Using Shaping and Chaining to Teach Desirable Behaviors

A lot of time in educational settings is devoted to decreasing or eliminating students’ challenging behaviors. Makes sense, right? It’s hard to deliver effective instruction when students are throwing work materials, running away from teachers and staff, or becoming aggressive to adults or peers. Once we’ve identified the function of students’ challenging behaviors, we are tasked with developing interventions to decrease that behavior AND to teach new skills. Educational researchers and psychologists have done much of the ground work in these two areas; now let’s put their work to good use in our schools!

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

Shaping:  A student working in Level I programs is learning how to communicate vocally. During free time, you notice that he or she is making a lot of noises while they are interacting with a light-up toy. You attribute this to self-stimulation and move on with your day. Another way to look at this is to see a perfect opportunity to shape up those noises into functional communication. Shaping, after all, is the process of reinforcing good attempts or successive approximations that will ultimately result in the desired response. Take that light-up toy and use it to teach requesting during PRT and other teachable moments throughout the day. Over time, the non-functional sounds you hear stand a good chance of developing into more functional language because you have taught the relationship between using sounds and getting fun stuff!

Chaining: You have a new student who has arrived with an adaptive behavior goal for handwashing. You know that we teach handwashing through a functional routine, also known as task analysis. 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.

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. Any way you slice it, chaining methods help students acquire skills across a variety of instructional areas, so get to chaining those desirable behaviors.

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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.