Forward Chaining in ABA

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

January 6, 2023

Forward chaining is a teaching strategy commonly used to teach activities of daily living that help an individual lead an independent life. Forward chaining is a component of task analysis, which breaks down a complex task into smaller steps that are easier to learn. 

Forward chaining is one of the strategies used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. ABA therapy uses knowledge of learning and behavior to teach new behaviors or modify existing behaviors. 

What Is Task Analysis?

Task analysis is a teaching process that helps children with autism learn complex activities by breaking them down into smaller steps. Smaller tasks can reduce anxiety and frustration in children with autism to make it easier to successfully learn a task. 

Activities of daily living tasks are commonly taught using task analysis. Learning these skills helps individuals with autism remain independent. 

Activities of daily living include:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Washing your hands 
  • Putting on clothes 
  • Making a snack or meal
  • Bathing
  • Doing laundry
  • Going to the bathroom
  • Doing the dishes 
  • Making a phone call

Task analysis is completed by an ABA therapist. The therapist will break down a task into much smaller steps to make it easier to learn. To do this, the therapist may participate in the activity themselves and write down all of the steps as they do them. 

What Is an Example of Task Analysis?

Washing your hands is an important skill that should be completed several times a day. Although this seems like a simple task, there are many steps involved. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) breaks down handwashing into five steps.

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or an air dryer.

This series of steps may not provide enough information for children with autism to successfully learn and perform this task. These five steps include many hidden or implied steps that a person with autism may not intuitively know. A task analysis should include all implied steps to make sure the learner can be successful. 

An ABA therapist may break down handwashing into many more steps.

  1. Turn on the light.
  2. Stand in front of the sink.
  3. Turn on the water tap.
  4. Let the water run over your hands for 5 seconds as you count out loud.
  5. Put your right hand on the soap pump and your left hand underneath the pump.
  6. Pump the soap one time.
  7. Turn off the water.
  8. Rub hands with palms facing each other for 5 seconds as you count out loud.
  9. Rub the back of your left hand for 5 seconds.
  10. Rub the back of your right hand for 5 seconds.
  11. Turn on the water.
  12. Place your hands under the water to rinse off the soap for 5 seconds.
  13. Turn off the water.
  14. Take a towel off the rack.
  15. Dry your right hand.
  16. Dry your left hand.
  17. Fold the towel.
  18. Use two hands to put the towel back on the rack.
  19. Turn off the light.
  20. Leave the bathroom. 

Using task analysis, the task of washing your hands went from five complex steps to 20 simple steps. Although the number of steps increases, each of these steps is small and more manageable to learn. 

Once the task analysis is complete, the behavior can be taught using a behavior chain. A behavior chain is a series of behaviors that link up to form a target behavior. The type of behavior chain used depends on the needs of the individual learner. The two types of behavior chaining are forward chaining and backward chaining. Backward chaining will be discussed in another article. 

What Is Forward Chaining?

Forward chaining teaches each step as it naturally occurs. The next step in the sequence is not taught until the learner successfully masters the step before. 

Prompting is a common strategy to teach each step in the chain. A prompt encourages the learner to perform the desired task. Prompting includes:

  • Verbally telling the learner how to complete the task
  • Using gestures, like pointing, to direct the learner 
  • Pictures that show the learner how to complete a task
  • Modeling how to complete the task
  • Physically guiding the learner to complete the task
  • Positioning the correct response closer to the learner

Once the learner can complete a step independently without prompting, they will move on to learning the next step in the chain.  

Conclusion

Forward chaining is a strategy used in ABA therapy. It is a type of behavior chaining where the steps to a particular behavior are taught in the order they occur. The first step of behavior chaining is to complete a task analysis to break down a complex behavior into smaller, more manageable steps. These smaller steps are easier to learn and may lead to less frustration during the learning process. 

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