Backward chaining is a type of chaining and instructional strategy within Applied Behavior Analysis. It involves teaching a child a complex behavior or skill by breaking the skill down into multiple different steps.
The unique aspect of backward chaining (as opposed to forward chaining) is that the child initially masters the last step of the process, then progressively learns the preceding steps in reverse order (Al-Ajlan, 2015).
Each step is reinforced as the learner works their way from the end of the task to the beginning, ultimately mastering the entire sequence.
Backward Chaining in ABA Therapy: Overview
Backward chaining is most commonly used when working with neurodivergent children such as children with autism or other atypical developmental paths.
In practice, backward chaining works by having the instructor (usually an aba therapist) complete all but the last step of the procedure, allowing the learner to perform the final step, and then gradually allowing the learner to complete more of the preceding steps at a time as they master each one (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).
This method helps in building the learner’s confidence and motivation, as they experience immediate success by completing the task from the very beginning, and it can be particularly beneficial for learners with developmental or learning challenges.
Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the backward chaining process:
- Identify the Task or Behavior: Clearly define the complex procedure that the learner needs to acquire, ensuring that it can be broken down into smaller, sequential steps.
- Break Down the Process: Decompose the identified activity into smaller, manageable steps, listing them in the order they need to be executed from start to finish. We call this ‘task analysis’, which I will discuss after the listed examples on this article.
- Determine Mastery Criteria: Establish clear criteria for what constitutes mastery of each step, so you know when the learner is ready to progress to the next step.
- Complete Initial Steps: The instructor performs all the steps up to the last one, allowing the learner to observe the process and understand the sequence of the task.
- Teach the Last Step: The learner practices the last step of the sequence, with reinforcement provided upon successfully completing a task (i.e. a reward).
- Introduce Preceding Steps: Once the last step is mastered, the second-to-last step is introduced. The instructor completes all the steps except the last two, and the learner performs the final two, receiving reinforcement upon successful completion.
- Progressive Learning: Continue this process, progressively introducing each preceding step and allowing the learner to perform more of the task, reinforcing successful completion at each stage.
- Achieve Full Mastery: Continue the backward chaining process until the learner has mastered all the steps in the sequence and can perform the entire task or behavior independently.
- Generalization and Maintenance: Encourage the learner to apply the acquired skill or behavior in different contexts and settings, and provide periodic opportunities for practice and reinforcement to ensure maintenance of the learned task.
Backward Chaining Examples
1. Tying Shoes
Starting with the final bow, a client in ABA therapy learns to tighten it, receiving reinforcement upon success. The preceding steps of forming loops and knots are introduced sequentially. Mastery of each step is reinforced, building confidence and skill.
2. Making a Bed
The child is initially shown how to arrange the pillows, with reinforcement provided upon correct placement. Subsequent steps, like straightening the comforter and sheets, are introduced in reverse order. Each time the child masters a ‘chain’ of steps, they receive additional rewards.
3. Baking a Cake
The parent goes through the whole process of making the cake, then allows the child to ice the cake, receiving reinforcement for a job well done (probably, getting to eat the cake!). The preceding steps of baking, mixing, and measuring ingredients are introduced sequentially. Reinforcement at the end of each stage ensures a structured approach to baking.
4. Riding a Bicycle
The learner first masters stopping and dismounting, receiving reinforcement for safety. Breaking and steering are introduced as preceding steps, with scaffolds such as training wheels provided so balance doesn’t need to be learned until later. Each successful step is reinforced, building confidence in bicycle riding.
5. Assembling a Puzzle
Starting with the final piece, the child receives reinforcement upon correct placement. Gradually, preceding pieces are removed and the child needs to try again to complete the puzzle, working backward to sorting and starting. This helps to manage overwhelm and scaffold what it takes to complete a puzzle.
6. Writing an Essay
The learner begins by writing the conclusion, receiving reinforcement for coherence. The body paragraphs and introduction are introduced in reverse order. Reinforcement at each step ensures a well-structured essay, until the introduction is completed last.
7. Cooking a Recipe
The learner first learns to serve the dish, with reinforcement provided upon proper presentation. Cooking, preparing, and measuring ingredients are introduced as preceding steps. Reinforcement at each stage ensures comprehensive cooking skills.
