Chaining Forward and Chaining Backwards

Prompting Strategies for Direct Instruction of Life Skills

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Shoe tying can either be taught with forward or backward chaining.

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When teaching life skills such as dressing, grooming or perhaps even cooking, a special educator often has to break down the task to be taught in small discrete steps. The first step for teaching a life skill is to complete a task analysis. Once the task analysis is complete, the teacher needs to decide how it is to be taught: chaining forward, or chaining backward?


Whenever we do a complete, multistep task, we complete the component parts in a specific order (though there can be some flexibility.) We start at some point and complete each step, one step at a time. Since these tasks are sequential we refer to teaching them step-by-step as "chaining."

Chaining Forward

When chaining forward, the instructional program starts with the beginning of the task sequence. After each step is mastered, instruction begins at the next step. Depending on how severely a student's abilities are compromised by their disability will depend on what level of support the student will need for each step of instruction. If a child is unable to learn the step by having it modeled and then imitating it, it may be necessary to provide hand over hand prompting, fading instructional prompting to verbal and then gestural prompts.

As each step is mastered, the student completes the step after begin given a verbal command (prompt?) and then begins instruction in the next step. Each time the student has completed the part of the tasks they have he or she has mastered, the instructor will complete the other steps, either modeling or hand over handing the tasks in the order you will be teaching the student.

An Example of Chaining Forward

Angela is pretty severely cognitively disabled. She is learning life skills with therapeutic support staff (TSS) aid provided by the county mental health organization. Rene (her aide) is working on teaching her independent grooming skills. She can wash her hands independently, with the simple command, "Angela, it's time to wash your hand. Wash your hands." She has just begun to learn how to brush her teeth. She will follow this forward chain:

  • Angela gets the pink toothbrush from her cup and the toothpaste from the top vanity drawer.
  • When she has mastered this step, she will unscrew the cap, she will wet the bristles and put the paste on the bristles.
  • When she has mastered opening the toothpaste and squirting it on the brush, the child needs to open his, her mouth wide and begin to brush the top teeth. I would divide this into several steps and teach it over a couple of weeks: Up and down on the bottom and top on the side opposite the dominant hand, up and down on the same side, up and down in front and back of the front teeth. Once the whole sequence is mastered, the student can move on to:
  • Rinsing the toothpaste out, front and back. This step will have to be modeled: there is no way to hand over hand this skill.
  • Replace the toothpaste cap, put the cap, brush and rinsing cup away.

An Example of Backward Chaining

Jonathon, aged 15, lives at a residential facility. One of the goals in his residential IEP is to do his own laundry. In his facility, there is a two to one ratio of staff to students, so Rahul is the evening staff member for Jonathon and Andrew. Andrew is also 15, and also has a laundry goal, so Rahul has Andrew watch as Jonathon does his laundry on Wednesday, and Andrew does his laundry on Friday.

Chaining Laundry Backwards

Rahul completes each of the steps Jonathon will need to complete the laundry, modeling and reciting each step. i.e.

  1. "First we separate the colors and the whites.
  2. "Next we will put the dirty whites in the washing machine.
  3. "Now we measure the soap" (Rahul might choose to have Jonathon open the soap container if twisting off lids is one of Jonathon's already acquired skills.)
  4. "Now we choose the water temperature. Hot for whites, cold for colors."
  5. "Now we turn the dial to 'regular wash.'
  6. "Now we close the lid and pull out the dial."
  7. Rahul gives Jonathon a couple of choices for waiting: Looking at books? Playing a game on the iPad? He may also stop Jonathon from his game and check out where the machine is in the process.
  8. "Oh, the machine is done spinning. Let's put the wet clothing in the dryer."Let's set the drying for 60 minutes."
  9. (When the buzzer goes off.) "Is the laundry dry? Let's feel it? Yes, let's take it out and fold it." At this point, Jonathon would assist in taking the dry laundry out of the dryer. With assistance, he would "fold the clothing," matching socks and stacking white underwear and t-shirts in the correct piles.

In backward chaining, Jonathon would observe Rahul do the laundry and would begin by assisting with removing the laundry and folding it. When he has reached an acceptable level of independence (I wouldn't demand perfection) you would back up, and have Jonathon set the dryer and push the start button. After that is mastered, he would back up to removing the wet clothing from the washer and putting it in the dryer.

The purpose of backward chaining is the same as that of forward chaining: to help the student gain independence and mastery in a skill that he or she can use for the rest of their life.

Whether you, as the practitioner, choose forward or backward chaining will depend on the child's strengths and your perception of where the student will be most successful. His or her success is the real measure of the most effective way to chain, either forward, or backward.

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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Chaining Forward and Chaining Backwards." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Webster, Jerry. (2021, February 16). Chaining Forward and Chaining Backwards. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Chaining Forward and Chaining Backwards." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).