Shaping - A Teaching Technique That Moves Students to Mastery

A token chart is a tool for shaping. websterlearning


Shaping, is a teaching technique by which a child is rewarded for successful approximation of a target skill. 

First, a teacher needs to identify the students strengths and weaknesses around that specific skill.  If the child has difficulty holding a pencil, once an appropriate assistive strategy is chosen, the teacher may start with hand over hand, holding the child with the correct pencil grasp.

 If a student likes to paint, you might start teaching writing a letter by providing the student with a paint brush.  In each case, you are helping a child approximate the topography of the behavior you want so you can reinforce it. 

A teacher might chose to create a task analysis of the skill in order to create a road map for shaping the behavior, or meeting the final skill goal.  It is also critical for the teacher to model the shaping protocol classroom paraprofessionals so 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, it deeply embeds the behavior in the students memory, so that he/she will be likely to repeat it. 

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

 Behaviorism and behavioral theory are the foundations of ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, which is used successfully with children on the Autistic Spectrum.  Although often considered "mechanistic," ABA has the advantage of making the therapist/teacher/parent 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!")

Also Known As: Successive approximation


  • Maria used shaping to help Angelica learn to feed herself independently, starting by helping Angelica use the spoon hand over hand, moving to touching 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, Susan sees that he has difficulty pulling up his pants.  She has decided to shape this step in her task analysis by praising and reinforcing pulling the pants to his knees, then she modeled stretching out the elastic waist to finish the step, moving next to helping Robert by using hand over hand to complete the "pulling up pants" step.  
  • Angela is struggling with fine motor skills, including cutting.  Her teacher, Karl, has found that a looped scissor works the best for her hand strength.   Rather than giving Angela the same cutting activities as her classmates, Karl has Angela