Clinicians at our practice are often asked how one can support children and adolescents in learning new behaviors. These behaviors may be complex actions involving multiple steps – like making your bed. Alternatively, the target behavior may be challenging, anxiety inducing actions that simply feel out of reach to the child – like making a group presentation. Regardless, our recommended approach to learn and practice new behavior remains the same: shaping.
Shaping is a training procedure used to establish a behavior that is not presently performed by an individual. It was first introduced by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in the 1950’s and involves reinforcing small steps or ‘successive approximations’ towards the target behavior. Many people may associate shaping with animal training (e.g., teaching your dog new tricks); however, it is an excellent tool to strengthen and nourish independence in youth.
When it comes to shaping new behaviors, I prefer to treat the task like a recipe by breaking down the behavior into a series of small, simple steps. Using the example of making your bed in the morning, we might break it down into the following steps:
- Placing pillows at the top of the bed
- Pulling flat sheet up
- Pulling blanket up
- Adding any stylistic or finishing touches (e.g., adding decorative pillows, stuffed animals, throw blanket)
Once the task is broken down, it is a matter of repetitive practice of each step – with or without adult support – until the child requires less adult assistance and/or displays decreased discomfort. Returning to the above example, a young child might first need hand over hand support to place pillows at the top of the bed. After a few instances of this, they may simply need a verbal (e.g., Please place the pillows at the top of the bed) or nonverbal prompt (i.e., pointing to pillows) from their caregiver. While working their way towards independence in step 1, their caregiver will complete the remaining steps. Once step 1 is acquired, the child moves on to practicing step 1 and step 2, and so on. Every time the child is able to successfully attempt or complete a step, they should be recognized with positive attention (e.g., verbal praise, high five, a big smile) or an incentive (e.g., treat, stickers, privilege).
Below I have provided various examples of how to shape complex or anxiety inducing behaviors that we use with families and schools on a daily basis. Hopefully these are helpful in inspiring ways one can foster independence in your child or student. Keep in mind that your individual steps may vary based on your family customs or school procedures. That is to be expected! Tailor and customize these to your family’s or classroom’s needs.
Arriving to the classroom in the morning (young kiddos)
|Steps||Tips for Teachers|
|1 – Removing backpack
2 – Removing jacket
|Some students might need steps to be further broken down
Ways to reinforce:
|3 – Putting jacket into cubby|
|4 – Removing lunchbox from backpack|
|5 – Putting lunchbox in preferred location|
|6 – Putting backpack into cubby|
|7 – Going to your seat|
|Steps||Tips for Teachers|
|1 – Wrist on desk with thumbs up
2 – Wrist on desk with open palm
|Ways to reinforce:
|3 – Palm on desk while wiggling fingers|
|4 – Hand held just off the desk
5 – Hand held at shoulder height
|6 – Hand held at head height|
|7 – Hand held above head|
(e.g., Show n Tell)
|Steps to increase verbalizations|
|Older Kids & Teens||Steps to increase verbalizations|
|Children & Teens||Recommended steps for rehearsal|