Forward Chaining --
Simplify Complex Tasks

Forward chaining is a great way to teach a child with autism a task that involves many steps.

If you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to teach your child a complex task, forward chaining may be the answer for you.  By “complex task” I mean a procedure involving three or more steps.

Suppose, for example, you want to teach your child to tie his shoes.

Some children may be able to learn this procedure best through the modeling technique.  Seeing you do it may be all he needs to learn this skill. 

But others will have a hard time learning a multi-step task through traditional methods.  They may be able to remember one or two steps, but more than that can be difficult if not impossible to master.

This method is a great way to solve this problem.  I will show you how you can separate a task like brushing teeth into many steps. 

The idea is to teach your child to do one step at a time until he has learned the entire sequence.

General Procedure for Forward Chaining

  1. Teach the first step of the task using prompts that you feel are appropriate and/or necessary for him.
  2. Perform the rest of the task for him.
  3. Repeat 1 and 2 until he masters the first step of the task.
  4. Once he has mastered the first step, have him do this step by himself.  Then help him with the second step using prompts as needed.
  5. Perform the rest of the steps for him.
  6. Repeat 4 and 5 until he masters step 2 of the task.
  7. Continue in this way with each step until he has mastered all the steps in the sequence.

Break Down a Task into Separate Steps

Suppose you need to teach your child how to brush her teeth.  Here’s how I would break this task down into smaller steps.

  1. Get the toothbrush and wet it.
  2. Get the toothpaste and put a small amount of it on the toothbrush.
  3. Brush behind the upper teeth.
  4. Brush the upper teeth in the front.
  5. Brush behind the lower teeth.
  6. Brush the lower teeth in the front.
  7. Brush the bottom of the top teeth.
  8. Brush the top of the bottom teeth.
  9. Spit the toothpaste out.  Get a cup, fill it with water, and rinse.  Replace cup.

That last step is made up of several smaller steps.  But because they are extremely simple steps, I don’t think that many children would need it separated into single steps.

But if you feel that your child needs to have them broken into single steps, by all means, go ahead and do that.  Please feel free to adjust the procedure to suit your child’s needs.

And remember to reinforce your child’s good work with praise or some other effective reward.

Try This with Any Complex Task

Just about any complex task can be separated into “bite-sized” pieces.  You may need to use this technique when you can see that he is unable to remember all the steps of a procedure.  And there may be other times that another technique such as modeling will be more effective.

Tuck this into your “toolbox” of techniques, and pull it out when you think it is just the right method for your child.

For more information on forward chaining, see this article by the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.

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