Backward Chaining for Children

Boy helping mother make bed

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Backward chaining can have different definitions for different fields, but when teaching life skills to children, it refers to breaking down the steps of a task and teaching them in reverse order. This gives the child an experience of success and completion with every attempt.

Instead of the child starting at the beginning and getting lost somewhere through, with the adult having to complete the task, the adult does all but the last step and lets the child complete the work. Then the adult fades back, doing less and less while the child does more and more, always ending with the child performing the final step.

Teaching Children How to Do Common Tasks With Backward Chaining

Here are several common tasks and life skills that can be broken down into steps and taught in reverse order.

Making a Bed

To teach a child to make a bed, you might break down the steps as:

  1. Remove the pillow and comforter
  2. Pull up the top sheet
  3. Tuck in the top sheet
  4. Pull up the comforter
  5. Put the pillow back in place

To start, the parent or guardian would do steps 1 through 4, allowing the child to put the pillow in place at the end. When that can be done reliably, the parent would do steps 1 through 3, and the child would pull up the comforter and put the pillow in place. When the child becomes comfortable with each step, the step before it is introduced, always with the goal of having the child finish the task successfully.

Tying a Shoe

I'll create the steps here based on the way I was taught to tie shoes and the way I taught my kids. You can substitute your own steps for alternate methods:

  1. Tie a knot.
  2. Pull the knot tight.
  3. Form the left-hand lace into a loop.
  4. Form the right-hand lace into a loop.
  5. Tie a knot with the two loops.
  6. Pull the knot tight.

The guardian or parent would start by tying the shoe but allowing the child to pull the knot tight at the end. Over and over, the guardian demonstrates the steps of shoe-tying, slowly, describing the procedure. With time, the parent fades back a step at a time, allowing the child to complete the ending steps instead of having to start with an untied shoe and remember what to do.

Zipping Zippers

Getting a zipper started can be super-tricky, but zipping it up once it's on track is super-simple. Divide the job into these steps:

  1. Thread the bottom piece into the zipper piece.
  2. Slowly start the zipping to make sure the zipper is on track.
  3. Pull the zipper the rest of the way up.

You can give your child the job of triumphantly whipping that zipper up to the top long before they have the ability to put the two parts of the zipper together. A large, chunky, child-hand-friendly zipper pull can be helpful if your child has trouble grasping a small metal zipper.

Buttoning Buttons

The coordination involved in grasping a button and a buttonhole, poking the button through the hole, and completing a whole series of buttons in a way that causes them all to line up correctly is a daunting task for any kid, especially one with fine-motor issues.

No need to break into steps here: just start the buttoning for your child at the bottom of a shirt and leave the last button for your child to complete. When they are able to do that successfully, leave the last two buttons, and so on down the line.

1 Source
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  1. Slocum SK, Tiger JH. An assessment of the efficiency of and child preference for forward and backward chainingJ Appl Behav Anal. 2011;44(4):793‐805. doi:10.1901/jaba.2011.44-793

By Terri Mauro
Terri Mauro is the author of "50 Ways to Support Your Child's Special Education" and contributor to the Parenting Roundabout podcast.