Shaping is the use of reinforcement of successive approximations of a desired behavior. Specifically, when using a shaping technique, each approximate desired behavior that is demonstrated is reinforced, while behaviors that are not approximations of the desired behavior are not reinforced.


Credits: Tri-State ASD Collaborative

How To Use

Shaping starts with a task analysis in which a desired behavior is broken down into smaller and more manageable steps that would move the child successively closer to that desired behavior. For example, if the desired behavior is to play independently for 10 minutes with two or fewer prompts, a step analysis may break the desired behavior down into the following approximations:

  1. Play for 2 minutes with two or fewer prompts
  2. Play for 4 minutes with two or fewer prompts
  3. Play for 6 minutes with two or fewer prompts
  4. Play for 8 minutes with two or fewer prompts
  5. Play for 10 minutes with two or fewer prompts.

Once the small approximations of the desired behavior are clearly identified, one must select the reinforcement to be used and make sure that everyone working with the student knows which behavior, when, and how to reinforce the approximations. Data on the behavior should be collected and reviewed by the team. The program must continue until the child demonstrates the desired behavior.

When To Use

Shaping behavior is an aspect of behavior analysis that gradually teaches new behavior through the use of reinforcement until the target behavior is achieved. 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, 2001).



Ms. Brown, 10-year-old Jason’s general education teacher, and Ms. Henderson, Jason’s resource room teacher, targeted sitting in his seat during lectures as a desired behavior for Jason during social studies and reading in general and special education settings, respectively. Ms. Henderson suggested a shaping technique to teach seated behavior after she had determined that Jason was remaining in his seat a mean of 2 minutes during social studies.

They analyzed approximations of the target behavior and planned to reinforce those behaviors as follows:

Reinforcing when Jason sits in his seat for a 3 minutes

Reinforcing when Jason sits in his seat for 5 minutes

Reinforcing when Jason sits in his seat for 10 minutes

Reinforcing when Jason sits in his seat for 15 minutes

Reinforcing when Jason sits in his seat for 20 minutes (the targeted time)

Both Ms. Brown and Ms. Henderson differentially reinforced Jason’s sitting behavior in their classrooms based on their criterion of approximations for each phase. After six weeks, Jason acquired sitting behavior in class.


Shaping is a systematic process of reinforcing successive approximations to a target behavior. The technique is used when students need to learn new behavior. A teacher identifies the student’s behavior and provides reinforcement only for closer approximations toward the desired behavior, which is a terminal behavior of the shaping process. Shaping is especially useful when the desired behavior is difficult to learn by instruction, imitation, and verbal or physical cues.


Target: Texas Autism Resource Guide for Effective Teaching
TSLAT. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2016, from 

National Professional Development Center on ASD

Autism PDC. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2016, from