Building confidence with backchaining

ABAI logoI’m in Denver currently at the 43rd annual convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International. This is the seventh year that I’ve attended the ABAI convention. It’s a huge affair that brings together several thousand individuals who are interested in the science and practice of behavior analysis – with both humans and other animals. The convention is always quite interesting, and we’ve had a great time so far.

I gave a presentation Sunday afternoon on some research that I have been working on recently related to DRO (differential reinforcement of other behavior) schedules of reinforcement. I will write another post about the research project later on when I have more time.

Recently, I’ve spent a good bit of time practicing for my presentation, and that’s what I wanted to write a bit about today.

My twenty-minute presentation consists of about two dozen PowerPoint slides. First, there’s the introduction, then some graphics and videos to explain the experimental procedures, and finally it concludes with some graphs showing the results and a short discussion.

I try to keep the amount of text on each slide to a minimum – no one likes to watch a presenter just read the text straight off of her slides for twenty minutes!

However, by keeping the text to a minimum, it means I have to be well rehearsed and have a good sense of what I want to say on each slide.

The first six or so slides are the introduction. This is the tough part for me. There are lots of little points and details that I want to make sure that I don’t forget to cover about the topic in general and about several previous research studies.

Once I get past the introduction, the rest of the presentation is smooth sailing – it feels more natural and easy to talk about, since I am discussing what I am actually doing during the research and the results we have gathered so far.

So, back to the introduction. This is the part I knew I needed to spend the most time practicing.

What would be the most effective way to practice?

Here’s how people usually practice presentations — the person starts with the first slide, then practices the second slide, then tries to learn the third slide, and so on, until she has gone all the way through the presentation.

However, there’s another way to practice using backchaining. It’s less intuitive, but it actually works a lot better.

Backchaining is where you begin with the LAST behavior when teaching or practicing a set of behaviors that need to occur every time in the same sequence.

Here’s how I practiced the introduction for my presentation using backchaining:

I started with the 6th slide in the presentation (the last slide in the intro) and rehearsed that slide several times, until I felt comfortable going through that slide without looking at my notes.

Then, I did the same thing with the fifth slide.

Next, I put the two together, practicing the fifth slide, then the sixth slide.

After that I rehearsed Slide 4 several times, and then I practiced Slides 4-6 all together.

The next step was to learn Slide 3 and then to practice Slides 3-6.

I repeated the process, adding in Slide 2 and finally, Slide 1.

By then, I was practicing the whole introduction.

Why use backchaining when teaching?

Learning something backwards may seem weird. However it actually is a VERY effective method if you are learning any sort of set of behaviors that need to occur in the same order each time.

With humans, backchaining can be used to teach all sorts of motor skills, such as teaching a child to make a sandwich or tie her shoes. In these types of cases, the parent or teacher would complete most of the steps, and then let the child complete the last step on his or her own.

Backchaining is also very effective for verbal skills, such as learning a phone number, memorizing a poem or piece of music, or learning the lines for a play.

It is also very useful for animal training, both for training sequences of behaviors to an animal and for teaching humans sequences of behaviors that are needed while training an animal. For example, dog trainers often use backchaining when training dogs to retrieve items.

One reason that backchaining is so effective is that the learner is always working toward something that he or she already knows how to do.

Think about learning something in the forward direction. You learn the first part. Perhaps it’s a bit difficult, but you figure it out. Now, you move to the second step. This second step feels a little awkward, but after awhile you master it. Then you move on and start to figure out how to do the third step. And so on.

As you learn each new step, there may be a bit of apprehension or hesitation when you move on to the next step because you know you won’t immediately understand the new step and it will take a bit of time to figure it out.

When you practice the first three steps together, Step 1 is easy because you’ve practiced it so many times. Two takes some thinking, because it is still kind of new. And Step 3 still feels pretty awkward, since you have practiced it the least.

Here’s what happens instead when you learn something using backchaining. Let’s imagine a task that consists of five smaller parts.

