Using Prompting and Chaining to Teach Essential Skills

Secondary students spend a lot of time working on learning and performing complex skills, such as school jobs, independent work systems, and small or large group work activities. One of the primary reasons that students in special education might have limited access to general education settings is that their observed independence with these skills is much lower than what is expected in other environments. As educators using the Links Curriculum, you already know that applied behavior analysis (ABA) can make a big difference in your students’ ability to learn, maintain, and generalize skills over time. It’s no big surprise that ABA-based strategies such as prompting and chaining can help support student learning across a variety of instructional areas.

Let’s use brief case examples to illustrate how these strategies are used throughout the school day.

Prompting: We use prompting to help students respond to cues in the environment. When we use a prompt (e.g., gestural or model), we are increasing the likelihood that the student will respond in the way that we want them to. Once the desired behavior occurs, it is important to reinforce it so that it will occur again. Most of us are very familiar with using gestural prompts (e.g. pointing) or physical prompts, such as hand-over-hand assistance. One commonly forgotten prompting strategy is time delay, in which teachers and staff wait for a specified amount of time after the cue before jumping in to prompt the student’s response. Have you encountered the student who will walk up to a closed door and proceed to stand there until an adult prompts them to open it? That’s a silly question…I know you have.  In this case, the closed door is the natural environmental cue. To use time delay, you would decide that the adult working with the student will wait X number of seconds before a prompt is given.  As educators, we are tempted to be heroic and save the day as soon as possible, but it’s important to take a deep breath and wait when appropriate so that students do not develop the dreaded prompt dependency. 

Chaining: A new student has arrived with a goal to perform all steps of a tooth brushing routine with at least 90% accuracy. You know that you can modify routine #18 (Personal Hygiene) to incorporate tooth brushing or create a custom routine to address these steps. Once that is done, you have to decide how to teach this specific routine. Several chaining techniques are available to support this learning. In backward chaining, we teach the last component of the chain until the student has reached mastery on that step. Then the second-to-last step is taught, and the student proceeds in this order until the entire routine has been mastered. Forward chaining involves the teaching of one step at a time, beginning with the first step. Whole-task training is used when students are required to complete each step of the routine and when repeated practice on the steps is necessary to demonstrate the chain effectively.

How do we decide what type of chaining to use? Well, there are several variables to consider, such as time allotted to complete routines, staff support, skill level of student, and so on. A teacher might choose to use backward chaining because the student initially performs only one step of the routine before it is completed, resulting in the quick and successful termination of a routine that might be difficult or aversive to the student.  If the commission of an error during the routine would likely prevent the student from completing subsequent steps, then forward chaining might be the way to go to prevent those errors from occurring (Smith, 1999). Routines that are shorter in nature and would benefit from increased opportunities to practice all steps might best be served by whole-task training.

Remember that the Teaching Routines Planning Form is available to you to help you prepare for routine instruction. Completing this form may help you decide how to teach the routine based on the environmental supports and “out of routine” instruction necessary for students’ success. Happy chaining!

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Smith, G.J., (1999). Teaching a long sequence of a behavior using whole task training, forward chaining, and backward chaining. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 89, 951-965.