Shaping – 3 Key Points

Forgive me for starting with a definition (I know it can be boring). Understanding shaping improved my practise so much. Shaping is the process of systematically and differentially reinforcing successive approximations to a terminal behaviour (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). Simply put, it’s breaking a skill down in to small achievable steps and reinforcing those steps along the way until you reach the end product. I’ll elaborate on some of the key points of shaping.

Differential Reinforcement

It’s kind of like performance related pay (not completely) – but if your child/learner responds better (i.e. closer to what you’re working towards), the more reinforcement they get. Take learning the word ‘bubbles’ for example, when Felix (my son) first said ‘buh’ for bubbles, I blew loads of bubbles and praised him. When he eventually got this to ‘buh buh’ after several trials (a trial is counted as one time he requests bubbles), this was reinforced a lot, and ‘buh’ no longer cut it. The bar had been raised. After several more trials this shaped to ‘bubbles’, this is what received lots of reinforcement and ‘buh buh’ no longer cut it. 

Another common example parents may be familiar with is if a child asks for a drink, and parents hold back until the child says ‘can I have a drink please’  – only when please is used will the parent reinforce the request with providing a drink.

One last example is me getting take away pizza on a Saturday. I set the bar as being able to get this if I exercise three times that week for 30 minutes, and only get it if I do, exercising twice will not get me a takeaway (big reinforcer). Once I’ve achieved this, I will set the bar to 4 times a week for 30 minutes in order to get the takeaway – 3 times no longer cuts it.

Successive Approximations

This is all about systematically shifting the criteria for when reinforcement is delivered for a behaviour (raising the bar little and often). It’s all about breaking down a skill from start (unestablished skill) to finish (established skill consistently done well). How many steps are needed for a behaviour depends on the skills the child already has (pre-requisite skills). Here’s a couple of examples;

  1. My little man learning to walk. We (parents, adults) can play a big part in shaping behaviour, even learning to walk. The first step Felix took on his own we went crazy (cheering, cuddles, clapping, smiles etc). After doing this a few times over the next couple of weeks our reinforcement became less enthusiastic (the magnitude of reinforcement was less) and more intermittent. But if he then did two steps, we went crazy again – reinforcement was still ‘up for grabs’ but the criteria had changed. This continued all the way till he started walking confidently on his own.
  2. Shaping a word. Like the example I outlined above, bubbles are a favourite item for me to use at home and also in sessions. Children who are in the early stages of learning to talk may begin my making approximations of words. My son would say ‘buh’ for bubbles, and the first time we heard this we gave him loads of bubbles! This continued the first few times and as it became more consistent, we systematically faded reinforcement. From this point we raised the bar/shifted the criteria to ‘buh buh’ – this is what would now get him LOADS of bubbles. Once this became consistent, we shifted the criteria to ‘bubbles’ (the terminal behaviour – the end goal).
  3. A teacher shaping writing with a pencil. First a teacher may try to build motivation for mark making with any instrument (paint brush, chalk, crayons etc), once the learner enjoys mark making they may prompt an appropriate pencil grip whilst mark making, from here letter formation, then words, then sentences and so on,

In these scenarios it would have been much harder, even unreasonable, to expect the end goal immediately; shaping was a crucial part of learning the new skill. 


Shaping can be a timely process. To increase the efficiency a few strategies can be used alongside shaping;

  • Vocal prompt – this can be a prompt such as a teacher saying ‘pick up your pencil’
  • Physical prompts – for example to shap writing you may prompt the learner hand over hand at first, gradually fading this whilst systematically shaping each step of the task towards sentence writing (at first maybe you give social praise for letting you physically prompt without resisting).
  • Imitative prompts – the same example could be used as above, but you ask the child to imitate what you are doing (‘try this’ – whilst holding the pencil with the appropriate grip).

Any prompts used should be systematically faded – this is important. 

I hope this has been a practical post. Pick a behaviour and get shaping.

Prepping Like a Pro

It’s been a crazy time the last few weeks, and many people have/are finding it tough for various reasons. Amongst other things, for me the idea of keeping my toddler occupied indoors for such a prolonged period was daunting, especially without any childcare for the foreseeable future. So, I tapped into strategies that I used as an ABA therapist. How did I organise the sessions for children who had fleeting motivation?

In the ABA school, timetables were done for us, but when I left to work independently I needed a structure to work from – and the learners often respond better to a structure in the sessions also! I’d start by identifying motivating activities. I may base this on what I already know of the child, or by trial and error (trying new things to see if they liked it). I‘d make a list of the preferred items/activities and make a timetable.  Each slot on the timetable would be a 15-30 minute slot (this could change dependent on your child or the activity you are doing). Here’s an example of what my day might look like during lockdown with my 2 year old;

8-8.30Breakfast3.30-4Hide and seek
8.30 – 9 Morning kids tv4-4.30Crazy soap + books
10-10.30Walk5.30-6Post dinner tv
10.30-11Morning snack 6-6.30Bath
11-11.30Ball games6.30-7Cuddle and story
12.30-1Lunch kids tv 
1-1.30Physical play
1.30-2Video call nanny
2.30-3Stickers + snack

Having a timetable serves as a great prompt for me – it’s awesome to know what’s coming next. If I was winging my day it’s likely that during the time I didn’t have a plan in place that my toddler would be getting up to something that I didn’t want him to! It also makes the day loads more manageable having it broken down like this – it seems less overwhelming. It keeps me moving on to new activities and not overdoing it; we call it satiation when we do something so long that the child loses motivation. Some of the activities above I would be a part of with my little man, but some I would let him crack on so I can sneak in a cup of tea. This is also a consideration for parents who are working full time and looking after their children – fill the timetable with things your child is more independent with. Be realistic with what you can do, if you expect to achieve too much with your job or child you may not end up doing either very well!

Train time with my boy!

Now, it’s fair to say that some activities flop, and if they do, I’ll swap it for something later on in the timetable and revisit it later (just because they don’t like it now doesn’t mean they won’t like it later). The same goes for if he specifically asks for something during the day, I’ll generally follow his motivation (unless I’ve set up an activity, in which case I’d say we can do whatever he asked for next). I use clear language to say what we’re doing now and next and let him know when an activity is coming to an end. It may work better for you to offer your child a choice of activities for each slot in the timetable – it can be there as a guide, not a fixed structure. I usually prompt my son to help me tidy up as well (and reinforce tidying up when he does!). Having a timetable like this also helps practise transitions (moving from one activity to another). Someone said to me ‘doing a timetable sounds like work’ – but I challenge you to try if for a day and see what you think, it won’t take long to do. There are many advantages to planning your day and this can be useful all year round – lockdown or not!

So, try prepping your day like a pro and let me know how it goes!