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backward chaining - shoe tyingLearning to tie shoes is a challenge for most children, but even more so if your child is dealing with various isms.  Backward Chaining may be the solution to this challenge.

If your child struggles with her fine motor skills, has problems with sequencing, or has memory deficits, you may have put off teaching her how to tie her shoes. With velcro and slip-ons, the skill can be postponed. At some point, you will have to tackle this challenge, so how about now.

Sequence Through the Steps

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. There are benefits to both methods and they can be used for teaching different skills.

Forward Chaining

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. A child may successfully complete the steps she has mastered, but by the time she gets to the new step, she may freeze. Memory or sequencing issues or just plain anxiety over learning a new skill, may contribute to her not being able to remember the newly taught skill. This can lead a child to wanting 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 have 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 is often used to teach younger children or children who are more challenged by various isms.

Backward Chaining to Learn How to Tie Shoes

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 painlessly.

  1. We took an old shoe and nailed it to a solid piece of board.
  2. The shoelaces were replaced with extra long ones, making them easier to grasp and to create bows.
  3. Each step to tie a show was written out. The steps were kept small to ensure success, but big enough to lend themselves to a complete action.
  4. I performed all the steps and then taught my daughter the very last one. I would repeat the steps and then let her perform the last step.
  5. When she had mastered a step, I would continue to do all the steps from the beginning until I got to the next step to be taught. She would learn that step and then easily complete the following steps she had mastered.
  6. We continued this way until she completed all the steps, from start to finish. Success!

Backward Chaining for Other Life Skills

Backward chaining can also be used to teach your child how to get dressed. When teaching her 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.

In Summary

I have heard of backward chaining also being used for other self-help 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. (1)

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.


(1) Hagopian, L. P., D. A. Farrell, and A. Amari. “Treating Total Liquid Refusal with Backward Chaining and Fading.J Appl Behav Anal Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 29.4 (1996): 573-75. Web

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Using her research background, Danette founded S-O-S Research to provide information on "invisible" special needs. In the recent past, Danette served as the Executive Editor at Special-Ism, focusing the -Isms experienced by many children.