Chaining in psychology refers to the process of linking together small behaviors into a complex sequence through reinforcement. Each behavior serves as a cue for the next, like a series of dominos.
This technique is often used in operant conditioning and applied behavior analysis (ABA) to teach new skills or behaviors by reinforcing the connections between each step in the chain.
Chaining is beneficial because makes it easier for students to learn complex new skills or behaviors in a simple manner that doesn’t cause cognitive overload (Radley & Dart, 2021). Additionally, chaining can help in establishing routines and habits, as the learned sequences can become automatic and integrated into daily life.
Chaining in Psychology: Full Definition & Explanation
Chaining is a ‘staged’ or ‘step-by-step’ form of operant conditioning. At each step, the learner’s behavior is modified using reinforcements or punishments.
This technique involves breaking down a complex behavior or skill into smaller, more manageable components or steps. Each step of the chain acts as a cue for the next behavior, and reinforcement is given at each link, ensuring that the learner can successfully progress through the sequence to achieve the final desired behavior or skill.
Here’s a scholarly definition from Slocum and Tiger (2011):
“Response chaining involves breaking a task into its component parts via a task analysis and then sequentially teaching each individual component to mastery levels via prompting and differential reinforcement.” (Slocum & Tiger, 2011)
Types of Chaining
The process of chaining can be implemented through forward chaining, backward chaining, or total task chaining.
1. Forward Chaining
In forward chaining, the learner is taught the first step of the sequence first and then progressively learns each subsequent step.
So, if you have a task with Steps A, B, C, and D, you’d first learn Step A, then A and B together, next A, B, and C together, and finally, all steps A, B, C, and D together (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
Usually, the learner some sort of reward or reinforcement each time they successfully complete the full set they’re working on (A-B, or A-B-C, for example).
2. Backward Chaining
In backward chaining, the last step is taught first, and preceding steps are added in reverse order.
This is a useful strategy when you want to learner to be able to clearly visualize the end result and reverse engineer that result (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
For example, if you’re teaching a child how to get dressed, you might help dress them right up until the last part (say, doing up a zip). Once they’ve mastered doing up the zip, you can move on to helping them learn how to put their arm in a sleeve, and so on, until the child can fully get dressed on their own.
As with forward chaining, the tasks are stacked. At the stage when the child is learning to zip, they will get a reward after completing the zipping process. But once they’ve mastered it, they’ll only get a reward after doing the zip and putting their hand through the sleeve unassisted.
3. Total Task Procedure
Total task chaining involves teaching all steps of the chain in each training session, with the learner practicing the entire sequence.
This is a variation of forward chaining, but instead of stopping if the learner hasn’t mastered a step, the learner is provided support to get through the step, and can move onto the next one (Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
This may lead to a scenario where the learner has mastered Steps C and E before mastering A, B, and D.
The benefit of this scenario is that the learner sees the whole task and procedure each time. Additionally, they can master components they find easy or fulfilling without being ‘stuck’ at an earlier, more difficult step. On top of this, they may feel the satisfaction of task completion each time (nevertheless with help), which may sustain motivation for longer (Radley & Dart, 2021).
However, the total task method could lead to cognitive overload as more complexity and more steps are presented during the singular learning session.
Response Chaining Examples
1. Teaching a Child to Tie Shoes (Forward Chaining Scenario)
A child is taught the first step of making a simple knot. Once they master this, they learn to form the loops, followed by crossing the loops, and finally, pulling them tight. Each step is taught and reinforced in sequence, building on the previous one.
2. Creating a PowerPoint Presentation (Backward Chaining Scenario)
Someone learning to create a PowerPoint presentation could start with the final step of adding slide transitions. Subsequently, earlier steps like inserting text, images, and designing layout would be introduced, until they can create a full presentation on their own.
3. Baking Cookies (Total Task Procedure)
A person learning to bake cookies is guided through all the steps—measuring ingredients, mixing, forming cookie shapes, and baking—in each session. They practice the entire sequence of tasks each time, gradually becoming more independent as they become familiar with each step.
