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Behavior Chain in ABA

Now that the weather is getting warmer, my motivation to be outside has increased! On the surface, getting ready to go outside sounds pretty simple: get dressed and go! But when we take a closer look, this activity is fairly complex and takes many small steps before enjoying the sun. For some of our learners instructions can be as simple as “get dressed”, while others may need instructions broken down further (shorts, shirt, socks, shoes), and still others need step by step instructions for each of these tasks. There can all be considered types of a behavior chain.

What is a Behavior Chain?

A behavior chain (chaining) is a type of teaching procedure used to connect individual behaviors to form more complex responses. Any action that requires more than one response or behavior to emit, can be taught via a chaining procedure.

A complex behavior such as washing hands, tying shoes, or brushing teeth, is made up of many small individual steps. As an instructor, you can teach these small, individual steps in sequence so the learner can complete the larger complex behavior.

Why Use a Behavior Chain?

A behavior chain makes more complex tasks more achievable. When it comes to learning a new task such as how to tie shoelaces, it can be overwhelming for some to complete all the novel steps and be successful.

By using behavior chains to teach the shoelace tying sequence, you can focus on smaller more manageable teaching steps that build skill and confidence in the learner. This is usually done by the learner working on one step at a time independently, while receiving assistance through the other steps in the chain. There are some exceptions to this outlined below!

Teaching behavior chains includes the use of a Task Analysis. Check out our examples of how to use chaining with a task analysis

The Different Types of Behavior Chain

There are different types of chaining procedures that can be done. These include:

Forward Chaining

With forward chaining, the first step of the sequence is taught to the learner. The learner emits the first step in the behavior chain, and the instructor completes the rest of the sequence.
Once the learner meets mastery criteria for the first step in the sequence, they are taught to complete the first two steps and the instructor completes the remaining steps. This pattern is continued until the entire sequence is performed independently by the learner.

Total Task Chaining

Total task chaining is a type of forward chain.
Each time the behavior sequence or complex task is presented, the instructor teaches every step in the sequence. This gives the learner an opportunity to practice each step, every time.

Backward Chaining

Opposite to forward chaining, backward chaining is characterized by the instructor performing all steps in the sequence, except for the last step. The final step of the sequence is emitted by the learner.
Once the learner meets mastery criteria for the final step in the sequence, the instructor completes all but the final two steps in the sequence, this is completed by the learner. This pattern is continued until the entire sequence is performed independently by the learner.

Chaining with Leaps Ahead

While some learners need focused teaching on each step in the chain, other learners have some steps in their repertoire. While the instructor is teaching individual steps, some teaching steps can be skipped to increase the efficiency of teaching the complex behavior.

Chaining with a Limited Hold

Some activities must be completed within a specified time interval for reinforcement to be delivered. This procedure can be used to increase the efficiency of the learner performing the sequence.

Example: eating ice cream before it melts.

Behavior Chain Interruption Strategy

After a behavior chain is taught and the learner can independently complete all parts of the sequence, occasionally an interruption strategy is implemented. There are times when interruptions happen while people complete their tasks. During BCIS we can add interruptions to gauge if a learner can pick up the sequence where they left off and can complete the remaining steps.

Example: while putting away laundry the phone rings interrupting the chore. Once the phone call has ended, finish putting away the laundry.

Chaining can be used with shaping procedures for some sequences of behavior.

Choosing a Chaining Procedure

With so many different types of chaining procedures to choose from, how do you know which is the best selection for the skill and learner?

When it comes to skill acquisition, backward chaining is typically used. This way the learner reaches reinforcement immediately upon completing the step.


Backward chaining with tying shoelaces. The instructor completes all the steps, until the last step. When the learner completes the last step (pulling the bows so the knot is tightened) reinforcement is immediately presented – we can go outside to play!

When it comes to desensitization, forward chaining is typically used. This way the learner can build on skills in their repertoire and what they are comfortable with.


Forward chaining with visiting the doctor. The learner only needs to complete the first step in the chain (walk into the waiting room). Once the first step is independently completed to mastery, the first two steps are worked on – walk into the waiting room AND give your name to the receptionist.

The expectation is NOT for the learner to have to go to the doctor’s office, wait, and sit on the examination table while the skills are not yet in their repertoire and the expectations are unknown.

Here is an example of how chaining can be used to teach tolerating haircuts!

The Role of Reinforcement

The completion of the behavior chain should provide reinforcement for the person engaging in the behavior chain – typing shoelaces is reinforced by going to play outside, eating cookies before your sibling comes home so you have more for yourself (limited hold), dialing a phone number so you can chat with your best friend, etc.

In a behavior chain, each step is an SD for the next step in the sequence, and an SR+ for the previous step.

Check out our YouTube video on How to Teach Life Skills using Chaining!

1 thought on “Behavior Chain in ABA”

  1. Pingback: Why chaining is used? Explained by FAQGuide

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