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A behavioral chain is a complex series of events. Examples are present in everyday life: brushing your teeth, starting up your car, playing darts, finding a television program in the TV guide. How did you learn to engage in these tasks? For most people these chains of events are easily acquired and reinforced through natural stimuli. However, for the mentally challenged, or the immature, or even for animals, certain techniques are necessary in order to acquire the skills.

Each part of a chain has a stimulus and a response. For example, your husband saying “What’s on TV honey?” is the stimulus for locating the TV guide, the TV guide on your lap is the stimulus for opening it, etc., the reinforcement for this is having the desired television show on the television. However, let us say that you want to teach your mentally challenged brother how to brush his teeth, how would you do this?

First, you would have to complete what is known as a task analysis: identify all of the different stimulus-response components in the chain. There are three ways to accomplish this. You can observe someone engaging in the task, you can ask an expert how it is done, or you can engage in the task yourself. There are three different methods that are used to teach someone a chain: backward chaining, forward chaining, and total task presentation.

Backward chaining involves prompting the individual to engage in the last component of the chain, and then allowing them to partake in the normal reinforcer. Once these tasks is under the stimulus control of the last stimulus, you back up to the component before hand, and allow them to engage in this. For example, for the tooth-brushing experience, you would fill up your brother’s mouth with gross toothpaste, and allow him to spit. Then after he understands this, you would have him put the paste from the brush into his mouth, etc.

Forward chaining is similar to backward chaining except that you start at the first stimulus, such as telling your brother to brush his teeth, and then slowly proceed through the chain. Total task presentation is prompting the individual (or animal) to engage in the entire chain the very first time. This is the method that the majority of people use for all chains in their life.