4. Learning to Play a Musical Instrument (Forward Chaining Scenario)
A beginner learning to play the piano first learns to play a single note. Once mastered, they progress to playing a combination of notes, then a scale, and eventually, a simple melody. Each new skill is built upon the previous one, with reinforcement at each stage.
5. Learning Chess from your Father (Reverse Chaining Scenario)
Think of a scenario where a child wants to learn chess from his father. The father starts by letting the son sit by him as he plays, instructing the son to make moves. As the child learns the moves, the father gradually releases responsibility, teaching more and more tasks and skills, until the child can play a full game of chess on his own.
6. Making the Bed (Total Task Procedure)
A child learning to make helps their parent make the bed each morning—straightening the sheets, adjusting the pillows, smoothing the comforter. They practice and attempt the whole sequence from start to finish every morning, gradually gaining proficiency in making the bed independently.
7. Learning to Write a Letter (Forward Chaining Scenario)
A student learning to write a formal letter first learns to write the date and address. Once this is mastered, they learn to write the salutation, followed by the body of the letter, and finally, the closing and signature. Each component is taught sequentially, with the student mastering one before moving on to the next.
8. Training Wheels on a Bike (Backward Chaining Scenario)
A child learning to ride a bike wants to feel the feeling of riding, so the parents put training wheels on the bike. This helps the child master the step of braking first, while still being able to ride and balance. Once braking is mastered, the child is given rewards, training wheels are removed, so balance becomes the last rather than logical first step they have to master.
9. The Workplace Apprentice (Total Task Procedure)
An apprentice in a workplace shadows their mentor all day long. The mentor helps them through every step throughout the day, provides rewards and consequences, and intervenes regularly. Over time, the apprentice masters a few tasks scattered throughout the day and support is fully withdrawn, but it takes many months before the apprentice masters every task in the right sequence for a full day’s work.
Chaining vs Scaffolding
You may have noticed that chaining has some very close similarities to the social learning theory concept of scaffolding. They have overlaps, but also some differences.
- Chaining is a technique used in behaviorist theory, so it is very structured and incorporates rewards and consequences regularly. Each step is taught sequentially, with the learner receiving reinforcement (positive and/or negative) at each stage. Chaining can be forward, backward, or total task, depending on the order in which the steps are taught and practiced. The focus is on linking individual behaviors into a sequence, where each behavior serves as a cue for the next.
- Scaffolding, on the other hand, is focused on providing cognitive support to learners as they develop new skills or knowledge, with little to no concern for rewards and consequences (Zurek, Torquati & Acar 2014). The support is gradually reduced as the learner becomes more competent and confident, allowing them to work more independently. Scaffolding can involve a variety of supports such as hints, prompts, modeling, or feedback, and it is not limited to teaching behavioral sequences. The goal is to help learners build on their existing knowledge and skills to achieve higher levels of understanding and ability.
Note that they do overlap, and teachers regularly end up merging aspects of each.
|Purpose||To teach complex behaviors or skills by breaking them down into smaller, sequential steps.||To support learners in acquiring new knowledge or skills by providing varying levels of assistance (Zurek, Torquati & Acar 2014).|
|Method||Involves teaching individual steps sequentially with reinforcement at each stage.||Involves providing hints, prompts, modeling, feedback, or other forms of support as needed.|
|Sequence||Focuses on teaching tasks in a specific order, whether forward, backward, or total task.||Does not necessarily involve teaching tasks in a specific sequence; can be used for any type of learning.|
|Support||Reinforcement is provided at the completion of each step in the sequence.||Support is gradually reduced as the learner becomes more competent, allowing for increased independence (see: gradual release of responsibility model).|
|Application||Often used in behavior modification, especially in operant conditioning.||Widely applicable across various educational contexts and types of learning.|
|Goal||To link individual behaviors into a sequence, where each behavior serves as a cue for the next.||To help learners build on their existing knowledge and skills to achieve higher levels of understanding and ability.|
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.
Zurek, A., Torquati, J., & Acar I. (2014). Scaffolding as a tool for environmental education in early childhood. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 2(1), 27-57. doi: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1108033
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]