Master ABA

Behavior Chains: Using Task Analysis for Chaining

Like many things related to behavior, behavior chains exist whether you’re aware of them or not. Understanding how behavior chains work, then using a task analysis to create intentional behavior chains is an effective intervention when working with children with autism.

Behavior chains occur when a sequence of behaviors is strung together by reinforcing the sequence. By creating a task analysis to identify component skills, complex skills can be broken down into simple steps. Then, the linking of discrete behaviors builds a repertoire of increasingly complex behaviors. Each step in the chain is the signal to begin the next step.

Contents

What is a behavior chain? Benefits of Behavior Chains How can you use behavior chains? What is the difference between a behavior chain and chaining as a procedure? Using Behavior Chains to Teach Skills Combining Task Analysis and Chaining Forward Chaining Backward Chaining Total Task Chaining Behavior Chain Example: Hand Washing Behavior Chain Example: Writing Behavior Chain Example: Caring for a Pet Behavior Chain Interruption to Teach Spontaneous Mands Undesirable Behavior Chains

What is a behavior chain?

Behaviors don’t exist in isolation. Often, there are cues in the environment in the form of other behaviors that trigger the start of a different behavior.

Let’s look at what you do in the morning when getting ready for work, for example.

Everyone’s morning routine will look different, but I’d bet each morning for you looks pretty similar. You might:

  1. Get up
  2. Make coffee
  3. Drink a cup of coffee
  4. Take a shower
  5. Get dressed
  6. Brush your teeth
  7. Eat breakfast
  8. Put on your shoes
  9. Leave for work

And much of this you might do without even thinking about it. It happens naturally because its become a habit for you. The habit or routine can happen with little or no thought, because each task becomes the cue for the next task. When you get out of bed you might automatically head to the coffee maker, because that’s what you do when you get up every day. This is a behavior chain.

Behavior chains allow us to function without having to consciously think through every step of a complex behavior or set of behaviors. While your morning routine might be a behavior chain, many of the steps in this chain might also consist of behavior chains. Let’s consider what you do when you get out of bed. You might:

  1. Turn off your alarm
  2. Stretch
  3. Stand up
  4. Make your bed

This is another behavior chain. And yet, within this chain is another behavior chain: making your bed. When you make your bed you:

  1. Pull up the sheet
  2. Tuck in the sheet
  3. Pull up the blanket
  4. Fluff the pillows
  5. Arrange decorative pillows

This behavior might happen in less than a minute because you know what to do without thinking about it, but it’s still a behavior chain within the larger chain of your morning routine.

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Benefits of Behavior Chains

Can you imagine what your day would be like if you had to consciously think through every step of every task you had to complete daily? Your morning routine alone would be enough to keep you from getting out of bed. Below is a task analysis of what your morning might involve:

  1. Turn off your alarm
  2. Stretch
  3. Stand up
  4. Pull up the sheet
  5. Tuck in the sheet
  6. Pull up the blanket
  7. Fluff the pillows
  8. Arrange decorative pillows
  9. Walk to coffee maker
  10. Carry coffee pot to sink
  11. Fill coffee pot
  12. Walk to coffee maker
  13. Pour water into coffee maker
  14. Add coffee grounds
  15. Turn on coffee maker

And that’s just the beginning. Add to this that many of these tasks are also behavior chains and it would be mind-boggling to have to think through each step. Fill the coffee pot alone has several steps:

  1. Open lid to coffee pot
  2. Turn on water
  3. Hold pot under water
  4. Remove pot from water
  5. Turn off water

Behavior chains allow us to complete more complex behaviors with less effort so we can pay more attention to new tasks or even possible dangers in our environment.

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How can you use behavior chains?

When you understand how behavior chains work, you can use this knowledge to create habits, teach new skills and even break unwanted habits. Let’s look at your morning routine to see how you can add a habit. If you wanted to add a habit into your morning, you will be more successful if you consciously insert it into your already-established behavior chain.

Let’s say you want to start doing 10 push ups every morning, you might decide to insert it into your behavior chain after making coffee:

  1. Get out of bed
  2. Make coffee
  3. Do 10 push ups
  4. Drink a cup of coffee
  5. Take a shower
  6. Get dressed
  7. Brush your teeth
  8. Eat breakfast
  9. Put on your shoes
  10. Leave for work

Adding the behavior at this point of the chain allows you to use “making coffee” as the cue to start your push ups (and you can easily do this task in the time it takes for your coffee to brew).

