Is your child still working on learning how to do life skills like dressing, making their bed, or cooking meals (just to name a few)? We all need tools in our toolbox to help our children gain skills! This is a simple strategy that can be used with a ton of tasks!

When I first started to write out the words and my thoughts for this podcast, my thoughts went straight toward all of the many roles and obligations we all have in our lives.  At first, I spent some time writing down my thoughts and emphasizing with all of us parents and what we have been entrusted with as we raise our children. 

This really made me want to focus on having a short episode where you could learn a new skill in a short period of time.  Mainly because I know we are all super busy and have a lot on our plates! 

I also really recognize that even though we might have roles that we were not expecting or necessarily wanting when we started this journey of parenthood, we do have an opportunity now that we do have those roles to learn new skills and help our children learn new life skills.  So, I want you to be equipped with a new skill that can be added to your tool belt.

With that being said I want to introduce a strategy to teach new skills that I use all the time in the clinic or at school when working with a child.  That strategy is called backward chaining.

Why Would You Use Backward Chaining to teach life skills?

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So, let’s start off by talking about why you would want to use backward chaining when you’re with your child.  We want our children to feel success!  Right?!? 

Because, if they have success with an activity, they are more likely to want to keep practicing that task.  Using backward chaining helps a child end an activity with success.  We all know that if we are open to practicing a task, we will have more opportunities to get better at it!

What is it?

So, what is backward chaining?  Backward chaining is when you teach a life skill by having them learn and complete the last steps of a task.  This helps to end the task with them feeling successful that the task is completed. 

As the child is able to complete the last step independently, then you would have them complete the last two steps and so on until they are able to complete the task without your help.

When Can I Use Backward Chaining to Teach Life Skills?

Here’s my list of when should use this strategy, because it is not going to be a strategy that works in all circumstances with all kids. 

  1. Backward chaining can be utilized with any task that requires more than 1 step.
  2. The child needs to have at least shown some interest in the task. If you want them to learn how to tie their shoes, for example, but they really are not interested in doing that then you will not have their attention nor will they have the motivation to learn that task.  Remember that just because the task might be important to you, doesn’t mean that it is important to your child at this point in time.  As they continue to develop and gain new skills, their interest will also change.  So if they are not interested in a certain task right now, it doesn’t mean never, it just means not yet.
  3. Teaching them a new skill also needs to be when they are open to the idea.  It would not be when they are focusing on doing a repetitive activity, because they are trying to help their body feel better in those moments.  So, this means, waiting and watching for your child’s cues that tell you they are engaged with you.  Of note: If their attention span is currently very short when they do engage with you, then you are paying attention to the tasks that don’t take very long to complete to use this type of strategy.  We will go over some examples here in just a moment to explain this idea a little more.

Who would you use this strategy with?

You can literally use this strategy with anyone of any age and any skill level.  You really can adjust it for children and adults of all ages and abilities.  That’s a huge reason why we use this strategy so much during therapy sessions.  It really is crazy versatile when teaching new life skills!

Where and How Would You Use This Strategy to Teach Life Skills?

You can use this strategy at home, out and about when doing errands, at school…it really can be done anywhere.  In reality, really the tool is you and you don’t need anything else to be able to do this.  So, let’s talk about some examples to really explain how you might actually go about doing this with your child in this case. 

I’m going to give 1 fairly basic example and 1 example that might be a better example for older children or children with higher developmental levels.

Example #1:

You are still dressing your child, but maybe they seem more interested. You have noticed that they have started really watching what you are doing when you are getting them dressed.  So, you think that it would be really nice if your child could gain some independence. Maybe with their ability to get their pants on by themselves. 

The next time that he or she is getting on a pair of pants or pajama bottoms, you will put their legs through the holes. You will use simple words to explain what you are doing. Then show them where their hands can go before telling them to pull their pants up. 

Keep in mind you want them to be successful! So give them as little help as possible for them to feel that success.  Don’t forget to make a huge deal out of it and celebrate like crazy.  Them being a part of the activity in this situation really is a huge deal! They should have the recognition when they accomplished part of a task. 

After you realize that they really seem to be getting down the ability to pull up their pants consistently, then would work on them maybe inserting their 2nd leg in the hole and setting them up for success. 

For example, having them sitting on the ground so they are not having to balance and/or holding onto the other part of material so the only place their leg can go is in the empty leg hole before standing up and pulling up their pants.  Don’t forget to celebrate after their success! 

Example #2:

Your child does all of their basic dressing, but maybe he or she has a hard time making their bed.  First off, in this example, you might even want to take a step back and see if there are ways of simplifying the task first. 

For example, maybe right now they have a ton of stuffed animals or pillows on their bed. Maybe only having a few or having one large body pillow instead of lots of small pillows are an option.  Or maybe, you could get bedding that is heavier and wouldn’t require as many blankets.  Or, maybe even something like a Beddy that only requires the sides of the bedding to be zipped up in order for the bed to be made. 

So, I would start thinking about those possibilities first in this example. But just like before you are going to be there with them. Don’t forget to talk about each step as you do it. 

Then for the final step. Which in this example might be putting the pillows on the bed or the stuffed animals. You would ask them to put them on the bed.  Then of course the next time, if they had been able to do that, you might see if they could fold the top of the comforter over and then put the pillow on.

A couple of notes

I don’t want you to think of this as a system that has to be followed.  Keep your child in mind and don’t forget that you are the expert on your child!  If your child seems interested in completing other steps, follow their lead.  The important thing I want you to remember is that you want your child to feel successful. Feeling successful will help them be motivated to keep trying a task.

Don’t expect perfection!  Think back to when you have first learned something new.  You were not perfect at it during your first tries either, so get excited over their attempts, acknowledge their achievement.

Hope that helps you as you support your child in gaining new skills!  Please make sure to leave a review of the podcast. Of course, I would love it if you leave a comment! Contact me with any other questions or thoughts you have!  Many hugs until next week!!

Candice Curtis is a licensed Occupational Therapist and the founder of Integrate Family. She is passionate about helping and empowering parents and their children.  Candice has advanced postgraduate training in theory, assessment, interpretation and treatment in Ayers Sensory Integration.  She is a Certified Autism Specialist with expertise in sensory processing, coordination disorders, learning disorders and executive functioning.  Candice also has 2 boys of her own at home, one of which is Autistic. Learn more about her here.