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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 teach our students. 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 proper handwashing hygiene. “How do I teach my child to wash his hands properly to prevent the spread of germs?” Keep in mind, at the time, this was all done virtually because I wasn’t able to go in and see anyone in person at this point in time. We were all mandated to stay home. So first steps first.  Together with the caregivers, we created a task analysis of hand washing.  Then parents came back and said, “These steps are great, but I wash my hands all the time, I know the steps. How do I actually teach this?” So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. How do we teach life skills after we create a task analysis?

Create a Task Analysis

Firstly, create that task analysis. And once you have those steps, look at what your learner can already do. For example, once you have the itemized steps of hand washing, take the student to the sink and watch them wash their hands independently.  Make note of where they error or when you need to step in. Can you step back after helping them turn on the tap? Are they just playing with the water and can’t wash their hands at all? That assessment is going to give you a good description of where to start.

Download a free task analysis template.

Component vs. Composite Skills

So, now you’ve assessed what steps your learner is successful with and what steps need to be improved.  Some learners can do most of the process.  Maybe they just can’t do one or two little pieces of it. If that’s your learner, pull out those “component skills” and teach them separately away from the overall “composite skill” of handwashing. For instance, if it’s only a matter of not being able to pump the soap or not being able to turn on the tap, just teach those skills on their own. Choose a different time of the day – it doesn’t need to be during handwashing time. You can do 5 or 10 trials of just pumping the soap for extra practice.  Once they’ve learned those “component” skills, you can put them back into the chain and try the entire “composite” skill of hand washing again.

Total Task Presentation with Backward Chain

If you’ve got a learner who can’t do many of the steps, you may want to implement what is called a “total task presentation with a backward chain”.  Essentially, you want to prompt your learner through all of the steps and then back up during that very last step.  Practice that last step five or 10 times in a row. Once they’re able to do that last step independently, then 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.

Forward Chaining

If you’ve got a learner who’s just scared to use the bathroom sink altogether, you may need to use a technique that we call “forward chaining”, which means starting from the very beginning and teaching the very first step only. For instance, pairing the water with some reinforcement, maybe playing some fun music in the background as well, making the bathroom a little bit more pleasant is a great first step.  Then, when the bathroom sink is more tolerable, teach the first step of the task analysis and that’s it.  For instance, teach them to turn on the bathroom taps five to 10 times, and that’s it.  Once they can do that, then have the learner turn on the bathroom taps independently and then put their hands under the water.  That’s it.  Then, have them do the first two steps independently and teach the third step.  Continue this process until the forward chain is complete and the skill is mastered.

Types of ABA Chaining

There are different types of chaining in ABA.

There’s forward chaining, which teaching that first step only. Once the first step is independent, then you teach the first two steps, then the first three steps, and then the first four steps and on and on.

Backward chaining is teaching the student that last step, and then the last two steps, and then the last three steps, etc.

Something else that may expedite the process is called, “Total task presentation.”  This when you prompt the learner through the entire sequence.  This may be combined with forward or  backward chaining.

Prompting and ABA Chaining

When you’re teaching any life skill, try not to use any verbal or gestural prompts.  Essentially, if you build yourself into the teaching interaction, it is very difficult for that skill to become independent.  Your student will always depend on you to point to the tap or say, “Now turn on the tap.” If you need to model and show your student(s) a step in the chain, do so, but make sure that they don’t become prompt dependent on you having to do that each time.

Prompting with a light touch or even a laser pointer is much easier to fade. Following a set of pictures is even a better prompt!  Showing a video model of the process before students begin can be very beneficial and something that can be faded quickly.

Prompting while chaining can be like a dance.  Sometimes you have to step in with a gentle wrist or elbow prompt, and sometimes, you can back up.  This may vary from step to step.  Be very careful to try not to embed yourself in that teaching interaction by using verbal or gesture prompts.

Data Collection and ABA Chaining

With respect to data collection, typically we use a task analysis which has the teaching steps broken down. You can mark on there what kinds of prompts you had to use. For example, a plus (+) or an “I” could indicate that something that was independent, an “FP” could indicate fully prompted.  “PP” could indicate that a step was partially prompted, and a “V” could indicate that a verbal prompt was provided.

Say you have 10 steps in the entire chain and your learner can complete three independently but needs prompts for seven of the steps. That would be marked as as a three out of 10, or 30%.

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

Get your free Task Analysis template below.

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