Typically when teaching a child a skill we start at the beginning, move through the sequence of steps, and conclude with the final step. This is called forward chaining. The reverse to this is backward chaining. Backward chaining involves teaching the last step first, moving backwards through the sequence of steps, and concluding with the first step.
In forward chaining, a child repeats the beginning steps over and over and becomes very proficient with them. She performs the first steps that she is comfortable completing, but then must move onto a brand new step that she was just taught. Often in forward chaining, a child forgets the sequence of steps. She may want to quit because the feeling of success takes too long to attain.
Benefits to Backward Chaining
Backward chaining allows a child to experience instant success. As more steps are added, a child completes the newly taught step immediately, followed by the steps she has already mastered. This can minimize anxiety and provide a child with a sense of accomplishment. This feeling of success will increase her confidence and keep her motivated to learn and complete the entire sequence of steps. In essence, completion of the steps operates as a natural reinforcer for a child.
Forward or Backward?
Forward and backward chaining has been around for a long time. Whether forward or backward chaining is used depends on the task being taught. Specifically, backward chaining has been used successfully in teaching self-help skills. It often is used to teach younger children or children who are lower functioning.
Example of Backward Chaining
Backward chaining was used to teach my daughter how to tie her shoes. She has always had issues with her fine motor skills and the sequencing of events. By using backward chaining, my daughter learned how to tie her shoes fairly painlessly.
We took an old shoe and nailed it to a solid piece of board. The shoelaces were replaced with extra long ones, making them easier to grasp and create bows. As the steps were chunked out, each step was small enough to ensure success, but big enough to lend themselves to a complete action.
Backward chaining can also be used to teach your child how to get dressed. When teaching your child how to put on her sock, put the sock on all the way over her heel. This leaves the last step for her: pulling it up. After this step, put the sock on up to the heel and have your child put it over her heel and pull it up. When the sock has been mastered, you can move onto other pieces of clothing.
This same principle can be used at the end of the night. Remove all your child’s clothing and let her put them in the hamper. Next time, take all your child’s clothing off except for the last item and let her complete this task and put her clothes in the hamper. By the end of this training session, your child should be able to completely undress and put her clothes where they belong.
I have heard of backward chaining also being used for other life skills. For example, a 12-year old boy with autism and intellectual disabilities refused all liquids and foods. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis documents the use of this technique not only to teach him to drink from a cup, but also to slowly increase the amount of water he drank.
So the next time you are struggling to teach your child a basic self-help skill, consider backward chaining. It may be just what your child needs to build her confidence and lead her to success.