Behavioral Chaining: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Through behavioral chaining, we can teach children and adults to perform complex tasks that involve learning many steps. Here's how it works.
Behavioral Chaining: What Is It and How Does It Work?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 25 September, 2022

Behavioral chaining is a very useful technique for teaching a person to perform complex tasks. That is, it’s great for sequences of actions that must be performed one after the other to complete a given objective.

It’s a tool widely used with children and people with different abilities. However, it can also be used with healthy adults and even self-applied to acquire new learning.

There are countless activities that can be learned following this method. The range from the simplest (like putting on a jacket or brushing your teeth) to memorizing a choreography or learning to cook a recipe. If you want to know how to apply behavioral chaining, we invite you to read on!

What is behavioral chaining?

Chaining is a technique that is part of behavioral psychology. According to this paradigm, by offering reinforcement after any behavior, we manage to increase its frequency of occurrence and consolidate learning. In the case of chaining, the aim is to teach a series of linked behaviors that lead to a final result.

In other words, a complex behavior can be generated from a series of simple responses. This is achieved by reinforcing each step, which in turn constitutes a discriminative stimulus (a signal) to initiate the next one.

To give an example, learning to brush your teeth requires following a series of actions: picking up the toothbrush, putting the toothpaste, brushing the upper and lower teeth, cleaning the tongue, filling a glass with water, rinsing… Through chaining, these steps are linked to generate complete learning.

Behavioral Chaining and teeth brushing
Learning to brush your teeth is a task that brings together different steps, all chained together.

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How to apply behavior chaining

To put chaining into practice, the first step is to perform a task analysis. That is, you have to divide the complex behavior into small, simple steps to be followed, as we’ve done in the case of brushing teeth. It will be these intermediate steps that we will chain together to complete the learning process.

Next, you have to decide what the reinforcers will be. As we’ve already mentioned, for a behavior to be learned, consolidated, and repeated, it must be followed by a reinforcer.

This is a pleasant or positive stimulus for the person; basically, it’s a reward that follows the completion of the task. It can be social (such as praise or congratulations) or material (such as a sticker or a treat).

Thirdly, you will have to choose what type of behavioral chaining you are going to implement. There are several different ways to apply this technique.

Forward

This consists of starting by teaching the initial step and continuing progressively with the following steps. The reinforcer or reward is given each time the person completes a step.

For example, to teach a child to put on a pair of pants, the following sequence is followed:

  1. First, she or he is taught to hold his or her pants with both hands at the ends of the waistband.
  2. Next, the child is taught to put his or her right foot into the right leg.
  3. They continue by inserting the left foot into the other leg.
  4. Then, they pull their pants up until they’re snug around the waist.
  5. After, they fasten the button.
  6. Finally, they zip up the pants.

These steps are taught one at a time, taking one trial for each step to be learned. In addition, each completed item is reinforced.

You show 1, then 1-2, then 1-2-3… finally 1-2-3-4-5-6.

Backward

In this case, we start at the end and work backward progressively, showing the previous steps. For example, imagine if we teach a child to write the word “dog”:

  1. We begin by writing the whole word, except for the last letter. The child will have to fill in the missing “g.”
  2. Next, we write the word with the last two letters missing: “d.” The child will have to complete the “o” and the ” g.”
  3. We continue subtracting letters successively, until we reach the end. At this point, the child will write the complete word.

In this case, we are also chaining a series of steps to be learned, but we start at the end until we reach the beginning.

You teach 3, then 3-2, finally 3-2-1.

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Total task chaining

In this modality, the entire sequence of actions is taught in full, without delivering reinforcement after each completed step. The person is then asked to perform the entire task in a single trial. The reinforcer is only obtained when the sequence is completed.

Your scheme would be to teach 1-2-3-4 directly.

Pure partial

In this case, the steps are taught one by one and follow a progressive order (as in the case of forward chaining). However, to get the reinforcer, it’s only necessary to perform the particular step being practiced and not the previous ones.

You teach 1, then 1-2, then 1-2-3…. finally 1-2-3-4-5-6.

Behavioral Chaining
Schools often apply variants of these methods in different learning processes.

Partial progressive

In this case, reinforcement is more gradual. The steps are taught separately and also the combination between them.

You teach 1, then 2, then 1-2, then 3, then 1-2-3, now 4, finally 1-2-3-4.

A supervised process

The chaining of behaviors is a very useful tool for all types of learning, but some variables must be taken into account. For example, it’s best that the reinforcers be varied and of a social type. In addition, the person should be taught behavior that he/she has already mastered to make it easier.

The learning process is monitored to avoid mistakes, and it may be necessary to offer some aids, which can fade away as the person no longer needs them. Finally, it’s important to practice in different contexts and with different materials.

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