Monday, December 6, 2010

Back Chaining - The Key to Reliablity

Back chaining is a concept foreign to many and counter-intuitive to most who first learn of it. We want to talk about it briefly here, because it is a very effective way to build highly reliable behaviors and it is one of the key techniques that any TAGteacher should understand and apply properly. A reliable behavior is one that looks the same each time the subject performs it. For example, with forming the letter "E", we would consider the behavior to be reliable if the child drew the letter the same way every time and the letter was drawn correctly.

Back chaining involves teaching a skill starting at the end and working back to the beginning. For example we would teach a child to come down the ladder to the climbing structure safely before teaching him to climb up it. This way we know that once he climbs up he will be able climb down. To do this we would place the child on the bottom step and work on taking one step down to the ground until he is confident with that. The we would place him on the second step and work on coming down two steps. After a few steps he would be confident with coming down and we could start working on going up and then coming back down. By teaching the last part first the learner is always moving toward the part of the skill that he learned first and with which he is most confident. The gymnast that learns her balance beam routine from back to front will not be worrying about moving toward the part of the routine that she has practiced the least, she will be confident that she is less likely to fall as the routine moves forward. The pianist who learns the last part of the piece first will be moving toward the part he has practiced most and with which he has the greatest confidence. Karen Pryor has been tweeting lately about her experiences with a choir director who understands back chaining and has been applying it most effectively. Follow Karen on twitter and look back through her choir posts for a play by play description of this back chaining application.

We have posted a video at YouTube that shows a very simple application of back chaining. This is the formation of the letter "L". We taught the right to left stroke of the bottom part of the letter first using a template that already had the down stroke completed and with red and black dots to guide the cross stroke. The tag point is "red to black". The child is to draw a line from the red to the black dot thus completing the letter correctly and with the pen stroke going in the correct direction. After practicing this until he was confident, the next tag point was also "red to black", but this time completing the dots created the down stroke of the L. Notice in the first trial with down stroke he goes on to finish the letter without any instruction or prompting. Because he had learned the last part of the letter first he naturally went on to complete it by doing the behavior that he was first taught (i.e., the cross stroke). This is a very nice demonstration of the power of back chaining.

Many of you have already seen our famous high jump video. This is a very complex skill that involves simultaneous rotation about two different axes and incorporates the transfer of power from the run to the jump. How could we teach something this complex backwards? Watch the video again (or for the first time) and see back chaining in action with a complex skill.

To learn more about back chaining, check out our recorded webinar:


  1. Dear Joan and fellow TAGteachers:

    I agree that back chaining is a very effective approach and have used it many times for many learning situtations. My most spectacular success came with my son with autism when doing his Direct Instruction (DI) Language for Learning lessons. My son is profoundly nonverbal and this particular program teaches phrase and sentence-building skills in a highly structured and carefully sequenced manner. The verbal demands on him were intense and we struggled and made agonizingly slow progress. One day I thought, "why not do this lesson as a backward chain?" I instantly flipped to the back of the lesson, taught the last exercise on the last page and got that mastered, then did the next-to-last exercise and repeated the last exercise. We slowly backed up and repeated through entire lesson. It worked beautifully! Our lives changed. The results: happy child who can confidently do each exercise, happy mom, and much faster progress through the program. Works great with teaching reading too: when a child is practicing a new reading passage, start with the last line and practice that, then back up and repeat each line.

    Back chaining is a wonderful and imaginative tool. As Joan said, sometimes it's hard for people to comprehend and I have had people just stare at me in disbelief. But the results speak for themselves.

    Best regards to all and happy holidays,

    Martha Gabler
    Silver Spring, MD

  2. Excellent video and demo Joan! Thank you for sharing.
    Almudena Ortiz Cué M.A. CTC, CPDT, Tellington TTouch Practitioner
    C.H.A.C.O Dog Training & Behavior Consulting