Breaking habits example:

Similarly, if you were trying to stop an unwanted behavior, you could look at the behavior chain to accomplish this. Let’s say you want to drink less coffee. Being aware of the behavior chain you can recognize that making coffee is the step in the behavior chain you need to change (you can’t drink the coffee if you don’t make it).

So you can replace this step in the chain with a more desirable behavior. Note that often it’s a good idea to consider the function of the behavior. Replacing “make coffee” with “drink water” won’t be as effective if one of the benefits of coffee is a warm drink in the morning. In this case you might be better off with adding “make tea” as the replacement behavior.

Similarly, Applied Behavior Analysis uses behavior chains to teach individuals new skills.

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What is the difference between a behavior chain and chaining as a procedure?

As discussed above, behavior chains occur naturally whether we’re aware of them or not. They exist in the same way gravity exists. In contrast, chaining as a procedure is the conscious application of the understanding of behavior chains to teach new skills, which is used in Applied Behavior Analysis.

The procedure of chaining involves creating a task analysis to identify the discrete steps needed to complete a task, then teaching these steps using reinforcement.

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Using Behavior Chains to Teach Skills

Most behavior chains are formed with little or no thought. If you’ve ever sat down to watch a movie only to realize you just can’t watch it without a bowl of popcorn, you’ve experienced a behavior chain. You’ve unknowingly created an association between sitting down to watch a moving and eating a bowl of popcorn.

However, this same concept can be used with intention to help teach complex skills to learners with autism. It works well with these learners because these individuals tend to think concretely and behavior chains break skills into simple, methodical steps that are easier for them to understand. Additionally, Parker, D., & Kamps, D. (2011) found that children with autism benefited from written task analyses in a variety of social activities and led to greater independence for the child.

Often what seems obvious to us, isn’t as clear to a child with autism. Let’s consider what’s involved in making breakfast as an example. While we might think our expectations are clear when we tell a child to “have a bowl of cereal for breakfast,” there are actually a lot of steps that have to be put together to accomplish this:

  1. Open cereal cupboard
  2. Remove cereal box and place on counter
  3. Close cupboard
  4. Open bowl cupboard
  5. Remove bowl and place on counter
  6. Close cupboard
  7. Open silverware drawer
  8. Remove spoon and place on counter
  9. Close drawer
  10. Open cereal box
  11. Pour cereal into bowl
  12. Open refrigerator
  13. Remove milk
  14. Close refrigerator
  15. Pour milk over cereal
  16. Open refrigerator
  17. Place milk on shelf
  18. Close refrigerator
  19. Eat cereal with spoon

Depending on the needs of the child, he may benefit from learning smaller parts of this behavior chain before stringing them together. For example, you may begin by teaching the learner how to take out the cereal at first, limiting the number of tasks he needs to complete at one time.

  1. Open cereal cupboard
  2. Remove cereal box and place on counter
  3. Close cupboard

Then he will be ready to learn another group of tasks such as taking out the bowl, before he learns the steps to getting the spoon. Once these smaller behavior chains are learned, they can more easily be strung together to create the larger chain of making cereal for breakfast.

Looking at these discrete steps is known as a task analysis in Applied Behavior Analysis.

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Combining Task Analysis and Chaining

Like the breakfast example above, many complex skills can be broken down into component steps through a task analysis. Each step of the behavior is then taught in sequence and reinforced. To do this, identify the task to be taught, then break down each step of the task.

Selecting a Skill

When selecting a skill to teach using task analysis and chaining, choose one that has more than one discrete skill. Also avoid tasks that have too many variables or that don’t have a predictable outcome. Let’s look at some examples.


Example 1: Help with dinner

Too easy: turning on water in the sink

Just right: washing vegetables for a salad

Too hard: preparing and serving dinner


Example 2: Cleaning up

Too easy: pick up truck

Just right: pick up toys

Too hard: tidy the living room


Instead identify skills that contain a series of discrete steps that you can teach independently. Putting on pants is a good example of a skill that could be broken down using task analysis. This skill consists of the following steps:

  1. Sit on floor
  2. Lay out pants
  3. Slide in one foot
  4. Pull pant leg up until foot comes out
  5. Slide in second foot
  6. Pull pant leg up until foot comes out
  7. Stand up
  8. Pull pants up
  9. Button pants
  10. Zip pants

You can break down many skills using task analysis such as:

  • Shoe tying
  • Personal care (showering, tooth bushing, face washing, hand washing, etc.)
  • Dressing
  • Meal preparation
  • Laundry
  • Drawing

