dad teaches son how to tie shoes

Shaping Psychology

As a parent, it is probably fair to say that you would choose your child’s more favorable behaviors over temper tantrums any day. We all harbor the hope that our children will develop into thoughtful, compassionate, and well-behaved people. Unfortunately, though, children are not born with the knowledge of what is typically considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior. So, the chances of finding them tidying their toys away without ever having done so before are as likely as them spontaneously learning to levitate.

However, there is hope. If you have ever seen a dog lie down for a treat, or circus animals perform tricks, then you have seen how even an animal can learn a behavior. The key to getting animals to engage in these learned behaviors is through a technique known as shaping and this method can also be used to teach a new skill to a child in a step-by-step process. Often initially modeled by their primary caregiver, shaping eventually leads to the mastery of a skill and even more complicated tasks.

How does shaping work?

Shaping originally arose from a field of psychology known as behaviorism; established by B.F. Skinner through his operant conditioning theory was based on the relationship between reinforcement and behaviors. Skinner proposed that a reinforcer is a consequence that increases the likelihood of the desired behavior reoccurring, and punishment decreases the chance of reoccurrence. Furthermore, in a similar vein as positive behaviors are reinforced, so too can negative behaviors be reduced or eliminated through shaping.

Reinforcers come in different forms; positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is reinforced by rewards and negative reinforcement occurs when something is subtracted or taken away. For example; if a child responds well to praise, then it can be used as positive reinforcement for exhibiting the desired behavior, such as tidying away their toys.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus, such as if a child gets put into a time-out for hitting another child in a nursery setting. If the time-out is removed for playing nicely instead, the removal of the negative stimulus results in a positive outcome for the child (no time-out).

The punishment of undesirable behaviour is an alternative method of shaping; if a child gets spanked for throwing a tantrum, then they are less likely to do it again. This is positive punishment because it is the addition of a consequence as a response to the behavior.

Negative punishment is the removal of favorable consequences for undesirable behavior. For example; if the child throws a tantrum and they are no longer allowed the bar of chocolate that they wanted. The punishment is ‘negative’ due to the removal of a consequence.

Whereas reinforcement and punishment do work independently, they work more efficiently in combination as part of a behavior plan. In general, positive reinforcement is viewed as the preferred choice. Punishment may only be effective if it is used as part of a prearranged behavior modification plan, where the child is aware of the consequences of their behavior beforehand.

Successive approximations

Shaping can also be defined as the process of reinforcement of steps of desirable behaviors which are getting closer to the target behavior. This process is essential to shaping, as we have established that a child is not likely to display a target behavior spontaneously. However, through reinforcing actions that are growing closer to the desired behavior, the target is achieved through repetition and reinforcement.

This step-by-step process is known as successive approximations, and it can be achieved through a variety of means. Modeling a new behavior to a child is a successful method of establishing the initial step. For example, when a child is learning how to feed themselves, the parent may start the process by using the hand-over-hand technique, eventually moving their hand to their child’s wrist, eventually facilitating them to feed themselves.

Differential reinforcement

In contrast to successive approximations, which encourage the learning of new behavior, differential reinforcement is a form of selective reinforcement of one form of behavior that is becoming lost among others. The desired action is therefore already occurring and requires shaping to make it stand out in contrast to less desirable behaviors.

Differential reinforcement is typically applied to a group of behaviors labeled as a response class. This category of behavior is reinforced while the other class of undesirable behaviors is discouraged. An example of differential reinforcement in operation would be with children in a nursery environment; the concept of cooperative play and its conforming behaviors are reinforced, while any fighting behaviors are either ignored or punished.

Applying shaping

When beginning the process of shaping behavior, it may be helpful to establish a behavior modification plan. The following steps are a guideline on how to apply shaping to a child’s behavior:

  • Clarify the current (entering) behavior and the desired (target) behavior. Make sure that the desired behavior is realistic for the child’s age range and ability.
  • The next stage is to establish steps for the desired behavior. Be recursive, as a step may often prove to be too large for a child to manage and may require being broken down into smaller, simpler, steps.
  • Reinforce any exhibited behavior that is close to the desired, target behavior. Make sure that you are being verbally specific with the child about what they are being rewarded for, for example, instead of saying “good job”, say “good job tidying away your toys.”
  • When employing differential reinforcement because the target behavior is lost amongst other behaviors, selectively praise the desired behavior and ignore the others.
  • Subsequently, reinforce the next step in behavior that is closer to the target behavior (this will mean no longer reinforcing the previous behavior).
  • Continue to reinforce each step, or successive approximation, until the desired behavior is achieved. Once the target behavior is achieved, only reinforce this response.

An example of this process would be the stages of toilet training. The desired behavior can be achieved through praise of the child indicating that they need to go to the toilet, praising them for being able to pull down their own pants, and eventually using the toilet by themselves.

The efficacy of shaping

Shaping is an effective method of behavior therapy that can achieve long-lasting, desirable results if the application is consistent, even after the behavior plan has ceased. Shaping provides support, guidance, and direction for both establishing a behavior and for a behavior change program. For this reason, it allows for the assessment of its effectiveness for a child, and if it is initially proving to be unsuccessful, it can be modified to suit the child’s needs.

There are often parental frustrations in regard to the success of a shaping plan. Frequently, a lack of results is the product of a plan which focuses more on the punishment of bad behavior instead of positive reinforcement of the desired behavior. Research has shown that a successful, balanced behavior modification plan focuses attention more on the reward of good behavior instead of solely punishing undesirable actions. If the decision to use punishment as a reinforcer is made, then it should be a specific punishment in adjunct with a target aberrant behavior. It should be noted that research has shown that a combination of cognitive and behavioral strategies tends to have the most impact on behavior, as attitudes and behavior are intrinsically linked. Therefore, if shaping is not working, it may be useful to use a combined approach to target both thoughts and behaviors.


1. Peterson, Gail B. “A Day of Great Illumination: B. F. Skinner’s Discovery of Shaping.” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 10.1901/jeab.2004.82-317, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, November 2004, Bethesda, MD.

2. Skinner, B., F. (1975). The Shaping Of Phylogenic Behaviour, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour. 24 (1)

3. Wolf, M. R. T., Mees, H. (1963). Application of operant conditioning procedures to the behaviour problems of an autistic child. 1(2-4).

4. Hobart, M. O., (1960). Learning theory and behavior. John Wiley & Sons Inc.

5. Ullman, S. Shaping by Successive Approximations for the Desired Behavior

6. Kazdin, A. E. (1981). Acceptibility of child treatment techniques: the influence of treatment efficacy and adverse side effects. Behaviour Therapy, 12 (4).

7. Chaiklin, H. (2011) Attitudes, Behavior, and Social PracticeThe Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 38 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. 

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