Forward chaining is one of two types of chaining used to teach multi-step or complex skills to children with developmental disorders like autism. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapists can use task analysis to break down the steps of a task so they can be taught in very small parts.

In forward chaining, the child is rewarded when they complete the first small part and fully integrate it. Then, the therapist can move on to the next step, and so on, until the full process has been learned. This works for tasks like putting on shirts, making a sandwich, brushing teeth, and many other personal tasks.

ABA Therapy, Chaining & the Learning Process

Children with autism are typically diagnosed around 2 years old, which is an important point in brain development. Autism is a developmental disorder, and some of the first signs of the condition occur when your child stops learning new skills, words, or behaviors. They may struggle to maintain the skills they have learned, or they may stop learning new information on top of what they have already learned.

When they receive a diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum, you can find an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist to help your child resist maladaptive behaviors and develop positive behaviors, including fresh approaches to learning new skills as they grow.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy may integrate the concept of chaining, which occurs when a larger task is divided into smaller tasks and those get linked together to complete the one larger task. There are two basic types of chaining.

  • Forward chaining: This is when a behavior is taught in “logical” or chronological order, and each step of the behavior is reinforced. The pieces of the task are reinforced one at a time as they are learned until the first step is mastered. Then, the second step is mastered, and so on.
  • Backward chaining: This is somewhat the opposite of forward chaining. A therapist, teacher, or parent helps the person with autism complete each step of the task until the very last one. Then, the behavior is reinforced, for completing that step independently.

Children with autism may have a hard time learning behaviors because they do not understand how to chain individual steps together. Research supports using behavior chains to help children with autism, with several studies showing benefits for learning vocational and occupational skills, so the individual has the most independent life possible.

Multi-step skills can be difficult to learn otherwise. Behavior chaining has been found to be an effective method for learning a range of activities to improve independent living.

The concept of forward chaining specifically involves building on one step and then adding another until a multi-step task is complete. For people on the autism spectrum, especially children, this involves first breaking down the steps and teaching the very first step of a task.

This learning process occurs repeatedly until the person can complete the task independently without prompting. Once the first step is fully integrated, the second step is added. This process continues until every step of the task has been learned.

Using Forward Chaining With Task Analysis

A child with autism needs to learn several tasks but may leave out steps for some tasks, which can be frustrating to parents or teachers who do not know how to explain the issue. An example that is often cited is brushing their teeth.

The child may learn each step of taking the toothpaste out of the cabinet, putting it on a wet toothbrush, and scrubbing for a certain amount of time. However, the emphasis is on personal hygiene, so they may fail to pick up other aspects of the process that are also important, like putting the cap back on the toothpaste, rinsing off the toothbrush, or wiping their mouth after they spit.

Using task analysis, an ABA therapist can work with the child to understand each step of the process and find where the breakdowns occur. By simplifying the process into much smaller parts, children with autism can learn a range of tasks using forward chaining to complete them.

For a therapist, parent, or teacher, the basic process of forward chaining may look like this:

  • The therapist, parent, or teacher breaks down the steps in the process, with or without the child present.
  • They teach the child with autism the very first step in the process.
  • They then reward the child for successfully completing the first step of the process until the information will be clearly retained.
  • The teacher, therapist, or parent can add the second step once the first is mastered.
  • The third step should be taught in conjunction with the first two steps, in chronological order. This continues until the child masters each step.

A good example is the joke about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A teacher asks a child to explain how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Neurotypical children above a certain age implicitly understand steps like opening the bag to get bread out, taking a butter knife out of the drawer, opening jars, and so on. However, they will not explain the task like this.

Instead, they may say something like, “Get the bread. Now spread peanut butter on one piece.” They won’t break down that you need to open the jar of peanut butter, take some out with a butter knife, and spread that on one side of one slice of bread, which has been removed from its bag. Without this level of detail, the process might become confusing for some people, particularly children with autism.

With task analysis and forward chaining, you can see that a “step” in this process might need to be broken down further into multiple steps in order to successfully complete a seemingly simple action, like spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread.

Scientific Research Supports Forward Chaining

There was a small study on the use of both forward and backward chaining to teach specific motor skills to children with special needs. The results showed that in 16 events with four participants, forward chaining resulted in fewer trials for mastery in eight of the comparisons; backward chaining resulted in fewer trials in six of the events; and two showed no difference.

The differences between forward and backward chaining were considered not statistically significant, suggesting that children with special needs, including children with autism, do not benefit from one more than the other. Any difference may be due to the child’s individual needs and personality. This was true for both brief and longer tasks.

Children who received tutelage in either forward or backward chaining typically performed taught motor skills better than those who didn’t have this guidance. This suggests that children with special needs, such as children with autism, can learn more information when they have help breaking down steps that might otherwise require implicit instruction, body language, or imagery to explain.

The results of the study also show that therapists, teachers, and parents can use either forward or backward chaining to teach multi-step tasks to children with autism, and either procedure helps the child. While careful observation of the individual child’s responses and success helps the adult understand which works better, the therapist, teacher, or parent may also have a slight preference for one form of explanation over another, which can influence how well the task is explained through forward or backward chaining.

For many people, forward chaining makes the most sense since it breaks down each step from start to finish, creating a complete picture.

Forward Chaining Is One Way to Help Your Child

Forward chaining breaks tasks down into very small steps that are taught chronologically. This process makes sense to parents, teachers, and therapists who want to support children with autism in learning new skills or improving skills they did not completely learn.

There are other approaches to chaining, but for many people, the process of taking the first step, rewarding it until the child has fully learned it, and then moving on to the next step makes the most sense.

References

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Shaping, Chaining, and Task Analysis With an Example from Everyday Life. (February 2020). Psych Central.

Forward Chaining. (2017). ScienceDirect.

Behavior Chaining. Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).

Chaining. (December 2009). Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism.

An Assessment of the Efficacy of and Child Preference for Forward and Backward Chaining. (2011). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Contextual Control of Chained Instrumental Behaviors. (2016). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

Application of ABA Principles to General Communication Instruction. (May 2001). SAGE Journals.

Applied Behavior Analysis: The Role of Task Analysis and Chaining. Indiana Resource Center for Autism.