Download our infographic showing two common examples of behavior chains used in ABA:

Creating the Behavior Chain

Once you identify the independent skills, you can begin to build the chain. Begin by identifying:

  1. The skill to be taught
  2. Prerequisite skills needed
  3. Steps involved in performing skill
  4. Materials needed to complete tasks
  5. Learner’s current skill level

With this information, you can decide how to build the behavior chain. There are several options based on the learner’s skills and ability to learn complex tasks:

  • Forward Chaining
  • Backward Chaining
  • Total Task Chaining

Which one you choose depends on the individual needs of the child. Download our infographic for a quick reference of the three types of chaining:

Creating the Task Analysis

While creating a task analysis sounds easy, it’s often challenging to think of every discrete step you complete for a task you complete with little thought. For this reason, it’s often best to walk through the task as you create your task analysis, or observe someone else completing the skill. You may find it even easier to record you or someone else performing the task so that you can watch it more than once.

After you have completed the task analysis, take a minute to walk through the steps exactly as they are written to be sure you didn’t miss anything.

Task Analysis Examples

Download the PDF below for 8 examples of task analysis. Also included are data sheets to record the level of prompting your learner requires for each step. You’ll find sample task analysis for skills of varying difficulty. Some use pictures for each step for learners who can’t read, while others use only words to explain each step. Examples are ordered from simple tasks to more complex (longer lists of steps). You’ll find these behavior chains in the download:

  • Brush teeth
  • Eat
  • Bedtime routine
  • Set the table
  • Wash hands
  • Put on pants
  • Tie shoes
  • Put on coat

Selecting a Type of Chaining

Once you know the steps involved in teaching the task, you can determine which type of chaining you will use. The type of chaining you use will depend on how the child learns best. Begin by observing your learner to gauge their current skill level before making your decision.

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Forward Chaining

With forward chaining, each step is taught in order as you complete them. When using forward chaining, your learner would begin by completing the first step independently, then use prompting to help the learner complete the remaining steps.

Note, if the learner is unable to complete the first step on their own, you would begin by teaching just this step until they are able to do this successfully independently. Often the first step is the easiest, and may not require specific teaching. In the example of putting on pants, the first step is to sit on the floor.

  1. Sit on floor
  2. Lay out pants
  3. Slide in one foot
  4. Pull pant leg up until foot comes out
  5. Slide in second foot
  6. Pull pant leg up until foot comes out
  7. Stand up
  8. Pull pants up
  9. Button pants
  10. Zip pants

Most learners will be able to complete this without instruction.

When to use forward chaining:

Use forward chaining if your client tends to learn skills quickly or has already demonstrated some ability to complete some of the tasks in the sequence with some level of independence. 

Benefits of forward chaining:

This method of chaining is easiest for new instructors to understand because steps are taught in chronological order. It’s easy to fade prompts when using forward chaining which can help make the process quicker, as long as your learner can be successful. 

The video Forward Chaining by LaDisha Moore demonstrates how to use forward chaining:

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Backward Chaining

Teaching a behavior beginning with the last step is known as backward chaining. With backward chaining the instructor prompts each step of the task completely except for the last step. Then, once the last step is mastered the prior step will be completed independently by the learner.

In the example of putting on pants, the learner would be prompted through every step except for zipping his pants. Then, once that step is mastered he would begin buttoning his pants independently, with prompts for steps 1 through 8:

  1. Sit on floor
  2. Lay out pants
  3. Slide in one foot
  4. Pull pant leg up until foot comes out
  5. Slide in second foot
  6. Pull pant leg up until foot comes out
  7. Stand up
  8. Pull pants up
  9. Button pants
  10. Zip pants

When to use backward chaining:

Use backward chaining if your client is prone to making errors or is likely to insert other behaviors into the chain if not prompted.  For example, when washing his hands, does he tend to splash the water?  Backward chaining ensures that these behaviors don’t become part of his behavior chain.

Benefits of backward chaining:

Using backward chaining prevents inappropriate behaviors from becoming part of the chain.  You prompt your client through each of the initial steps and focus on helping your client be independent with the final step.  Reinforcement in the form of the completed chain, or an alternative reinforcer is immediate upon completion of the final step in the chain. For example, when a learner finishes washing his hands, he gets to eat his favorite snack.

