Applied Behavioral Analysis Techniques: Behavioral Shaping

© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, RDI CC, Floortime C1
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Behavioral shaping, in short, refers to the reinforcement of successive approximations towards a particular desired behavior (called the “ultimate response”).  This is most useful when the child will have difficulty forming an accurate response right away.

A Shaping procedure has a “starting point,” which can be an already established behavior, a chance behavior, or it can be the child’s first response that has any resemblance to the “ultimate response.”  From that point, one builds upon that starting behavior, and reinforces any response which is closer to the goal behavior.  This is called an “approximation.”  From that point on, approximations are what become reinforced.  As the child masters one approximation, we then wait for an even closer approximation before reinforcing.  Therefore, we move in a somewhat stepwise manner towards the ultimate response.

For instance, a scenario might be as follows:

You have determined that a child is [ultimately] capable of learning to share a toy.  At this point, the child screams every time you even touch it.  A shaping process would then involve looking for a starting point – which in this case, allowing you to touch the toy without actually picking it up.   So…

Starting Point

Step 1 =  Allowing someone else to touch his toy – without screaming.

The reinforcer here is taking your hand off the toy or giving it back to him.

Once you have determined that the child has mastered this step (now he doesn’t mind much at all when you simply touch the toy), you figure out the next approximation you can expect, and which can be reinforced.   Depending on the challenge here, this may be a big step, or might be a tiny one.  It is not unusual, especially when you are getting close to the ultimate response, that your steps can become bigger than they were in the beginning.  Steps can always be quite variable from child to child, or with the same child, from situation to situation or step to step.

Emotions are key here.  A tired or stressed out child, or one with an irritable temperament, may require tiny steps – or even a day off.  So, the next steps would be successive approximations towards the ultimate goal of sharing…

Successive Approximations

Step 2 =  [Might be:] Allowing someone else to touch his toy longer – without screaming…or

[Might be:] Allowing someone else to pick up his toy and hold it for a few seconds before giving it back – without screaming.

The reinforcer here is giving it back to him.

Step 3 =  [Might be:]   Allowing someone else to pick up his toy,  play with it for a few seconds,   then give it back.

The reinforcer here is still – giving it back to him.

Perhaps by now, he’s loosening up and might permit larger steps. Therefore…

Step 4 = [Might be:] Permitting multiple turns, as in: Allowing someone else to pick up his toy, play with it for a few seconds, then give it back, then take it again, play with it for a few seconds then give it back.

And so on…

The process goes on until we get close enough to expect the ultimate response.


1.   Tension and mild frustration occurs at each new step.  Therefore, it is important to monitor in an ongoing way the child’s emotional state, in order to avoid overwhelming or unduly frustrating the him or her (dysregulation).  If you make the child too frustrated, a meltdown might occur, and the child may believe that tantrumming is the response you’re looking for.  If you don’t make the child work at all, then old behaviors never change.

2.   Be careful and set reasonable expectations based on a thorough assessment of the child’s actual and developmental abilities. The response should be in the Zone of Proximal Development[1] for the child;

3.   Modification of expectations for the ultimate response, or even for successive approximations is often needed.  This is because it is hard to predict the course of behaviors that have not yet been seen.

[1] The Zone of Proximal Development refers to the next developmental stage up for the child.  This could refer to the skills and behaviors in the child’s next stage of child development (e.g., cognitive; emotional; language, etc.)