Have you ever tried to teach a behavior with multiple components to no avail? Chaining and shaping are two behavioral methods that can help teach complex behaviors or break any behavior down into its smaller components. Here are some examples of behaviors that can be targeted through chaining or shaping:
- getting dressed
- chores such as emptying the dishwasher or sweeping
- cleaning up
- making polite requests
- making a sandwich
- playing nicely with a sibling
- many, many more!
Chaining refers to the process of linking behaviors together to achieve a final result. The first step is to conduct a task analysis to determine the different components of the sequence. This means breaking the behavior down into small parts. You can do this by watching the behavior, doing it yourself, or writing a list of components. For example, the task analysis for putting on a shirt could be:
1. Put the shirt down with the front facing down
2. Put head in
3. Pull shirt over head
4. Put one arm in
5. Put the other arm in
After you have broken the skill down, decide if you want to use forward chaining or backward chaining. In forward chaining, the child does the first step on their own and then you help with the remaining steps. Once the first step is mastered, the child should do the first and second step on their own. This will continue until the entire chain is mastered.
Backward chaining is the opposite. Start by helping the child with all steps except for the last one. Work your way down until the child has mastered the entire chain. I usually recommend using backward chaining because the child ends on independent success. Think of a puzzle: if you have the child put the first three pieces in, they still have an unfinished puzzle. However, if you have them put the last three pieces in, they see the final product – much more reinforcing!
In shaping, successive approximations are reinforced until the goal behavior is reached. Let’s take asking for a cookie as an example behavior. For a child that doesn’t talk, it would be unfair to only reinforce the full question “Can I have a cookie please?” right from the start. Instead, you would first reinforce any vocalization for the cookie. As the child successfully vocalizes when asking for a cookie, you would move to the next step of saying part of the word. For example, you may just accept the “coo” sound and reinforce it with a cookie. When the child is independently saying “coo,” you would move on to “cookie’” then “cookie please” and gradually add more to the response until you have reached the target behavior.
With both chaining and shaping, remember to take it one step at a time. Celebrate every little success before adding onto the behavior. Need help conducting a task analysis or deciding which procedure to use for a specific behavior? Leave a comment or ask a question!
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