Applied behavior analysis is commonly used as a way to reinforce appropriate behaviors and discourage inappropriate behaviors through consequences.  That is all fine and good, but what happens when your child doesn’t do that desired behavior AT ALL?  If a behavior never occurs, it is not in the person’s repertoire.  Shaping is the process of adding behaviors to a person’s repertoire.  Shaping is used when the target behavior does not yet exist.

The key to shaping is reinforcing your child as he or she gets closer and closer to the end goal.  In playing, “Hot & Cold,” you reinforce any movement that takes the player closer to the prize.  Each movement is a closer approximation of the desired behavior.  If the prize is under the couch, and the player is moving towards the couch, you yell, “hotter,” and reinforce the behavior.  If the player moves away from the couch, you yell, “colder” (not reinforcing).

Shaping is a process that we have learned all throughout our lives.  When we were babies, we went from rolling over to scooting, crawling, standing up, taking those first steps, walking, and running with ease.  We were reinforced for these big steps in our lives through praise from our parents and caregivers.  They were so excited that we were able to move forward and reach those milestones.  We were successful.  The same is true for so many other things: toilet training, eating independently, learning how to dress ourselves, social skills, time management, communication for both verbal and nonverbal individuals, and learning how to use our iPads, iPhones, and computers.  These are skills that most of us take for granted.  In reality, though, each is quite an accomplishment when you consider the number of skills it takes and how many steps are involved that you need to learn beforehand.

Let me give you an example.  Jacob’s mother really wants him to learn the responsibility of cleaning his room.  There has always been a maid in the house, and Jacob has never learned how to organize his things.  In this case, it would be unfair to expect Jacob to clean his room spotless, or as well as the maid.  Instead, the first step might be to reward Jacob for going into his room when his mother told him to.  The next step might be to reward him for putting several things in their place as his mom directs him where things go.  Then, reward him for putting things on the shelf by himself, even if it is put on the shelf in a careless way.  Gradually increase the expectations for cleaning until Jacob’s cleaning his room looks similar to how the maid cleaned.

In another example, Ben throws a tantrum at school whenever he is frustrated with his work or does not know how to solve a problem.  His tantrums are violent and may involve throwing tables and/or screaming.  Shaping for this behavior would involve creating a new, more appropriate response for solving problems and dealing with frustration- asking for help.  Ben’s teacher might start by rewarding Ben when he makes a sound, “Ben, I hear you making a noise.  Would you like some help?”  Once Ben is making this noise consistently, his teacher would modify the reward criteria, “Ben, say, ‘Help.’ Great job saying, ‘Help.’  What do you need help with?”  Gradually increase the amount of words required for a reward, and eventually, Ben will be using a complete sentence to ask for help.  Finally, reward him for raising his hand before asking.  Each step gets you closer and closer to the end goal, replacing his tantrums by creating a more appropriate way to get what he needs.

Shaping can be used for any behavior that you do not see now, but that you would like to see in the future.  It can also be used to make behaviors more precise.  Among other things, shaping works well for improving symptoms associated with ADHD such as increasing attention span or decreasing hyperactivity.  Let’s say that Sarah is able to attend to a task for approximately 10 minutes before she is distracted.  Initially, shaping would require Sarah’s parents to reward her for paying attention for 10 minutes.  The next week, the criteria for reward might increase to 11 minutes, and the next week to 12 minutes.  The criteria would increase over time until Sarah’s attention span has improved to a manageable level.  For hyperactivity, you might try to increase the amount of time that Sarah stays seated.

Sleeping alone in the dark is also a good example.  Jenny is scared of the dark, and her mother often lies down with her at night until she falls asleep.  There are two ways to handle this, both involving shaping.  The first way is to remove mom from the room and reward Jenny for lying in bed by herself, with the light on.  Jenny’s mother would, over time, make the room darker and darker until Jenny is sleeping in the dark by herself.  This would be ideal if Jenny’s room had a dimmer.  The second way is for Jenny’s mother to move closer and closer towards the door and away from the bed.  The first week, Jenny’s mom might sit on the bed instead of lying down, and the next week, she might sit on the floor by the bed.  Eventually, Jenny will be alone in the room sleeping by herself in the dark.

Many young adults have difficulty launching, going out into the world, and successfully moving on to college or a career.  Shaping may be appropriate for this situation if the barrier to moving forward is anxiety.  For example, John’s parents give him an allowance each month for him to pay rent, buy groceries, etc., and John has a hard time leaving his house because of his anxiety in social situations.  He currently leaves his house three times each week.  When using shaping, this young adult might be given homework assignments that gradually build toward helping him to become more independent.  First, John would be rewarded for going out three times a week, then four times a week, until he is leaving his house everyday of the week.  Next he might be rewarded for going to volunteer at an animal shelter or food bank.  The expectations would slowly increase until John is able to work independently at his own job and provide for himself.

Rules for shaping:

  1. Define the target behavior: The behavior you want hasn’t occurred yet.  It is the end goal, so you must decide what behavior is to be “shaped.”  To get to the target behavior, you must have a clear idea of what it is.
  2. Reinforce successive approximations of the target behavior: Shape your child by rewarding him for getting closer and closer to the desired behavior.  Reinforce an approximation several times or until a closer approximation appears, whichever comes first.  If he gets stuck at a particular step, induce variability by withholding reinforcement.  He will try new things to get the reward, and some of the new behavior will be in the direction that you want the behavior to go.  Reward it!  In general, shaping progresses more rapidly when increases in the requirements for reinforcement are small.  Don’t hold out for big advances.
  3. Monitor results:  The only way that you can tell if you are successful at shaping behavior is by noting any changes in behavior.  Are you seeing progress towards the desired behavior?  Is the behavior that occurs now closer to the target behavior than when you started?  Is it time to hold out for a closer approximation?

Please feel free to contact me or the Tarnow Center if you have any questions about creating new behaviors in your child, adolescent, or young adult. We have Child Psychiatrists and Child Psychologists in Houston and Sugar Land.