Shaping Behaviour

Last Updated: 17 Mar 2023
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Shaping behavior is an aspect of behavior analysis that gradually teaches new behavior through the use of reinforcement until the target behavior is achieved (Wolfgang 272). In order for shaping to be successful, it is important to clearly define the behavioral objective and the target behavior. Also, in order to gradually achieve the target behavior, a teacher must know when to deliver or withhold reinforcement (Wolfgang 37). Many behaviors are taught by shaping, and it is used in many different settings.

For example, parents use shaping when they praise a young child profusely the first time he dresses himself, even if he has made a few mistakes. Later, they will only complement the child if he has dressed himself perfectly (Alberto and Troutman, 2003). B. F. Skinner was an important theorist for the behavior analysis model of discipline. His findings about how voluntary actions are affected by what happens immediately after a given act is performed has earned him respect as perhaps the greatest behavioral psychologist of all time.

Skinner never concerned himself with classroom discipline but instead dealt with human behavior; it was his followers that saw the applicability of his findings and used Skinner’s principal teachings to devise the procedure of behavior modification using Skinner’s procedure of shaping student behavior intentionally through reinforcement. To increase a student’s behavior, a positive reinforcer is used immediately after the behavior is presented, the premise being that if the child does something and is rewarded, then they are more likely to repeat the act.

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Any of the following could be used:

  • edible reinforcers (foods and liquids),
  • sensory reinforcers (exposure to a controlled visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or kinesthetic experience),
  • tangible reinforcers (certificates, stickers, etc. ),
  • privilege reinforcers (being first in line, holding the teacher’s book while she reads, etc. ),
  • activity reinforcers (play, special projects),
  • generalized reinforcers (tokens, points, credits, etc. ),
  • social reinforcers (expressions, feedback, seating arrangements, etc.)

Constant reinforcement must be used to help new behaviors (learnings) become established. Successive approximation, referring to a behavior-shaping progression in which behavior comes closer and closer to a preset goal, is used as skills are being built; students are rewarded for improvement. To maintain the desired behavior once it is established, an intermittent reinforcer, one that is used only occasionally, should be sufficient to use. To decrease a student’s misbehavior, an aversive stimulus after the misbehavior occurs must be presented.

Punishment often has negative effects in any behavior modification so it is important that guidelines be established so aversion is not seen as punishment. Skinner believed “punishment could not extinguish inappropriate behavior". A continuum consisting of five steps moving from the use of minimally to maximally intrusive procedures is recommended.

The first step is “extinction" - behaviors that are not reinforced will soon disappear. Extinction is the stopping of positive reinforcers that have been maintaining an inappropriate behavior.

The second step is “differential reinforcement"– reinforcing certain behaviors selectively. This step can utilize three techniques:

  1. reinforcing decreased rates of the misbehavior,
  2. reinforcing the omission of the misbehavior
  3.  reinforcing incompatible and alternate behaviors.

The third step would then be “response-cost procedure", that is, the removal of a desirable stimuli. In order for this step to be applied, the student must have within his possession certain tangible items that he treasures and that serve as reinforcers for him.

The fourth step is “time out". Time-outs are aversions that deny a student a reinforcement for a fixed period of time. The removal of stimuli is actually a time out from positive reinforcement. Four categories of time out can be used, going from minimum to maximum degrees of aversion. A ‘nonseclusionary time out’ is used to deal with a minor disturbance; the student is not removed from the classroom. The student is removed to the edge of the activity in a ‘contingent observation time out’. The student is able to observe others being reinforced.

The next category would be an ‘exclusionary time out’:

this involves removal of the student from the activity but does not deny access to the classroom. The fourth category would be a ‘seclusionary time out’ in which the student is completely removed from the classroom. Important in this final step would be a calm manner of return to the classroom with no extended conversation; this helps to eliminate the possibility of the student misbehaving in order to get into a conversation with the teacher. The fifth step in the continuum is “aversive stimuli".

There are three types of aversive stimuli:

‘overcorrecting’ in which a behavioral procedure called positive-practice overcorrecting is used to teach the student how to perform correct behavior through an element of aversion; ‘negative practice-stimuli satiation’ in which there is no intent to teach a new behavior but rather to have the student repeat the inappropriate behavior over and over until the behavior becomes tiresome and the student becomes satiated; and ‘sensory insult’ in which extreme strategies are used to get the child to stop the misbehavior.

Sensory insult should be used as a last resort and must be prefaced with a meeting of teachers, administrators, and parents. The definition given of shaping summarizes it completely: “Shaping is a technique by which a student is reinforced for exhibiting closer and closer approximations to desired behavior. It is useful in teaching new desired behavior and is a natural way of encouraging the student to increase the prevalence of desired behavior" Shaping is most effective for increasing positive behavior.

The first step, after defining the behavioral objective, is to assess the present level of the student’s skills. Next, set goals and break the goals into steps. As each step is achieved, the behavior is “shaped". Positive reinforcement is used for each step toward the desired behavior. This comes in the form of praise and recognition (note the absence of tangible/edible reinforcers! ). The biggest advantage of shaping is that it “focuses your attention and the student’s attention on positive behavior. It recognizes progress and helps the student feel good about himself.

It creates the opportunity for positive interaction between the student and the teacher. The shaping link lists five key steps on “How to Use Shaping" :

  1. Identify a desired behavior for this student. Determine the final goal.
  2. Identify the student's present level of performance in displaying the desired behavior.
  3. List the steps that will eventually take the student from his/her present level of performance to the final desired behavior. These levels of skill should be progressively more demanding.
  4. Tell the student that s/he must accomplish step 1 to receive the reward.

Once the student has mastered a specified behavior, require that s/he demonstrate the next stage of behavior in order to receive a reward.

Goal of shaping behavior

Shaping behavior is the aspect of behavior analysis that is the “teaching of behaviors that are not in the student’s existing repertoire". It involves clearly defining a behavioral objective with a target behavior, delivering or withholding reinforcement at the appropriate time, and thus, being able to shape the student into “gradual successive approximations of the target behavior"

Related Questions

on Shaping Behaviour

What Is An Example Of Shaping In Psychology?
An example of shaping in psychology is teaching a dog to perform a complex trick by gradually rewarding them for completing smaller steps towards the final behavior. Shaping is a technique used to gradually shape and reinforce desired behaviors through positive reinforcement.
What Is Behavioral Shaping?
Behavioral shaping is the process of gradually modifying or shaping behavior by reinforcing small steps towards a desired behavior. It involves using positive reinforcement to encourage the repetition of desired behaviors until they become a habit.
Why Is Shaping A New Behavior Important ?
Shaping a new behavior is important because it allows individuals to develop new habits and skills that can improve their quality of life. By gradually reinforcing small steps towards a desired behavior, individuals can overcome obstacles and achieve long-term success.
What Is Shaping In Psychology ?
Shaping in psychology is a conditioning technique that involves reinforcing behaviors that are successively closer to the desired behavior. It involves breaking down complex behaviors into smaller, more manageable steps to facilitate learning and behavior change.

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Shaping Behaviour. (2018, Sep 25). Retrieved from

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