between them has to do with the order in which a student is expected to gain mastery of each step.

Forward Chaining ABA Techniques

The forward chaining method is perhaps the most intuitive, and the one most similar to how behaviors are typically introduced to young people. With this method, a person is shown how to complete an action step by step, gaining mastery of each step in chronological order.

To return to the example of socks and shoes, this would mean teaching the first step(s) of putting on one’s socks to mastery and providing assistance in learning how to put on one’s shoes in the meantime. Once someone had perfected the task of putting their socks on, the ABA therapist could move on to focus on the shoes, teaching each next step of the process to mastery.

By working in this way, daunting compound tasks become more approachable, allowing patients to acclimate to each part of the process as they learn how to do the whole thing.

Backward Chaining ABA Techniques

Backward chaining similarly employs a task analysis breakdown of a behavior’s component steps, but this time, mastery is taught in reverse. Here putting on one’s shoes may not be the best example, as the most complicated step (fastening the shoes) is often the most complicated, so we can turn to the example of tying one’s hair in a bun. Here are the different tasks associated with that action:

  1. Comb your hair, untangling any knots.
  2. Pull the hair into a ponytail at the back of the head.
  3. Twist the hair, spiraling it into a bun.
  4. Tie the hair with an elastic band.

A backward chaining approach would walk a student through all four steps, with the ABA therapist providing assistance all the way through step four. Then this last step – tying the hair with elastic – would be the first focus, with the therapist overseeing the student’s learning process through mastery. Once the student demonstrated that they could successfully secure the bun with a hair tie, the ABA practitioner could begin the process again, focusing now on step three until the patient had learned it to mastery.

While to some, backward chaining may seem somewhat counterintuitive, it is shown to benefit students by providing a feeling of security. In knowing the next step of the routine that they are being taught, students can feel less pressure and are able to continue to build skill as they practice the parts of the behavior chain that they have already mastered.

Total Task Presentation

In the total task presentation model, students are taught all of the steps of a behavior chain at once, with each one being isolated and taught to mastery as they go.

When ABA therapists use the total task presentation technique, they often use a hierarchy of prompts for assistance, working from the most involved prompts – which tend to be verbal and can even involve partially aiding the student in completing the task – to the least involved – such as hand gestures and other cues that remind students what’s next while allowing them to fill in the blanks – until they can complete the task without any assistance.

For example, brushing one’s teeth is a frequent behavior chain that is taught by ABA therapists. The (simplified) component tasks of this terminal behavior are the following:

  1. Opening toothpaste tube.
  2. Putting small amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush.
  3. Turning on sink with water on low so that it is not too high-pressure.
  4. Placing toothbrush under tap to wet its bristles.
  5. Turn off sink.
  6. Place toothbrush in mouth.
  7. Brush teeth. (A more extensive task analysis would outline each part of the mouth that you are expected to brush.)
  8. Spit out toothpaste into sink.
  9. Gargle water or mouthwash to rinse out mouth.
  10. Spit water or mouthwash into sink.
  11. Rinse toothbrush in sink.

Using a total task presentation model, an ABA therapist would start by teaching this lesson thoroughly, using verbal prompts to walk a student through each of these steps until they had reached a point of understanding each one. Then they would begin again, switching to a lower (that is, less-involved) rung of their hierarchy of prompts to allow the student to perform it again with less and less assistance, with simple prompts like hand gestures being used if need be to help them remember what to do next. Eventually, the student should be able to complete the task with now prompting at all.

Behavior Chain Analysis

When a student is learning about behavior chains due to misbehaving – either by failing to complete a given action correctly or through gestures of defiance, such as tantrums or refusal to see the action through – an ABA specialist often performs a behavior chain analysis. This involves creating a task analysis like the step-by-step guides listed above to see where in the process the student went wrong.

One of the reasons ABA therapists perform behavior chain analysis is that oftentimes patients who struggle to complete a given task have their own recurring behavior patterns that will reappear each time they attempt to perform the action. By recognizing that a particular step is confusing a student, causing them discomfort, or is in some other way a trigger for uncooperative behavior, an ABA therapist can either help them learn the tasks they need to know or help them devise a new way to approach that action so that they can avoid the step that was causing them to struggle with that task.

therapist with young girl

Behavior Chaining Worksheet Ideas

When performing a behavior chaining analysis, it can be helpful to bring your patient into the conversation as well through worksheets that also help remind them of the course of actions they’ve been taught.

In a behavior chaining worksheet, patients are typically asked to list the steps of the behavior chain that they are learning. There is also often room for students to reflect on where they are misbehaving, doing some of the work of ABA professionals themselves by observing the way they have previously been behaving and examining where it might be coming from.

Some keywords used on behavior chaining worksheets are the following:

  • Prompting event: the task or situation that causes a patient to feel uncomfortable, leading them to misbehave
  • Vulnerability: the feeling that leads a patient to misbehave, whether caused by a task in the behavior chain or an earlier incident in the day
  • Consequence: the negative outcome of misbehaving
  • Body sensations: how a student feels physically while performing a behavior chain, in particular when they are experiencing a moment of vulnerability

By working through these concepts directly with a patient, an ABA therapist is empowering them to reflect on their own behaviors and see how they might strive to reform their actions moving forward.

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Taking the Next Steps to Become an ABA Therapist

If learning about behavior chaining makes you feel inspired to take the next steps toward becoming an ABA therapist, you’ve come to the right place. Our guide to becoming an ABA therapist will show you every step it takes to start the career you want. To learn more about the different career paths of licensed ABA practitioners, see our career overview here.

There are also career paths related to the field of ABA that are not therapist roles, many of them in the world of education. To learn more about jobs related to Applied Behavior Analysis, take a look at our guide here.

Finally, for an index of everything you need to know about behavior intervention and the life of an ABA therapist, visit our homepage here.