Teaching Complex Behaviors

How did your parents teach you to tie your shoes? Bunny rabbit? Loop, swoop and curl? There are songs, poems, and rhymes dedicated to teaching this task. They are cute, but they may not be helpful for a child with autism. While it may seem like a simple task, tying your shoes is made up of lots of smaller tasks. This is true of many self-help skills and daily tasks children have to perform.

We use two techniques in order to teach these types of skills:


Shaping is the process by which successively closer approximations of a behavior are reinforced. Shaping allows reasonable goals to be set and gives the child many chances for success on his way to learning a new, challenging behavior best online therapy services in 2022.

Shaping begins with an analysis of the steps needed to complete the task. You break down a target behavior into smaller, more manageable steps which bring the child successively closer to that target behavior. The goal is for the child to work towards completion of the first step, for which he is reinforced. When he masters that step, the next step becomes the new goal until he masters that goal, and so on.

For example,Hunter does not know his address cerebral or talkspace. The goal is for Hunter to learn his address. We figure out the steps he will need to learn his address:

When asked, “Where do you live?” Hunter will:

1.  Recite the first two digits in his house number.

2.Recite the first four digits in his house number.

3. Recite all six digits in his house number.

4.Recite his house number and his street name.

5. Recite his house number, his street name, and his city.


Chaining is the linking of smaller behaviors into a more complex, composite behavior. Chaining is useful for teaching those behaviors that occur in the same order each time, and is especially useful for teaching self-help skills such as teethbrushing, handwashing, and tying shoes.

Chaining uses a task analysis. A task analysis is the breaking down of a behavior into its component behaviors.

For example, Chloe needs to learn to brush her teeth. Let’s write a task analysis of brushing your teeth.

  1. Get toothbrush
  2. Get toothpaste
  3. Turn on cold water
  4. Run toothbrush under water
  5. Remove cap from toothpaste
  6. Place cap on rim of basin
  7. Apply toothpaste to toothbrush
  8. Brush
  9. Spit
  10. Rinse toothbrush
  11. Fill cup with water
  12. Rinse mouth
  13. Spit
  14. Turn off water
  15. Put cap on toothpaste
  16. Put toothpaste away
  17. Put toothbrush away

Of course, not all children will need these many steps to be written out in order to complete the task. Some children, however, may need even more. For example, a child may need to be taught to set a timer so that he brushes for an appropriate amount of time occupational therapists. Or a child may need to be taught to brush his teeth in a particular order so that he doe not miss any. You may find that a picture task analysis of the steps placed on the wall for those children who are unable to read will eliminate the need for verbal prompting, which is hard to fade. If your child can read, you can simply write a list of the steps and place it in the restroom.

There are two kinds of chaining:

In forward chaining the child is taught the first portion of the task and is then prompted through the remainder. Once that step is mastered, the child is taught the second step. Once he has mastered those two steps together he is taught the third, etc.

In backward chaining the child is taught the final step first. He is prompted through all of the steps up until the last, at which point the teacher pauses and waits for the child to finish the task on his own. As he masters that step, the teacher teaches the second to last step, and so on.

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