Teaching kids to get dressed using backwards chaining

girl with socks on her head sitting on floor
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Learning to get dressed can be a challenging time for parents and fashionably questionable time for children. Leaving the house in gumboots, tutus and mismatched socks a right of passage for most toddlers. What happens if getting dressed independently is particularly hard for children? For children who need some assistance getting dressed, a special technique called backwards chaining has been found to build confidence and enable the feeling of success while learning a tricky new skill 2.

What is backwards chaining?

Backwards chaining is a technique used by Occupational Therapists, to help children to learn a new task or skill. Backwards chaining essentially teaches a skill by working backwards from the goal – the last step first! This technique breaks down the skills into a chain of simple steps so that children find it easier to master. Children begin at the final step, which is the easiest step in the chain – teaching the last step until the child is confident 1. Steps are added sequentially from the end until all steps are mastered, and the child has developed a new skill!

For example, when teaching a child to tie their shoes laces rather than starting at crossing over the shoelaces to tie the first knot you start at the end where the child is tightening the two loops to complete the task. After the child can confidently tighten the loops, you add the 2nd last step of pulling the loop through to then tighten the laces. After each step is mastered, you add the step before it until the child can do the entire task on their own.

Research has found that by using the teaching method of backwards chaining there can be an improvement of life skills in children with special needs 2. Backwards chaining has also been found to build confidence in some children who may have had trouble completing dressing tasks previously as it allows them to ‘complete’ the task and feel that success, “I DID IT!”.

How can I backwards chain dressing tasks at home?

With the help of your Occupational Therapist you can identify the dressing tasks that you and your child would like to master together. Once you have a dressing task or skill you would like to work on, you start by breaking that task into its ‘simple steps’.
Putting on a T-shirt
1. Pull shirt over head
2. Put right arm through arm hole
3. Put left arm through arm hole
4. Pull shirt down over torso.

Once you have your set of ‘simple steps’ you and your child work on the skill together. To begin with you do all the steps, except the last step leaving the child to pull down the shirt over their torso to complete the task.

boy in white and black top
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In the beginning you may need to verbally remind your child what to do, in time however, with practice, they will begin to master that final step. When your child can do their step with no prompting and with confidence you add the step before, so the child is then doing the last two steps. This is continued until the child has mastered the entire sequence of steps and is able to put their shirt on all by themselves.

One of the biggest advantages of backwards chaining is that is a natural reinforcer because the task is already completed meaning less frustration for both child and parent 3.


  1. Wibowo, S. H., & Tedjasaputra, M. S. (2019). The effectiveness of backward chaining in improving buttoning skills in a child with moderate Intellectual Disability and poor vision: Single-case design. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 229 (2), 133-143.
  2. Moore, D. W., Anderson, A., Treccase, F., Deppeler, J., Furlonger, B., & Didden, R. (2016). A Video-Based Package to Teach a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder to Write Her Name. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 25(5), 493– 503. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10882-012-9325-
  3. Helfrich, C. A., (2014). Principles of learning and Behaviour change. In B. A. Boyt Schell, G. Gillen & M.E. Scaffa (Eds.), Willard and Spackman’s: Occupational Therapy (12th Edition). (pp. 588 – 604). Wolters Kluwer.

Author: Sharon Jelenic  

Paediatric Occupational Therapist

Editor: Michelle Newby  BHSc(OT) MSc PhD Candidate

Paediatric Occupational Therapist

Copyright Stepping Stones Therapy for Children 2022/23

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