Giving ABA Away – Backward Chaining Giving ABA Away – Backward Chaining by Nel Gutierrez demonstrates backward chaining:

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Total Task Chaining

When using total task chaining, you teach all of the steps in unison., providing whatever level of prompting is needed to complete the steps This is often the way parents and non-professionals teach. For example, when a parent teaches their child to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they may begin by telling them to get all the ingredients out. Then they might say, “Now put the bread on the plate. Then spread the peanut butter on the bread.” If the child is unable to complete a step with a verbal prompt the parent may then use a physical prompt to assist the learner.

Because this method of chaining is more complex than the previous ones, this is often not the best choice for a learner with autism as it may not simplify the process sufficiently for the learner to become independent.

When to use total task chaining:

Total task chaining should only be used for children who can learn complex behaviors quickly.  This method provides a lot of opportunities for error.  If your client experiences frequent errors when using total task chaining, move to one of the other chaining strategies. 

Watch TA Total Task with Least to Most Physical Prompt by ACEforBlackboard for a demonstration of total task chaining:

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Behavior Chain Example: Hand Washing

First, complete a task analysis: 

  1. Walk to sink 
  2. Turn on cold water 
  3. Wet hands
  4. Put 1 squirt of soap on hand (you may need to break this down further depending on the type of soap you use) 
  5. Rub palm of hands together 
  6. Rub palm of right hand on back of left hand 
  7. Rub palm of left hand on back of right hand 
  8. Rub between fingers on right hand 
  9. Rub between fingers on left hand
  10. Rinse hands under water until there are no more bubbles 
  11. Turn water off 
  12. Take towel off the rack 
  13. Dry hands
  14. Hang towel back on rack 

Phew! That’s a lot of steps! But it will be easier for your child to understand these individual steps.

Backward Chaining

When using backwards chaining, you will start by teaching your child to hang the towel back on the rack.  To begin, stand behind your child and physically guide him to complete each of the first 13 steps.  Start to fade your prompts during the final step.  Once your child can independently hang the towel on the rack, start to teach him how to dry his hands.  Progress through each of the steps backwards. 

Thee video Backward Chaining by Faith Crosslin demonstrates backward chaining:

Total Task Chaining

When using total task chaining, teach each step in the sequence simultaneously.  It may be necessary to provide some form of reinforcement after each step as your learner builds independence.  

The video TA Total Task with Least to Most Physical Prompt by ACEforBlackboard shows total task chaining:

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Behavior Chain Example: Writing

In the example below, Faith Crosslin teaches her learner how to write her name using forward chaining. Here, the task analysis is the letters of her name: H-o-p-e.

Forward Chaining

Forward chaining is much the same as backwards chaining, except you begin by teaching the first skill in the sequence.  In this example, teach your child to walk to the sink, then help him complete the remaining 14 steps.  Once your child independently walks to the sink, begin to teach him to turn on the cold water.  Continue to progress through each of the steps in sequence.

The video Forward Chaining by Faith Crosslin demonstrates how to teach using forward chaining:

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Behavior Chain Example: Caring for a Pet

Let’s say you want to teach your client how to care for a pet at home. You might begin by teaching him how to feed his pet hamster. The task analysis for feeding a hamster might look like: 

  1. Open cage and remove food bowl 
  2. Close cage
  3. Take food bowl to counter
  4. Walk to cabinet and take out hamster food
  5. Set bag on counter next to bowl
  6. Open bag
  7. Use scoop to measure 1/4 cup of food
  8. Pour food into bowl
  9. Close bag of food
  10. Return food to cabinet
  11. Pick up bowl and take to cage
  12. Open cage door and put food bowl into cage
  13. Close the cage door
  14. Remove water bottle
  15. Take to sink
  16. Open water bottle
  17. Turn on cold water
  18. Put water bottle under faucet until full
  19. Close water bottle
  20. Return to cage
  21. Attach water bottle to cage

If this is too much for your learner you can break this down into even smaller pieces. Begin with teaching either how to give the hamster food or fill the water. Remember you can create a schedule to remind your learner of each step. Don’t forget to reinforce your learner along the way and encourage him with each success.

Forward Chaining

For a forward chain, you would begin by performing the same task analysis but then you would use this to know which steps you are teaching your learner. Then teach your learner just the first step – how to open the cage and remove the food bowl.  You would then assist your learner in completing each of the remaining steps. 

Backward Chaining

Alternatively, for a backward chain, you would help your learner complete each of the first 20 steps then teach your learner to attach the water bottle to the cage. 

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Behavior Chain Interruption to Teach Spontaneous Mands

Mands occur when a child is motivated for a particular stimulus (i.e. item, activity, attention, etc.) and emits a response to gain that stimulus. Mands can be vocal verbal or through the use of an alternative form of communication (i.e. PECS, AAC, gestures, etc.).

