Using Shaping to Mold Child Behavior

A mother teaching her child how to write at a table.

Christopher Hope-Fitch/Getty Images

Shaping (also known as successive approximation) is a teaching technique that involves a teacher rewarding a child as she or he successfully improves the acquisition of a target skill.

Shaping is considered an essential process in teaching because behavior cannot be rewarded unless it first occurs. Shaping is intended to lead children in the direction of appropriate complex behavior, and then reward them as they complete each successive step.

Best Practices for Behavior Shaping

First, a teacher needs to identify the student's strengths and weaknesses around a specific skill, and then break the skill into a series of steps that lead a child toward that target. If the targeted skill is being able to write with a pencil, a child might have difficulty holding a pencil. An appropriate assistive step-wise strategy might start with the teacher placing his or her hand over the child's hand, demonstrating to the child the correct pencil grasp. Once the child achieves this step, they are rewarded and the next step is undertaken.

The first step for another student who is uninterested in writing but does like to paint might be providing the student with a paint brush and rewarding the painting of a letter. In each case, you are helping a child approximate the topography of the behavior you want so that you can reinforce that behavior as the child grows and develops.

Shaping may require a teacher to create a task analysis of the skill in order to create a roadmap for shaping the behavior or meeting the final skill goal. In that case, it is also critical for the teacher to model the shaping protocol for classroom para-professionals (teacher's aides) so that they know what approximations are successful and which approximations need to be cleared and retaught. Although this may seem like a painstaking and slow process, the step and reward process deeply embeds the behavior in the student's memory, so that he or she will be likely to repeat it.


Shaping is a technique that arose from behaviorism, a field of psychology established by B.F. Skinner and based on the relationship between behaviors and their reinforcement. Skinner believed that behaviors need to be reinforced by specific preferred items or food, but can be also paired with social reinforcement like praise.

Behaviorism and behavioral theories are the foundations of applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is used successfully with children who fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Although often considered "mechanistic," ABA has the advantage of allowing the therapist, teacher, or parent to take a dispassionate look at the specific behavior, rather than focus on a "moral" aspect of the behavior (as in "Robert should know that it's wrong!").

Shaping is not restricted to teaching techniques with autistic children. Skinner himself used it to teach animals to perform tasks, and marketing professionals have used shaping to establish preferences in a customer's shopping behaviors.


  • Maria used shaping to help Angelica learn to feed herself independently, by helping Angelica use the spoon hand over hand — moving to touch Angelica's wrist until Angelica was finally able to pick up her spoon and eat from her bowl independently.
  • While teaching Robert to use the toilet independently to urinate, his mother, Susan, saw that he had difficulty pulling up his pants. She decided to shape this step in her task analysis by praising and reinforcing his ability to pull his pants up to his knees, then stretching out the elastic waist to finish the step, and then helping Robert by using hand over hand to complete the "pulling up pants" step.
  • One shaping experiment that Skinner conducted was when he and his associates decided to teach a pigeon to bowl. The target task was to get the bird to send a wooden ball down a miniature alley toward a set of toy pins, by swiping the ball with a sideward movement of its beak. The researchers first reinforced any swipe that looked like what they had in mind, then reinforced any that approximated what they wanted, and within a few minutes, they had succeeded.
  • One way modern marketers use shaping is to provide a free sample of a product and include a coupon for the large discount on the purchase price. In the first purchase, the consumer would find a coupon for a smaller discount, and so forth, until the consumer no longer needs the incentives and has established the desired behavior.


Koegel, Robert L. "Assessing and Training Teachers in the Generalized Use of Behavior Modification with Autistic Children," Dennis C. Russo, Arnold Rincover, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Wiley Online Library, 1977.

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.

Rothschild, Michael L. "Behavioral Learning Theory: Its Relevance to Marketing and Promotions." Journal of Marketing, William C. Gaidis, Vol. 45, No. 2, Sage Publications, Inc., JSTOR, Spring 1981.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Using Shaping to Mold Child Behavior." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 25). Using Shaping to Mold Child Behavior. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Using Shaping to Mold Child Behavior." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 27, 2022).