Working on the Chain Gang…

Another multi-link blog loosely complying with this month’s ‘education’ theme from Pink Oddy’s Motivational Monday page… 

Over the past two weeks I’ve blogged about teaching my son, Ben, how to tell the time and about the Star Chart we devised to help him develop some coping strategies for when frustration overwhelmed him in school. This week I thought I would write about teaching him to tie his shoelaces and helping him improve his handwriting, both of which involved elements of ‘back-chaining’; a motivational teaching strategy that builds on staged successes while avoiding failure and disappointment. Back-chaining can, with a little imagination, be applied to pretty much any task or life skill and, being success driven, is something most children enjoy and commit to, particularly when coupled to a reward scheme.

tubes completionThe theory of back-chaining is quite old, and originated, I think, in business management. There’s an album from the early eighties by the Tubes called The Completion Backward Principle, and the video accompanying it has a tongue-in-cheek poke at corporate training methods, including ‘The CBP’, which is back-chaining in everything but name. Effectively, the aim is to work backwards from the completion of a task (either through visualisation in the corporate sense or physically in the life skills sense) to the beginning, each step of that process providing a successful outcome to further encourage and motivate the learner. In a way, I guess, it also ties in with that old advice offered to would-be crime and mystery writers which suggests writing from the detective’s ‘reveal’ backwards to ensure all the clues are sequenced properly. See what I mean – good for anything, back-chaining!

Shoelaces: For whatever reason Ben disliked Velcro from an early age, and by the time he went to primary school he refused to wear shoes that didn’t have ‘proper’ laces. This was a bit of a bugger, because being dyspraxic he found tying shoelaces very challenging, and even double-bows failed to see him through to home time. He hated relying on staff to tie his shoes and was eager to learn how to do it himself.

My first attempt at teaching him to tie laces was a disaster, firstly because I tried to do it the traditional ‘forward to completion’ way, and secondly because I tried to do it with a proper shoe which he was wearing at the time. We had a few meltdowns during this period. When I took the shoe off and let him try tying bows with the shoe in his lap things took a turn for the better, and when I bought an outsize plastic ‘practice shoe’ from the ELC they were better still, but the real breakthrough came when I started back-chaining.

The first stage of back-chaining is to break the target task down into bite-size chunks. In real life you would offer practical demonstrations rather than verbal prompts, but for shoelace tying, for example, it would read something like this:

  1. Start with the shoelaces hanging down to the sides of the shoe. Pick the shoelaces up and make an “X” with them.
  2. Bring the top shoelace down to the bottom of the X and draw it through, then pull the laces tight.
  3. Make a loop out of the right lace with your right hand. Hold it tight, then make another loop out of the left lace with your left hand.
  4. Cross the right loop in front of the left loop, making another X.
  5. Pull the right loop over the left loop. Bring it back and through the bottom of the X…
  6. …Then pull the loops tight. 

practice shoeReading that back, it’s no wonder kids get confused with verbal instructions! Back-chaining would simply involve reversing the order of the stages, and teaching stage six first, having already completed stages one-to-five for your child while they watched. When they were comfortable and proficient at stage six you would move back a step so that they were completing steps five and six unaided and you were only completing the first four steps. Once five and six were mastered you would step back again, with parent and child each completing three stages, and so on until the child was competent at all six stages and no longer needed help. The clear benefits of back-chaining are success at every stage and a defined and achievable target that is visually demonstrated from the outset; twin motivators that even the most reluctant learner will find rewarding.

A final word on shoelace tying before I move on to handwriting: I noticed while looking for images to accompany this blog that there is now a ‘practice shoe’ with a lace that is coloured yellow at one end and red at the other. I’m not sure how helpful this distinction would be in practice, but it would seem, on the surface, another really good visual prompt for clarifying the ‘left’ and ‘right’ lace confusion during the very early learning stage…

Handwriting: As with shoelaces and just about all other fine & gross motor skills, Ben’s dyspraxia added all sorts of complications. While he was a competent reader and something of a wiz at spelling by year six his handwriting was pretty much illegible, however much effort he put into it.

