Shaping Up Behaviors

Do you ever sit at your desk after work and think, “How the HECK am I supposed to help this student go from chucking desks and bolting out of the room to sitting calmly and requesting a break?

The answer (or at least a major part of the answer) = a process called shaping

We know we’re not supposed to use the actual term in the definition, but shaping is a glorious procedure that helps you do just that to a behavior – shape it!  

We absolutely need to set the bar high and identify long-term, achievable goals for our students – key word here being ACHIEVABLE. It’s not fair to expect our students to magically go from point A to point Z in a matter of days without us teaching and reinforcing those smaller steps or slight changes heading in the right direction.  

So what does it mean to “shape” a behavior?

Shaping is a process in which we, the instructors, teach a new behavior by reinforcing little approximations or steps of the target behavior. When we do this, we stop providing reinforcement for the previous behaviors in the sequence in order to get the student closer and closer to the new behavior we want him or her to engage in. This well-researched learning principle is effective in teaching and increasing the use of a wide variety of skills.

When do I use the shaping procedure?

Shaping is a great technique to use when you are teaching a new skill or strengthening one already in the student’s repertoire. Shaping can be necessary when the child never or rarely engages in the target (end goal) behavior and you know waiting for them to exhibit it so you can reinforce it will take too long; In this case, you will likely get to the target behavior a lot faster by reinforcing behaviors that look/sound like the target and shaping them up. 

Why should I use shaping?

Shaping is a powerful teaching technique if used correctly. Whenever we teach a new skill in academics, for example reading, we don’t just expect a student to go from decoding CVC words to all of sudden fluently reading a fourth grade passage - behavior is exactly the same! We need to teach and reinforce the smaller steps in between. When you use shaping you are using a combination of so many great instructional strategies – differential reinforcement, systematic instruction, prompting, task analysis, and behavioral momentum! When we break skills down and provide reinforcement for engaging in those approximations, we are helping to ensure our student’s confidence and motivation stay enact throughout. 

Quiz time: Which procedure do you think is best practice?

Teaching procedure A:

  • Student’s baseline isn’t determined
  • A goal is chosen, but is too lofty
  • Behavior isn’t broken down into small enough parts
  • Zero or little reinforcement is provided for the steps in between the student’s current baseline and the target goal
  • Next skill/behavior is taught before the student has mastered the first one

Teaching procedure B:

  • Student's baseline is identified
  • Achievable goal is chosen
  • The skill is broken down into manageable parts based on student need
  • Reinforcement is provided for appropriate responses
  • Student is only taught the next skill once that part of the behavior is mastered

Answer = If you chose teaching procedure B, you are correct! You might be thinking, “Well I don’t do all of those things in procedure A, but even missing one or two key elements of shaping may easily cause frustration, both for you and the student.

How do I get started with shaping?

  1. Identify and define the target behavior/skill you want to teach
  2. Identify student’s present levels of performance as it relates to the skill
  3. Task analyze the skill (break it down and sequence all the smaller parts of the behavior)
  4. Determine advancement criteria for each step (when to move on and teach the next step or behavior)
  5. Begin teaching the first approximated behavior in the sequence
  6. When the student exhibits the behavior, provide reinforcement
  7. When the student meets advancement criteria, put that behavior on extinction and start teaching the second approximation in the sequence
  8. Provide reinforcement and continue on until target behavior is mastered

Happy shaping!