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Shaping Behavior Using ABA

Then I decided I would build in a new routine, at the same level of expectation and intensity as pre-covid. I failed.

What I was failing to do was take small, achievable steps to build on successes and grow my new repertoire and workout routine. I took too big a step, could not keep up, felt defeated, and gave up. Anyone else??

This is when I remembered, ABA works. I started small and added one part of a routine into my schedule and built on that success. I was taking successive approximations to meet my end goal.

What Is Shaping?

Shaping is a technique where small steps are used to teach a new skill, instead of jumping to teach a big, new goal. If I want to teach a child independence skills and responsibility like completing chores, I would not start with: make the bed, put the laundry away, tidy up the toys, and bring the dirty dishes to the sink.

By taking successive approximations, I would start with one of the chores on the list: make the bed. Once the child is successful and meets the pre-determined mastery criteria for this skill, I would add another step to their weekly chores: put their dirty clothes in the laundry hamper. And the pattern continues.

Why Do We Use Shaping?

Shaping helps us reach an end goal, whether it is adding a new routine, acquiring a new skill, or improving on an already existing skill.

We build momentum by starting with small steps we can be successful with, boost our confidence, and increase our tolerance for slightly more challenging tasks.

How Do We Use Shaping?

We use differential reinforcement when we implement shaping strategies.

When a child is first learning how to make their bed the initial goal may be to pull and straighten the sheets and comforter, then they gain access to a preferred reinforcer (depending on the child: social praise, special TV time snack, etc.). Once this has met a pre-determined mastery criterion, the next step is added to the expectation: pull the sheets and comforter AND put away pajamas. Now the social praise or special TV time snack is given for successful completion of these two steps and not just the one.

Dimensions Of Behavior

The amazing thing about shaping as a strategy is that it can be used to shape different dimensions of a person’s performance. This makes shaping an incredibly useful teaching tool.

Topography: the way the behaviour looks

This can be used for the athlete or sport-enthusiast – want to improve on your free throw or lay-up? Use shaping to help refine gross motor movements.

Frequency/Rate: number of responses per unit of time

Is the grade-school teacher working on Minute Math worksheets? Use shaping to increase the amount of math equations answered in a minute.

Latency: how quickly someone responds after an instruction

Think about when you ask your child to get ready for school. They take 20 minutes before starting their morning routine leaving them constantly late for class. Shaping can be used to gradually decrease the amount of time between the instruction “get ready for school” and the child engaging in their morning routine.

Duration: how long someone is engaged in an activity

Back in the days of pre-covid fitness, I used to be able to hold a 3+ minute plank. There is no way I started there, but gradually built up how long I was able to hold a plank position by taking successive approximations and going up in 30 second intervals.

Amplitude/Magnitude: the level of intensity used

As a child I thought it was hilarious to hug people so hard their eyes bugged out and they would make funny noises. The level of intensity or force I used when hugging family was too much and needed to be decreased.


Although shaping is a useful teaching method, it does come with limitations. As practitioners it is our responsibility to identify these limitations and consider how this can affect our teaching options, as shaping may not be the best fit for all situations.

It is time consuming.

Progress is not always linear.

Requires constant monitoring of progress.

Shaping can be misused.

Challenging behaviours can be shaped.

Shaping can be paired with Chaining

Watch our YouTube video on Chaining Life Skills

3 thoughts on “Shaping Behavior Using ABA”

  1. Pingback: Behavior Chain in ABA - How to ABA

  2. Hello Shayna and Shira: I am CEO of a 20 yr pre hire assessment company for police called BPAD (Behavioral Personnel Assessment Devices). We use realistic video scenarios in a role play format to screen police candidates (and for promotions). We are looking at using our videos for behavioral training for police officers. While we have a large catalog of the video scenarios, we are looking for a behavioral training framework. Your “video modeling” piece is of particular interest but we also need a coherent A to Z approach. Have you done any work with law enforcement? This is badly needed in the profession and I have a team interested in this as a “start up” endeavor.
    How could we connect on this?

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