Nicole Gorden, MS, BCBA, LBA-NY
What is shaping?
Shaping is a process used to teach a skill or train a new behavior by gradually reinforcing successive approximations of the target behavior. In other words, it is rewarding steps or portions of an expected response as the child gets closer to the response you want. Thus, behaviors that resemble or are close to the desired behavior are initially reinforced, but as the child emits responses closer to the end behavior, the therapist rewards the closer approximation until the skill is learned.
When do we use shaping?
Shaping is best for behaviors that currently, occur infrequently or not at all, making it difficult to reinforce. It is also a great idea to shape a response when there is a current level of responding that is similar to the desired behavior, but not completely accurate.
What are the steps?
- Determine the target behavior.
- Assess the child’s current level of responding.
- Break down the skill into smaller, attainable goals/steps.
- Prompt, instruct and model expected response/step.
- Place previous responses on extinction and reinforce each approximation until the desired behavior occurs.
Determine the target behavior
Before shaping a new response, you have to know what the final behavior is! So, the target behavior must be defined, so everyone teaching the client, knows the relevant characteristics of the behavior (e.g. – what it looks like/sounds like, how often it should occur etc.).
Assess the child’s current level of responding.
Shaping requires the therapist or parent to meet the child where they are, and gradually teach approximations until the target behavior is achieved. Therefore, any proper shaping procedure starts with assessment. The therapist must determine the child’s current level of responding.
Break down the skill into smaller, attainable goals/steps.
Starting with a behavior they can already perform, at least with assistance, the therapist should break down the skill into smaller steps. If the target behavior is verbal, you may break the skill into sounds, words, or syllables. If the target behavior is a physical response, like putting on a mask, you may break it down in order of steps or increase duration in time gradually.
Prompt, instruct and model expected response/step.
As with any new skill, therapists or guardians should prompt, instruct and model the expected response for each step. When the child performs the current level of the behavior, they should immediately receive reinforcement, even when prompted. When possible, fade prompts until they emit the behavior independently.
Place previous responses on extinction and reinforce each approximation until the desired behavior occurs.
For each level or step, continue to reinforce the current approximations until independence is achieved. Once the next step is emitted a few times, the guardian may stop reinforcing the previous approximation, and only reinforce the new, closer approximations. This step is repeated until the desired behavior is achieved.
Can you give me an example?
For example, Carson’s BCBA and parents want to teach him to request for the ball, his favorite toy. It was determined that the target goal is for Carson to say “ball” to request for the toy.
During the initial observation, it was determined that occasionally, Carson may spontaneously say “ba” and can consistently repeat “ba” when modeled. Thus, the BCBA decided to break the responses into the following steps: “ba”, “ba-awl”, and “ball”.
To start, any time Carson indicated that he wanted the ball, his therapists or parent would model “ba”, and immediately reinforced the response with the ball once he emitted the “ba” sound. After a week, Carson could independently say “ba” to request for the ball! But, in order to shape the response, now, Carson’s guardians will model “ba-awl”. As Carson consistently imitates “ba-awl”, staff will no longer give him the ball when he says just “ba”. Therefore, the “ba” response is placed on extinction, while the new approximation, “ba-awl”, is reinforced with the desired item. This will continue until Carson can independently request for “ball”.
One more thing before you go…
Shaping is an amazing tool to help break down and teach skills in small, attainable goals. However, it is important to move at a pace that allows the learner to access reinforcement often. If you move too quickly, the child may become frustrated and problem behaviors may occur. If you move too slowly, progression will halt.
Let’s shape some behaviors!
Many consider shaping as step-by-step or gradual learning tool which proves to be effective for children with Autism. In order to acquire a new skill, you start by rewarding small changes in that behavior getting closer to the desired outcome. As mentioned in a previous blog post, positive reinforcement is an effective method to reward the current step the child is performing. At the same time, any previously accepted iterations of the behavior, will no longer receive reinforcement, or be placed on extinction.
Nicole Gorden, MS, BCBA, LBA is the Assistant Clinical Supervisor and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Comprehensive Behavior Supports for almost three years now. Nicole has been working in the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) field for over 13 years with individuals, ranging from 1.5 to 25 years old, with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She received her Master’s in Science in ABA at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Nicole specializes in assessment and development of treatment, teaching functional communication to children with emerging verbal skills, and managing intense problem behaviors across multiple settings. Nicole has trained and supervised over 100 direct care staff, including therapists at the Autism Care and Support Initiative, a company in Abuja, Nigeria providing ABA therapy for children with Autism. She is passionate about the dissemination of ABA principles into all aspects of her clients’ lives. Nicole advocates for parents, caregivers, and other providers to be equipped with the proper techniques to teach and generalize skills essential to their child’s growth and independence.
To help families adjust to the changes caused by the pandemic, Nicole formed and managed a parent support group to discuss topics such as providing structure using visual supports, managing problem behaviors, fostering communication at home, and prioritizing self-care. She believes collaboration, consistency, and communication are vital for effective treatment. When she is not working, Nicole enjoys traveling, cooking, exercising, and playing with the newest addition to her household: her dog, Kobe!