Forward chaining is a type of chaining in ABA therapy based on the principles of operant conditioning. It is commonly used as a teaching strategy when teaching skills to children with developmental difficulties and neurodivergent children such as those with Autism (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020).
This method involves breaking tasks down into a series of steps. Each step is taught in order and learners do not move onto the next step until they complete the previous ones to mastery, at which point they receive a reinforcement in the form of a reward.
The benefit of this approach is that the learner is given clear, small, bite-size tasks to complete, which can decrease overwhelm and cognitive overload. They also receive very clear and structured instructions in a ‘recipe’ format that helps decrease uncertainty.
Forward Chaining in ABA Therapy
The steps for forward chaining are outlined below:
- Step 1: Forward chaining starts with a clear and explicit prompt on how to perform the first of multiple steps. The educator works with the learner to help them not only complete the first task, but achieve mastery over the task.
- Step 2: Once the first step is mastered, the teacher will reward the learner.
- Step 3: Next, the tasks are stacked. The learner must complete the first task and the second task in succession, linking them like we would like a chain. Having mastered both tasks in succession, the learner receives a reward.
- Step 4: This process continues until the child can successfully complete the multi-step skill and has mastered the full behavior chain.
Chaining can be used for a child with Autism, where clear and explicit step-by-step instructions are often necessary for learning a complex skill.
For example, the command to “brush your teeth” may be difficult to execute. However, step-by-step instructions (pick up toothbrush, place toothpaste on bristles, etc.) may help them to more easily complete the task.
Forward Chaining Examples
The following are tasks an ABA therapist may use forward chaining to teach:
- Getting Dressed: In forward chaining, a child first learns to put on underwear. Once they successfully complete the first step, they can move onto putting on pants or a skirt, then a shirt, socks, and finally shoes. Each step is reinforced in the full chaining procedure before moving on to the next.
- Making a Sandwich: A learner first learns to gather ingredients. Once they can get bread, butter, etc. and do this step independently, then they progress to learning to spread condiments on the bread, followed by placing the fillings, assembling the sandwich, and finally, cutting it into halves or quarters.
- Brushing Teeth: The learner first learns to apply toothpaste, then to brush each section of the mouth, followed by rinsing, and finally, putting away the brush and toothpaste.
- Washing Hands: The learner first turns on the water. They must be able to complete this task before they can move onto applying soap, scrubbing hands, rinsing off the soap, drying hands, and finally, turning off the water.
- Setting the Table: The person first places the placemats, followed by the dishes, then the silverware, next the glasses, and finally, the napkins.
- Tying Shoes: The learner first masters crossing the laces, then forming the loops, followed by securing a knot, and finally tightening the bow.
- Baking Cookies: The individual first learns to preheat the oven, then to mix the ingredients, followed by scooping dough onto the tray, baking, and finally, cooling the cookies.
- Planting a Seed: The person first digs a hole, then places the seed, followed by covering it with soil, watering it, and finally, placing a label or marker.
- Making a Bed: The learner first spreads the fitted sheet, then the flat sheet, followed by the blanket or comforter, and finally, arranges the pillows.
- Riding a Bicycle: The individual first learns to mount the bicycle, then to pedal, followed by steering, and finally, braking and dismounting.
- Writing a Letter: The learner first writes the date and address, then the salutation, followed by the body of the letter, and finally, the closing and signature.
- Assembling a Puzzle: The person first sorts the edge pieces, then assembles the border, followed by filling in the middle sections, and finally, placing the last piece.
- Folding Laundry: The individual first learns to smooth out wrinkles, then fold the item in half, followed by folding it into quarters, and finally, placing it in the designated area.
- Preparing a Salad: The learner first washes the vegetables, then chops them, followed by mixing them in a bowl, and finally, adding dressing and tossing the salad.
- Creating a Craft Project: The person first gathers materials, then cuts or shapes them as needed, followed by assembling the pieces, and finally, adding decorative elements or finishing touches.
Using Forward Chaining With Task Analysis
“Task analysis” needs to take place before the lessons begin. Creating a task analysis involves completing the task yourself and taking notes on the procedures, steps, and activities undertaken to do the task. This helps you to break the task down into smaller parts that you will teach to the learner.
Oftentimes, we find it so natural to complete a task that we don’t think through the small steps that a learner needs to explicitly think through during the learning process.
This is why task analysis is important.
During this process, we make explicit the small steps involved, and write down the order in which they are undertaken. Don’t take this for granted or do it from memory – actually doing the task yourself will help with creating a much more detailed and effective procedure for the learning process.
Forward vs Backward Chaining
Forward chaining is one of three types of chaining in operant psychology. The other two are backward chaining and the total task procedure.
- Forward Chaining: This involves starting with the first step and proceeding in chronological order (i.e. beginning to end) order until the full task can be done (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Slocum & Tiger, 2011). Forward chaining has the advantage of using behavior momentum, where success in the first (and often easiest) step motivates the learner to succeed in subsequent steps.
- Backward Chaining: This is the opposite of forward chaining and involves starting with the last step and regressing in order, so the first step of the process is mastered last. This is recommended if the child wants to feel the success of completion early on, then slowly develop control and mastery over time (Al-Ajlan, 2015; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
- Total Task Procedure: This involves doing every step in order, every time, rather than trying to just master one step at a time. The educator may need to support the child through steps that haven’t yet mastered, but this is an effective method for helping the learner envision the whole process from the very first lesson (Radley & Dart, 2021; Slocum & Tiger, 2011).
Before you Go
Forward chaining is most commonly used in aba therapy to teach a child with Autism complex tasks via a multi-step process. By breaking the task down into smaller steps, the child may find the task less daunting and easier to comprehend.
But forward chaining isn’t the only chaining method used to teach children with autism. While forward chaining is recommended to teach multi-step procedures that start with the easiest or most logical steps, we also use backward chaining to teach more difficult tasks while still proving the pay-off of successful completion from Day 1 (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2020). Forward and backward chaining both have their place in working with children with developmental disorders.
To learn about one of two types of chaining used in other contexts, visit 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]