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 brush teeth.

Some children may be able to learn this procedure best through the modeling technique. Seeing you do it may be all they need 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 children to do one step at a time until they have learned the entire sequence.

heart chain

General Procedure for Forward Chaining

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

Break Down a Task into Separate Steps

Suppose you need to teach them how to brush their 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 your child needs to have them broken into single steps, by all means, do that. Please adjust the procedure to suit your child’s needs.

Here is how you would teach these steps using the forward chaining method:

  1. Have them get the toothbrush and wet it.
  2. Perform the rest of the steps until they have mastered the first step.
  3. Have them wet the toothbrush, get the toothpaste, and place a small amount of it on the toothbrush.
  4. Perform the rest of the steps until they have mastered the first two steps.
  5. Continue with each step in this way until they have mastered the entire task.

During each session of learning, 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 they cannot 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.

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