Chaining: A Teaching Tool with Many Uses

"Chaining" is a teaching tool you can use at home and at school

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What Is "Chaining?"

Chaining is a teaching method where in which 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 Learners

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 necessary items and how to use each tool correctly.

Examples of Chaining 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 (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.

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