Helping Your Child be More Self-reliant: Backward Chaining

Teaching your child to do the last step in a multi-step process can build self confidence and skill retention

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Trisomy 21 Update

One of the most important goals as a parent is to raise children who become independent and self-reliant. This should not change simply because your child has a diagnosis of trisomy 21. It just means that the way you approach teaching you child may have to be changed or adapted to meet their unique learning style.

As occupational therapists (OTs) we typically hear the responses: “We don’t have enough time” or “I don’t know, we just have always done it this way.”

Here are some tips to increase the independence of your children with and without trisomy 21. We will use dressing as our main example, however this strategy can apply to all tasks.

Dressing is one of the first things we do in the morning. However, mornings can be very stressful and chaotic not leaving extra time to work on teaching dressing skills. For this situation I would suggest completing dressing at times with less time constraint, but still socially appropriate, such as nights and weekends.

Whichever time you decide to work on teaching your child to dress herself, do your best to keep it as consistent as possible; same place, same time, same day of the week, and same general routine. The repetition of this task will increase your child’s ability to learn and implement the new skill into her routine.

Another strategy OTs typically recommend is something called “backward chaining." Backward chaining is working backward from the goal. For example, the goal is put on a T-shirt. Break the task up into several steps:

  1. Pull shirt over head
  2. Push right arm up through right sleeve
  3. Push left arm up through left sleeve
  4. Pull shirt down to waist

Then have your child work backward starting with step 4.

Therefore, you will do the majority of the task except “pull shirt down to waist” and provide positive feedback to your child for completing that task. After your child masters the skill of pulling her shirt down to her waist, then have her complete both steps 4 and 3, and proceed in that fashion until she is able to independently complete the entire task.

You can continue to do this with almost any task as long as you can break it down into smaller steps. One of the main reasons we start backward is to provide praise and positive feedback which, in turn, typically improves the child’s interest and success in the task.

In summary, providing your child with the opportunity to complete tasks independently in a structured manner should increase his independence throughout life.


  • Complete new skill training when there are few time constrains.
  • Keep tasks consistent and repetitive.
  • Break down each task into steps and add new steps as another is mastered.