Behavior Chain Interruption involves teaching a specific sequence of behaviors requiring materials and then removing the materials needed for one of the steps. This prompts the child to mand for the missing item.

Let’s say you want to teach your client to mand for a crayon to color with. Rather than simply giving her paper and prompting her to mand for the crayon, you can begin by using a task analysis to teach a behavior chain for coloring. Once the behavior chain is established, when you remove easy access to the crayons needed for the child to complete the chain, she is more likely to spontaneously mand for the crayon.

This strategy improves spontaneity while reducing the risk of prompt dependence. In contrast, the verbal prompts needed to prompt a mand without first creating the behavior chain can be difficult to fade, leading to prompt dependence.

Learn more about using the behavior chain interruption strategy to teach mands

There’s a growing body of research supporting the use of behavior chain interruption to teach spontaneous mands. For more information read the following articles available free online:

TADA, M., & KATO, M. (2005). Acquisition of mands through a behavior chain interruption strategy: Task preference and occurrence of verbal requests by a child with autistic spectrum disorders. The Japanese Journal of Special Education, 42(6), 513-524.

Gee, K., Graham, N., Goetz, L., Oshima, G., & Yoshioka, K. (1991). Teaching students to request the continuation of routine activities by using time delay and decreasing physical assistance in the context of chain interruption. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 16(3), 154-167.

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Undesirable Behavior Chains

As professionals, we often use chaining to intentionally develop complex skills. As with any behavior, behavior chains can develop even when not specifically taught. Many times professionals unintentionally reinforce the development of undesirable behavior chains.

This most often occurs when withholding reinforcement until after challenging behavior occurs or when providing reinforcement too soon after a challenging behavior. No professional would do either of these things intentionally; however, if you’re not conscious of the potential for a behavior chain you may do this inadvertently.

Let’s look at an example.

Tantrum>Mand>iPad Chain

You’re working with a client who tantrums consistently throughout the day because she wants access to the iPad. She has very restricted language and you have been working diligently to increase spontaneous mands. You have decided that she will only have access to the iPad if she mands for it and the iPad will not be used to reinforce other behaviors. As you withdraw the iPad as a reinforcer for everything except mands, her tantrums increase. During a tantrum, she will calm enough to mand for the iPad. When she mands for the iPad, you give it to her immediately to reinforce the mand.

This client has learned in order to access the iPad she must first tantrum and then calm sufficiently to mand for the item. This was not your intention.

Providing Reinforcement after Challenging Behavior

Let’s take an example of a boy you have been working with who frequently throws objects when he’s escalated. When he throws objects, he is required to restore the environment once he has de-escalated. After restoring the environment, you have been providing access to a reinforcer. This client has learned that in order to access that reinforcer he must first escalate, then restore the environment.

In this case, the reinforcement is provided too soon after challenging behavior has terminated. This can result in another unwanted behavior chain . Although you intended to reinforce restoring the environment, the child learned instead to engage in challenging behavior in order to access the reinforcer for terminating the challenging behavior.

Avoiding Unwanted Behavior Chains

In the above examples, how can you reinforce this client’s appropriate behavior without reinforcing the behavior chain? At least 2 different events need to occur:

  • Insert some demand between the challenging behavior and the reinforcement.
  • Ensure that the client has access to the reinforcer at times that don’t closely follow the challenging behavior.

In the first example, when the child mands for the iPad, ensure that another demand is inserted prior to her gaining access to the iPad. You might use listener responding or motor imitation if she has mastered skills in her repertoire. Also, during opportunities when she is calm, prompt her to mand for the iPad, even if it interrupts other activities you are working on. She must learn that she can mand for the iPad without first engaging in tantrum behavior.

Do the same for the second example. Insert some form of demand (ideally return to completing some part of the initial demand if the behavior was triggered by escape from a task demand) prior to allowing access to the reinforcer. Do not be tempted to reinforce restoring the environment. Always insert another behavior before providing reinforcement.

References

Browder, D. M., Trela, K., & Jimenez, B. (2007). Training teachers to follow a task analysis to engage middle school students with moderate and severe developmental disabilities in grade-appropriate literature. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 22(4), 206-219. doi: 10.1177/10883576070220040301

Parker, D., & Kamps, D. (2011). Effects of task analysis and self-monitoring for children with autism in multiple social
settings.
Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 26(3), 131-142. doi: 10.1177/1088357610376945

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