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What is ABA Chaining and How Do We Use It?


We often talk about breaking skills down into smaller steps to be able to teach our learners. But once they’re broken down, how do we teach them? Where do we go from here? Today’s topic is all about ABA chaining. 

Right around the time of the pandemic, I got so many phone calls about teaching children handwashing. “How do I teach my child to wash his hands?” And I have to do this all virtually because I can’t go in and see anybody else at this point in time. I’m mandated to stay home. So virtually I describe the steps of handwashing and I actually made a task analysis of hand washing. But the parents came back and said, “well, these steps are great. I wash my hands all the time, I know the steps. But how do I teach it?” So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. How do we teach skills after we create a task analysis? How do we break those skills down? 

Create a Task Analysis

I think the first thing is, obviously, creating that task analysis. And once you have those steps, look at what your learner can already do. So with the itemized hand washing, you say, “Okay, I’ve got my steps of hand washing, and I know how to wash my hands, I’ve got the steps broken down, I really just want to see what you can do.” I would take my learner into the bathroom and let them wash their hands or watch them wash their hands. And make note of what point you need to step in. Can you step back after helping them turn on the tap? Are they just playing with the water? You want to make that assessment and that’s going to give you a good description of where to start.

Download a free task analysis template.

Using Chaining in ABA Examples With Handwashing

So once I’ve looked at that, I can see where they need help. Some learners can do most of it, they just can’t do one or two little pieces of it. And if that’s your learner, pull out those what we call “composite skills” and just teach those things separately. If it’s a matter of not being able to pump the soap or not being able to turn on the tap, just teach that separately. It can be at a different time of the day, it doesn’t need to be during hand washing. You can do 5 or 10 trials and once they’re able to do that, then you can throw it back into the chain. 

If you’ve got a learner who can’t do most of the steps, I typically would do what we call a total task presentation, which means that you can show them the entire task along with a backward chain. This means that I would go through the entire task with them, help them throughout the process and then at the very end, practice that last step five or 10 times in a row. Once they’re able to do that last step, then I’m going to help them through the entire task and let them do the last two steps on their own. And then the last three steps, and then the last four steps. 

If you’ve got a learner who’s just scared to use the bathroom altogether, you may need to use a technique that we call forward chaining, which means starting at the very beginning and teaching the very first step. Pairing the water with some reinforcement, maybe playing some fun music in the background as well, making the bathroom a little bit more pleasant to be in, and then, when the bathroom is paired better, teaching them that very first step and then helping them through the rest of the process. 

Types of ABA Chaining

There are different types of chaining in ABA when you’re talking about teaching using a task analysis. There’s forward chaining, which is that you teach that first step and then you can just prompt through the rest. Once the first step is independent, then you teach the first two steps, then the first three steps, and then the first four steps. Backward chaining is teaching the student that last step, and then the last two steps, and then the last three steps, etc. I typically do total chaining – which is when you prompt the learner through the entire sequence – along with forward chaining or backward chaining.  

When you’re teaching this, it is really, really important to try not to use any verbal prompts or gestural prompts. If you need to model and show the students something, and that’s all they need, or to talk them through it once and that’s all they need – that’s amazing. But if you’ve got a learner who is very what we call prompt dependent, it’s going to be very difficult for the adult to fade themselves out and get out of that teaching interaction. So you want to make sure that you are walking them through that teaching interaction without saying anything. 

So you may want to just prompt with the elbow or maybe prompt with the wrist a little bit when they need help. I call it a dance, sometimes you have to step in and really prompt with the elbow or prompt with the wrist, and other times you can back out. Be very, very careful to try not to embed yourself in that teaching interaction by using verbal prompts or gesture prompts.

Data Collection and ABA Chaining

And then in terms of data collection, typically we use a task analysis which has the steps broken down. You can mark on there what kinds of prompts you had to use. So for something that was independent, I would put a plus on that step. For something that was not independent, I can mark a FP for fully promoted, PP for partially prompted, or V for verbal. 

Say you have 10 steps to the entire chain and your learner is able to complete three independently but needs prompts for seven of the steps. I would mark that as a three out of 10, which is 30%. And you can mark that each time. 

We’re giving away a free task analysis template. It’s blank so you don’t have to use it for just hand washing. You can break down any task into steps using this task analysis and take data on it when doing ABA chaining.

Get your free Task Analysis template below.

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