The first phase of getting Ben to write more legibly was getting the amount of writing he had to do in school reduced. While that may seem counter-productive the simple fact was that Ben could not keep up with his peers in terms of quality and quantity, and quantity was the most obvious stumbling block. The school worked with me to ensure that Ben got support with the physical aspects of writing – with the help of a teaching assistant scribe’ or from access to a PC – so that he could concentrate on the aesthetics. Two legible, hand-written paragraphs were more valuable in real terms than two unreadable pages, especially if the desired quantity could be realised through other means.

slant boardAt school Ben was sometimes using a ‘slant board’, which angled the writing surface towards him and reduced wrist fatigue. The price of slant boards was prohibitive then, so I made one for him using the top of a foldaway table I bought in Poundstretcher for around a fiver. Removing the folding leg mechanism and a single batten retainer provided a board that hooked securely over the edge of our kitchen table and offered the ideal angle for handwriting. We were off!

Not wanting to overwork Ben (I’ve never really approved of ‘homework’) I tried to keep handwriting practice to a maximum of around fifteen minutes a day. Back-chaining again, I would write a single phrase of Ben’s choice in an exercise book. Most of the time this would either be about Sonic the Hedgehog or our cat, but occasionally, when Ben had the hump with me, it would be something like ‘My dad is a stupid idiot.’ I didn’t mind too much: the ‘idiot’ was getting results!

I would write the phrase down four times, leaving a space between each line. The first repetition would be in pen, written at full pressure and this was Ben’s ‘guide’. The next three lines would be in light pencil, and these were for Ben to trace over. He was expected to write on the lines between the light pencil sections as well as tracing over them, and then to add two freehand lines of his own at the end.

Ben’s handwriting improved dramatically very quickly, but sadly he lost a lot of this new skill when he transferred to a residential secondary school. It seemed unfair to work him in this regard at weekends on top of all the other stuff we had to squeeze in, and as the new school seemed to have lower expectations it was only when I saw his work at the annual handwritingopen evenings that I realised he was swinging the lead. As he’s now transferred to a local college for sixth form we are working on handwriting again, and while we’ve dropped the slant board the back-chaining method of Ben tracing and copying my writing is still very much part of the overall strategy. In fact, probably the biggest drawback he’s got these days is that my own handwriting is so poor, as it’s a bit of a blind leading the blind scenario!

Also linking this week with: 


8 thoughts on “Working on the Chain Gang…”

    1. Yes, they do that, though, they do that, don’t they? Little buggers! Make them wear slip-ons, or even flip-flops to school – that’ll teach ’em 😉 Thanks for comment 🙂

    1. They certainly are! I really struggled when writing the description of how to tie them… until I found an internet page that did it for me… The other thing about shoelace skills is that it takes a while for the kid to get the finger strength/dexterity to pull them really tightly, and then they get the hump because they keep coming undone! Worth it in the long run, though. Thanks for comment 🙂

    1. My pleasure (linking)… Actually, I’m not sure which came first – the concept of back-chaining or ‘The Completion Backwards Principle’, but when I first heard about back-chaining the connection was already in my head because I owned the album. I kind of liked that connection, so bunged it into the blog for my own pleasure! Thanks for comment 🙂

  1. This is a really useful post. Thank you for writing it. I have to admit I use velcro – my 10 year old can now do his laces but has velcro – I’m so bad. My youngest it has been suggested may have dyspraxia too. I shall pin this. Thank you for joining in with Motivational Monday

    1. Nowt bad about velcro – especially if it’s a choice thing rather than a Hobson’s Choice thing! Ben just hated it, and it offered a perfect but relatively simple example of back-chaining in action. I’m really glad that MM’s topic has prompted me to post this ‘cos it is good advice, and it’s not the usual mix of waffle, bad jokes and rant that I generally post on my blog. Not that there’s anything with waffle, bad jokes and rant, but variety is the spice of life! Thanks for pinning and thanks for comment 🙂

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