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Chaining refers to a method of teaching a behavior using behavior chains. Behavior chains are sequences of individual behaviors that when linked together form a terminal behavior. When teaching a behavior using chaining, the first step is to complete a task analysis. Task analyses serve the purpose of identifying all of the smaller, teachable units of a behavior that make up a behavior chain. A task analysis for brushing teeth might look like this:

  1. Take out toothbrush from medicine cabinet
  2. Take out toothpaste from medicine cabinet
  3. Remove cap from toothpaste
  4. Grab toothbrush with left hand
  5. Grab toothpaste with right hand
  6. Squeeze small amount of paste onto bristles of toothbrush
  7. Turn on water
  8. Dampen the bristles of brush with water
  9. Place brush in mouth
  10. Brush bottom teeth on left side of mouth
  11. Brush top teeth on left side of mouth
  12. Brush bottom teeth on right side of mouth
  13. Brush top teeth on right side of mouth
  14. Spit foam into sink
  15. Brush top teeth in front of mouth
  16. Brush bottom teeth in front of mouth
  17. Spit foam into sink
  18. Rinse toothbrush in sink

There are two main techniques used when chaining: forward chaining and backward chaining.

Forward Chaining: Using forward chaining, the behavior is taught in its naturally occurring order. Each step of the sequence is taught and reinforced when completed correctly. After the learner completes step one with a predetermined criterion of accuracy the student is taught the next step of the sequence with reinforcement contingent upon completion of all previous steps.

Forward chaining using the task analysis for brushing teeth would begin by teaching the learner how to take the toothbrush out of the medicine cabinet. After the learner can complete this task accurately three consecutive times, they are then taught how to take the toothpaste out of the cabinet. Reinforcement would then be delivered upon completion of the first two steps three consecutive times. This procedure continues until the entire behavior chain is complete.

Backward Chaining: Using backward chaining, all behaviors identified in the task analysis are initially completed by the trainer, except for the final behavior in the chain. When the learner performs the final behavior in the sequence at the predetermined criterion level, reinforcement is delivered. Next, reinforcement is delivered when the last and the next-to-last behaviors in the sequence are performed to criterion. This sequence proceeds backwards through the chain until all the steps in the task analysis have been introduced in reverse order and practiced cumulatively (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Backward chaining using the task analysis for brushing teeth would begin by completing steps 1 through 17 for the student, followed by teaching them to complete step 18. Once they have successfully completed step 18 three consecutive times the learner would then be required to complete steps 17 and 18 before receiving reinforcement.

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