You start by learning the fifth step. Then, you learn the fourth step. Now, you can practice the fourth and fifth steps together. Since the fourth step is still new, it may still feel a bit awkward or clumsy. However, as you get toward the end of it, you realize that you now get to do the fifth step, which you already know how to do pretty well.

Much later in the teaching process you are working on practicing Steps 2-5. Two feels a bit odd because it is still so new. Then, however, after Step 2, you move on to three, which you are getting the hang off. After that comes Step 4, which you are feeling really solid about. Finally, you get to Step 5, which feels completely natural since you’ve practiced it so many times by now.

Do you see the difference here?

As you move through the sequence, you are moving towards behaviors that you are more and more familiar with.

Building behaviors with backchaining can help increase both motivation and confidence. Rather than dreading or fearing the next step because you do not know it very well, you are eager to move forward because you are moving toward things that will be easy to accomplish because you have already learned and practiced them.

This is certainly what happened as I learned and practiced the slides for the introduction to my talk. Backchaining helped me feel confident as I practiced, because I knew what was coming next, and I knew that I would be able to do it well.

Do you have any stories of how you have used backchaining with either animals or people?

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  • Ringo Robinson

    Hi Mary! Here’s a perfect example: Teaching a dog to play fetch. Let’s start with the typical scenario: Dog owner goes and buys a new, hard, toxic-plastic smelling ball. He then take the dog to the crowded park, unleashes the dog, and proceeds to throw the toy as far as he can with an excited and hopeful proclamation “FETCH!”. At this point the possibilities might look like this… dog looks at owner with confusion and begins barking, dog runs away to chase squirrels or herd small children, dog goes on food patrol and rewards himself at someone’s picnic. You get the idea. The dog owner then spends the rest of their lesson trying to round up the roaming dog and at the end of the session declares “Dumb dog doesn’t know how to fetch”.

    However, backchaining will provide you a quicker path to success! You can start with a good ‘ol pre-slobbered ball that the dog hopefully has shown some interest in. Then, take away all the distractions and start in a small more confined space like a bedroom or other space that has “good play vibes” (a history of good dog human interactions).

    Now… here’s the backchaining. Encourage dog to play with ball. At first any touching the ball can be rewarded…. feet, body, etc. But quickly shape/reward for mouth play. The first goal is for the dog to pick up the ball using his mouth. But, for some dogs that may even mean you begin rewarding for just looking at the ball. Continue shaping.

    Next, encourage silly play with the ball. Perhaps you can roll it and dog will mouth or pick it up. At some point the dog will have the ball in mouth and will point his head towards you or even take a step in your direction. Reward! We’re now shaping for ball in mouth with any movement towards handler.
    Continue to shape for more movement towards handler. It is quite likely that the first real fetch will be by accident. Have a party!

    Soon you’ll be able to roll the ball away and the dog will go to the ball, pick it up, and bring it straight to you. At this point it’s time to look back at your objective and remember what is acceptable for ball return. Are you going to shape for the dog to place the ball into your hand? Is dropping it on the ground near your feet acceptable? Warning… I had a border collie that taught everyone else to fetch for her! She’d take the ball and drop it in anyone else’s line of sight, about 20 yards from them. Then she’d crouch down on the ground and bark. If they didn’t understand her directions, she’d pick up the ball again, toss it into the air, and return to the crouch and bark routine. Inevitably the stranger would find this amusing and THEY would go fetch the ball and throw it for her! That dog would never bring the ball to me because I wouldn’t throw it unless she brought it all the way to my hand, which apparently is way too time consuming for a border collie. Guess I should have had that behavior more solid before we ventured into the real world (aka park, beach). LOL.

    Anyways, once you have a nice little fetch game going in a restricted area. It’s time to take the behavior on the road. At this point, you have hopefully built in lots of “ball drive”. Now maybe go to a bigger room or space. Slowly add distractions. Again, revisit your objective. Perhaps you want your dog to fetch the ball to your hand, at the park, regardless of multiple distractions. Backchaining will get you to that goal!

    • Great example, Ringo! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. :)