How to Use the Chaining Teaching Tool

Two students getting help with a craft project from a teacher

Hero Images / Getty Images

Chaining is a teaching method wherein sub-skills are reinforced in a sequence to enable the learner to perform more complex behaviors. For example, in teaching a child to tie shoes, each individual step, from tightening the laces to making the parts of the knot, would be taught and reinforced until the child can perform the complete task.

Examples of Chaining for All Learning

Chaining is used in a huge range of situations, both for children and adults. While it's thought of as a tool for teaching people with special needs, it's actually a well-known way to teach just about any task to any person. Chaining is particularly useful for tasks that have multiple discrete elements that must be followed in a specific sequence.

Imagine trying to teach someone how to scramble an egg. Assume that the learner has no knowledge of basic cooking. They don't understand how to crack an egg, how to use the stove, or how to serve food—so each step of the task must be described:

  1. Take an egg and butter from the refrigerator.
  2. Take a knife, fork, and wooden spoon from the kitchen drawer.
  3. Take a bowl from the cabinet.
  4. Take a small, flat pan from under the stove.
  5. Use the knife to cut one tablespoon of butter. 
  6. Place the butter in the pan.
  7. Put the pan on the stove.
  8. Turn on the stove by turning the dial to medium.

...and so forth.

Instructions like these, which provide a sequence—or "chain”—of correct actions can be very useful to someone who is cooking for himself for the first time. Even cookbooks, which do provide step by step instructions to a certain level, don't provide the basic information about where to find the necessary items and how to use each tool correctly.

Examples for Special Needs Learners

Special needs children and adults may need chaining to learn tasks that others can learn by watching and imitating. It may also be the case that special needs learners lack the innate desire to learn certain tasks. While a typical five-year-old may want to gain greater independence by learning to fasten the snaps and zippers on her own coat, a special needs five-year-old may not feel any particular need to "do it myself."

In order to teach skills to a special needs learner, the teacher often needs to provide "reinforcers" for successful completion of each "link" in the "chain." Reinforcers can be praise or prizes that the learner actively desires. So, for example, in the case of zipping a coat, a teacher might plan to teach the skills over time—and reward each step along the way:

  1. Find your coat (great job!)
  2. Put your coat on independently (gold star)
  3. Engage the zipper and pull it up (a special treat)
  4. Complete the entire sequence on your own without support (final reward)

Using Chaining at Home and School

If chaining works well for a special needs learner, it can be implemented in many different settings. Often, it's a good idea for parents and teachers to communicate about how chaining is used in different settings. When a child uses the same learning techniques at home and at school, they can become more adept at following instructions and quickly gaining new skills.

Backward Chaining

Sometimes chaining may be too involved for a learner who can become frustrated or get lost going through a chain of steps. In a situation such as this, backward chaining may be a good option. In backward chaining, a parent or teachers complete most of the tasks in a chain, allowing the child to finish the final task. As this final task becomes easier, the adult can then slowly fade back and have the child complete more items in the chain.

For example, in making a bed an adult may perform almost all of the tasks leaving the final step—putting the pillow on the bed—for the child. As the child becomes adept at completing this step, the child may be asked to add in the next-to-last step—pulling up the comforter—and so on.

Psychology of Chaining

Chaining relies on the learning method in psychology called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning, the brainchild of B.F. Skinner acts under the presumption that understanding internal thoughts and motivation is not necessary to understand behavior. Instead, we can look at external causes of behavior.

The learning method of operant conditioning states that learning is reinforced (or inhibited) in response to rewards and punishments. For example, actions that are followed by a positive reinforcer (as in a word of praise or a gold star) are more likely to be repeated. In other words, it is the consequence of the behavior which determines whether a child learns rather than internal motivation.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.