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.
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In Week 3, we discussed the topic of behavior-specific praise. This week we are going to incorporate the strategy with the new technique: praising the alternative behavior. Sometimes, parents want to simply change or get rid of behaviors that the child engages in. For example, arguing with siblings constantly, throwing a temper tantrum when told no, or not following instructions. When thinking of trying to stop a behavior, naturally we are more inclined to punish it. However, a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) will tell you to praise or reinforce alternative behavior instead.
Praising the alternative behavior is not as easy as it might sound. Simply recall the last time you praise your child when she was sitting quietly watching TV or playing nicely with siblings. You might ignore this until you are hearing them arguing then you might be inclined to yell at your child or even tell them to stop doing that. A phenomenon called negativity bias in which we have this natural instinct that forces us to notice more what is wrong in our environment because it has survival values. It makes noticing appropriate behaviors even more challenging.
To apply the technique of praising alternative behavior:
- caregivers will need to find the behavior that they do not want first.
- Next, find the positive behavior that can replace the behavior or identify what the opposite of the problem behavior is.
- Now, it is time to catch the child in the “act” or being good.
- As the child displays the positive behavior the caregivers want, behavior-specific praise will be provided.
For example, if you are trying to get rid of the behavior of the child arguing with the siblings (selecting the behavior you want to change). You would find times that the child is playing with siblings nicely ( the opposite of the problem behavior) and you could say “ Josh, it is so wonderful to see that you are playing with your sister so nicely” and give the child a gentle hug (delivering behavior-specific praise).
You might think why not just go ahead and punish the behavior? In applied behavior analysis (ABA), Punishment is always the last resort. Also, in this case, if you use punishment procedures, you only stop the problem behavior by using reprimands and not teaching the child what to do instead. Applying the technique of praising the alternative behavior will help the child to know what to do instead and by reinforcing the positive behavior, you will see more of it in the future.
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Last week, we reviewed the difference between positive reinforcement and bribery. This week we are going to discuss how to effectively praise your child. How do we define praise? Praise is when you express approval for an action your child does. This can include saying “great!” “good job” “excellent!” Anytime you say these words and other positive words, you might notice your child feels better and valued. We all liked to be praised by others; it makes us feel good!
You might be asking yourself, what is new? I know how to praise my child. Behavior certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) often recommend parents, teachers, and staff to use frequent behavior-specific praise. Behavior-specific praise involves four essential steps:
- First, you will need to define or select the specific behavior the child is doing appropriately.
- Second, you need to praise with excitement.
- Third, you state the exact behavior that the child did.
- Last, you can provide a non-verbal action (high-fives, hug, a gentle pat on the shoulder) your child.
Behavior-specific praise is effective in changing your child’s actions, which may include, completing everyday tasks (self-care skills, chores, homework). Behavior-specific praise is especially beneficial for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Behavior-specific praise is a powerful strategy to help your child to make the connections of what they did and your encouraging and affirming comments.
For example, say your child set the dinner table as soon as the parent asked.
To follow our steps:
- You select a behavior: setting the table.
- Second, you might say enthusiastically “Dave, great job!” maybe with hand gestures. (praise with excitement)
- Third, you would finish the praise statement with “you set the dinner table just like I asked.” (stating the behavior).
- finally, you can pat your child on the shoulder gently. (providing a non-verbal action)
When using behavior-specific praise, remember your praise should follow the selected behavior immediately and quickly. For example, if you stated “Sally, great job helping me with wiping down the table last week.” Also, if the task is very difficult for the child, try to start with acknowledging and praising small steps that lead to the behavior that you would like to see. Such as praising the child for picking up the socks on the bedroom floor as cleaning the entire room might be too difficult for now.
Behavior-specific praise is one of the tools that we use in applied behavior analysis (ABA) when our goals are to increase appropriate behaviors. We will get to know other useful tools based on the principles of ABA in the coming weeks.
Next week, we will meet with our awesome student clinicians working in the Husky ABA clinic. See you on Friday! As always, like us on Facebook for the newest clinic updates and weekly blog posts.