Behavior 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 intermediate steps. We tell you how it works.

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: September 18, 2022

The chain of behaviors is a very useful technique for teaching a person to perform complex tasks. That is, sequences of actions that must be executed one after another to complete the objective.

It is a widely used tool with children and people with different abilities. But it can also be used in healthy adults and even self-applied to acquire new learning.

There are innumerable activities that can be learned following this method. 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 it, we invite you to continue reading.

What is behavior 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, It seeks to teach a series of linked behaviors that lead to a final result.

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

To give an example, to learn to brush your teeth you need to follow a series of actions: pick up the brush, apply the toothpaste, brush the upper and lower teeth, clean the tongue, fill a glass with water, rinse… Chaining links these steps to generate the complete tutorial.

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


How to apply the chain of behaviors?

To implement chaining, The first step will be to perform a task analysis. That is, breaking down complex behavior into small, simple steps to follow; just as we have done in the case of brushing teeth. It will be those intermediate steps that we will chain to complete the learning.

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

This constitutes a pleasant or positive stimulus for the person, a reward that follows the accomplishment 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 chain of behaviors you are going to implement. And there are several different ways to apply this technique.

Forward

Consists in start teaching the initial step and continue progressively with the following ones. The reinforcer or reward is given each time the person completes a step.

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

  1. First he is taught to hold the pants with both hands by the ends of the waist.
  2. Next, he is taught to put his right foot into the right leg loop.
  3. We continue putting the left foot in the other leg.
  4. Now the pants are pulled up until they fit at the waist.
  5. The button is fastened.
  6. The zipper goes up.

These steps are taught one by one, taking an essay 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, Start at the end and work your way back, showing the previous steps. For example, if we teach a child to write the word “dog”:

  1. We start by writing the whole word, except the last letter. The child will have to complete the “either” missing.
  2. Next, we write the word missing the last two letters: “per”. The child will have to complete the r and the either.
  3. We continue subtracting letters successively, until we reach the end. At this time, he will write the complete word.

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

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



Total Task Chaining

In this modality the entire sequence of actions is taught, without providing reinforcement after each step filled. The person is then asked to perform the entire task in a single trial. The booster is only obtained when the sequence is complete.

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

pure partial

In this case, the steps are taught one by one and following a progressive order (just like forward chaining). However, to get the reinforcer it is only necessary to carry out the specific step that is being practiced and not the previous ones.

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

Schools apply variants of these methods in different processes.

partial progressive

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

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

a supervised process

The chain of behaviors is a very useful tool for all types of learning, but some variables must be taken into account. For example, It is preferable that the reinforcers are varied and of a social nature.. In addition, the person should begin to be taught by a behavior that they already dominate, to make it easier.

The learning process is supervised to avoid mistakes and it may be necessary to offer some help, which will fade as the person no longer needs it. Finally, it is important to practice in different contexts and with different materials.

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