8. Washing and Putting Away Clothes
The parent starts out washing and drying the clothes themself, but allows the child to help with the final fold and placement, receiving reinforcement for neatness. Preceding activities are introduced, such as taking the clothes out of the dryer, working backward until the child can do the whole task from take the dirty clothes out of the hamper all the way through to returning the cleaned clothing to the clothes drawer.
9. Planting a Garden
The student is first prompted to water the plants, receiving reinforcement for proper care. Planting seeds, preparing soil, and selecting plants are introduced sequentially. This approach may be chosen over the forward chaining procedure because watering the plants is far easier than planting the seeds.
10. Painting a Picture
The learner begins with adding final details and receives reinforcement for precision. Applying base colors and sketching are introduced as preceding steps at a later date for an advanced lesson.
11. Building a Model
Starting with attaching the final piece, the individual receives reinforcement upon correct assembly. Gradually, preceding pieces are introduced in reverse order. A reward for successfully completing each full chain can help your child develop key skills throughout.
12. Playing a Musical Instrument
The learner first masters the last notes of a piece, receiving reinforcement for accuracy. Earlier notes and scales are introduced sequentially. Each successful step is reinforced, fostering musical proficiency.
13. Programming a Computer
The beginner coder starts by running the final code, receiving reinforcement for successful execution. Writing, debugging, and planning code are introduced as preceding steps. Reinforcement at each step ensures comprehensive programming skills.
14. Creating a Scrapbook
The learner starts with the enjoyable part – placing the final decorations, receiving reinforcement for creativity. Arranging photos and designing pages are introduced in reverse order as they’re seen as more difficult tasks. Each step is reinforced, enhancing scrapbooking skills.
15. Performing a Dance
Starting with the final dance move, the newbie dancer receives reinforcement upon correct execution. Gradually, preceding dance moves are introduced in reverse order. Reinforcement at each stage builds dance proficiency.
Using Backward Chaining with Task Analysis
Task analysis refers to the process of analyzing how a task is completed by observing a competent practitioner, or, doing the task yourself, to see what the exact steps are that need to be taught.
We don’t think about every step of every activity we do in our daily lives. Once we’ve done it hundreds of times, we do it on autopilot.
But to teach these life skills to children, we often need to go back to the start and break down each small step through the whole process – be it helping them to brush their teeth or bake a cake.
Task analysis is all about extracting the multi-step process involved in those complex tasks we do without even thinking.
Creating a task analysis often involves completing the activity yourself and taking notes on the minutiae of the procedures, steps, and activities undertaken to do the task. This helps you to break the task down into smaller parts that you will demonstrate to to the learner.
Don’t take this for granted or do it from memory – actually doing the activity yourself will help with creating a much more detailed and effective procedure for the learning process.
Backward vs Forward Chaining
While backward chaining involves working chronologically backward to teach a complex multi-step task, we also have forward chaining which involves working chronologically forward.
Here’s the difference, and pros and cons of each:
- Backward Chaining: Start from the last step of the procedure and move backward through the steps until you reach the first step. This is beneficial when you want to provide the rewarding feeling of task completion from Day 1. It’s also beneficial when the last step is easier than the first (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
- Forward Chaining: Start from the first step of the process and move forward through the steps until task completion. This is beneficial when the first step is easier (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
Furthermore, a third method is the whole task procedure:
- Total Task Procedure: Start from the first step and do the entire process (i.e. go through each step), regardless of whether the child has mastered each step. This is beneficial when you want the child to understand the whole activity from Day 1, or to so they don’t get held up at one particularly difficult step for weeks, allowing them to skip steps that are bottlenecks (Radley & Dart, 2021; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
Backward chaining is an important component of ABA that helps people with autism to learn vital life skills. But chaining can be used with all learners in all educational settings, and is a valuable instruction method to have in your teaching toolbox.
To learn about other chaining methods, see my guides:
Al-Ajlan, A. (2015). The comparison between forward and backward chaining. International Journal of Machine Learning and Computing, 5(2), 106.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied Behavior Analysis. Pearson.
Radley, K. C., & Dart, E. H. (2021). Social Skills Teaching for Individuals with Autism: Integrating Research Into Practice. Springer International Publishing.
Slocum, S. K., & Tiger, J. H. (2011). An assessment of the efficiency of and child preference for forward and backward chaining. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 44(4), 793-805. doi: https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2011.44-793
Test, D. W., & Spooner, F. (1996). Community-based Instructional Support. American Association on Mental Retardation.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]