W6- Breaking down and Shaping Tasks


First, what is shaping you might ask? Shaping is an invaluable technique used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) to reinforce small steps that eventually lead to the desired skills such as verbal skills, imitation, and independent play. It is especially helpful for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Shaping breaks down tasks into smaller pieces that are easier for the child to manage and master the skills.

Shaping allows parents to celebrate small steps and through these positive approaches to change behavior. Even though the process of learning a skill will be typically slower with shaping technique. However, for many children, it has been quite successful.

There are a few steps when practicing shaping:

  • Identify a task you want the child to learn.
  • Select something the child enjoys playing with, eating, or providing attention.
  • Breaking the task down into small steps.
  • Once the child performs the small step, make sure to provide the reinforcer and special praise (behavior-specific praise)
  • After a couple times of successes, increase requirements gradually. In other words, adding the next small step.

Let us apply those steps with an example of sitting at the dinner table for 10 minutes.

  • You would like the child to sit at the dinner table for 10 minutes. (identify a task)
  • The child really likes goldfish crackers, so you decide to use it as a reinforcer. (select a reinforcer)
  • You know sitting at the table for 10 minutes is way too difficult for your child. You decide you would start with 30 seconds. (breaking down the task)
  • After you see your child sitting at the dinner table for 30 seconds you immediately provide a goldfish cracker and say “Mei, you did a great job sitting at the table” with a gentle pat on the shoulder. (provide selected reinforcer and behavior-specific praise)
  • Now the child can sit at the dinner table for 30 seconds a couple times. You decide to make it one minute next time. (increase the small requirement)

Parents might ask “what if the child does not do the very first step?” A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) will tell you to make the first step even easier and smaller. Also, you can always help the child when the first step is too difficult.

For more ABA related topics and parenting skills in the coming weeks, check out our blog and Facebook page. For more resources on ABA, click here.

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