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How to Use Shaping Procedures in ABA


Shaping procedures in ABA are used to teach children new skills in small increments one step at a time. But what are the best ways to implement shaping and how can we use it to benefit our learners?

I was recently with a young client who didn’t have any real communication system, but was making a lot of great sounds. We decided that we could use shaping to increase her vocalizations and ultimately her communication.

We made a plan to teach this client turn on her voice and make any sounds in response to something she wanted. If she wanted us to continue singing or if she wanted her favorite toy, all she had to do was turn on her voice. Once she was able to do that fairly consistently, we recorded the sounds that we heard regularly. From there we shaped and differentially reinforced any sounds she made that were closer to words that we wanted to teach her.

While the big goal was her saying words, we started by reinforcing the smallest approximation which, at first, was just her turning on her voice. Then eventually we were able to shape that into closer and closer approximations of the words that we wanted her to learn.

How to Teach Shaping Procedures ABA

What is Shaping in ABA?

What is the definition of shaping? It’s the use of systematic, differential reinforcement of successive approximations to a desired behavior. What that means is that shaping is a technique where a series of small steps are used to teach a new skill instead of teaching the larger goal all at once.

Think about some of the long-term goals that we have for our students. For example, printing their own name. Instead of teaching the end goal of printing their entire name at once, we can develop a smaller approximation of that goal. That might be tracing their name, or even just making hash marks on a page. Then our learner(s) can access reinforcement for that small approximation. Once they can trace their name, then we’ll fade the reinforcement for tracing. Instead we will  reinforce the skill of copying their name. So, in more technical terms, in the second step, we’re putting the easier skill on extinction and reinforcing the slightly harder skill.

When our student(s) can successfully copy their name from a model, then we are ready to teach them to print their name independently. The copying is put on extinction and independent printing is reinforced. Think of it like a dance. Cha-cha-ing back and forth between what we’re prompting and what we’re reinforcing.  Tango-ing between where we are fading prompts and where we are fading reinforcement.  All of this in order to slowly shape closer and closer approximations to the larger goal that we eventually want to see.

Some children may need additional prompting to learn those smaller approximations. Download our free list of prompt hierarchy definitions below to decide which prompts are right for your learners!

When to Use Shaping in ABA

Shaping helps us reach that end goal. If we look at a mountain and know that we’ve got to get to the top, it can be really, really daunting. Instead, we can take it one step at a time and use systematic approximations to climb the hill.  Before we know it, we’re half-way there, and then we’ve only got a few more steps to go…

Think about a child who’s learning to walk. We don’t wait for a six-month-old to walk before cheering them on.  We cheer for them when they can roll over, then when they can sit up by themselves, and then when they can crawl. Essentially, we are reinforcing approximations of the skill of walking. Eventually, when they get closer and closer to walking, we stop cheering when they crawl and only cheer when they take a step forward.  Shaping is really something we do naturally in our life. We encourage closer and closer approximations of the goals that we want to get to. 

Implementing Shaping Procedures in ABA

So our ABA goals are lofty.  They should be. Break those goals down and continue to accomplish smaller steps toward those goals. By building that momentum, we boost confidence in our learners as well as increase tolerance for just slightly more challenging tasks. 

We can apply this to anything. Think about teaching independence with routines. Start by reinforcing every step along the way and then fade that systematically. Shaping works for academic skills, task analyses, toilet training, and more. We are constantly using shaping. It is such a valuable resource for us to use intentionally.  Think about the smallest skill that our students can be successful with and building from there.


In summary, we talked about how to use shaping procedures in ABA. We defined what shaping is, how valuable it is as a tool in our toolbox, and how to use it with your learners.

Don’t forget to download our free prompt hierarchy definitions to help you implement shaping with your learners!

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