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What is Shaping (Psychology)

All parents hope their children will develop into thoughtful, compassionate, respectful, and well-behaved people.

However, children are not born with the knowledge of manners or appropriate human behavior. Fortunately, there is a solution – shaping (in psychology), which can aid us in molding our children’s conduct.

You’re probably already familiar with the concept of shaping if you’ve ever witnessed a dog performing tricks for a treat or circus animals following commands.

Shaping involves breaking down a new behavior into a series of steps, and gradually guiding the subject toward the desired outcome.

Through shaping, children can learn new skills and positive behavior incrementally, often with their primary caregiver serving as the initial model.

With patience and practice, even complex behaviors can be mastered using the shaping technique.

A young girl covering her face being consoled by a woman.

What Is Shaping Psychology?

Shaping is a procedure in which reinforcers are applied in small steps on a subject to get the subject progressively closer and closer to exhibiting a targeted behavior. This conditioning procedure teaches subjects how to perform complex tasks.

It originally arose from a field of psychology known as behaviorism, established by B.F. Skinner, through his operant conditioning theory.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a process of learning where operant behavior is influenced by its consequences. In other words, an individual learns to associate certain actions with either positive or negative outcomes.

Skinner believed that human learning could take place through reward and punishment. The use of reinforcement increases the likelihood of desired behaviors reoccurring, and the use of punishment decreases the chance of the operant responses reoccurring​1​.

Positive reinforcement occurs when rewards reinforce a behavior, and negative reinforcement occurs when aversive stimulus is subtracted or taken away to encourage the behavior​2​.

Here is an example of the use of positive reinforcement. If a child receives praise for cleaning up their toys, they are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. The encouraging words are the positive reinforcer in this case.

One example of negative reinforcement is taking away a chore when the child demonstrates good behavior or achieves a desired goal. If a child has been avoiding doing their homework, a parent might say, “If you finish your homework within the next hour, you can skip cleaning the dinner table tonight.” The removal of the chore acts as a negative reinforcer, increasing the likelihood that the child will complete their homework in a timely manner. 

The punishment of undesirable behavior is an alternative method of shaping. Punishment is used to discourage unwanted behavior.

An example of positive punishment is giving a child a time-out when they misbehave or break a rule. Adding an aversive consequence to undesirable behavior will discourage it from happening again.

Negative punishment is the removal of desirable stimulus for undesired behavior​3​.

For example, if a child doesn’t complete his homework, their iPad is taken away to discourage homework skipping.

Successive Approximations

One of the behavioral techniques used to shape children’s acceptable behavior is differential reinforcement of successive approximations.

Using reinforcement, a shaping sequence of smaller steps are learned, each specific response moving the child to closer approximations of the final behavior.

Successive approximations are essential to shaping, as a child is not likely to display a specific learned behavior spontaneously. Through repeated reinforcment, the child takes baby steps toward the final goal.

For example, when a child is learning how to feed themselves, the parent may start the process by using the hand-over-hand technique, eventually moving their hand to their child’s wrist, facilitating them to feed themselves.

Differential reinforcement

Differential reinforcement is a form of selective reinforcement of one form of behavior over others. The desired action is reinforced while the undesired ones are discouraged.

An example of differential reinforcement in operation would be with children in a nursery environment; cooperative play and desirable behaviors are reinforced, while fighting behaviors are either punished or ignored.

When differential reinforcement is applied to successive approximations, the child is reinforced for performing an approximation of the desirable respsonse in successive trials and getting increaseingly closer to the target behavior.

How To Apply Shaping Psychology

The process of shaping involves the following steps:

  • Clarify the current (entering) behavior and the desired (target) behavior. Make sure that the desired behavior is realistic for the child’s age range and ability.
  • The next stage is to establish steps to the desired behavior. Be recursive, as a step may often prove to be too large for a child to manage and may require being broken down into smaller, simpler, steps.
  • Reinforce any exhibited behavior that is close to the desired, target behavior. Make sure that you are being verbally specific with the child about what they are being rewarded for, for example, instead of saying good job, say “good job tidying away your toys.”
  • When employing differential reinforcement because the target behavior is lost amongst other behaviors, selectively praise the correct response and ignore the others.
  • Subsequently, reinforce the next step in behavior that is closer to the target behavior (this will mean no longer reinforcing the previous behavior).
  • Continue to reinforce each step, or successive approximation, until the desired response is achieved. Once the target behavior is achieved, only reinforce this final response.

Shaping Psychology Examples

Toilet training

Toilet training in toddlers can be achieved through praise of the child indicating that they need to go to the toilet, to praising them for being able to pull down their own pants, and eventually using the toilet by themselves.

Teeth brushing

The first step is to reinforce the child for holding the toothbrush. Once the child has consistently demonstrated this behavior, the reinforcement is shifted to occur only when the child puts the toothbrush in their mouth. The next step might be to reinforce the child for mimicking the brushing motion, and so on, until the child is brushing their teeth independently.

How Effective Is Shaping

Shaping is important because it is an effective method in behavior therapy. It can achieve long-lasting, desirable results if the application is consistent, even after the behavior plan has ceased.

Shaping provides support, guidance, and direction for both establishing a behavior and for a behavior change program.

For this reason, it allows for the assessment of its effectiveness for a child, and if it is initially proving to be unsuccessful, it can be modified to suit the child’s needs​4​.

There are often parental frustrations in regards to the success of a shaping plan. Frequently, a lack of results is the product of a plan which focuses more on the punishment of bad behavior instead of reinforcement of the desired behavior.

Research has shown that a successful, balanced behavior modification plan focuses attention more on the rewarding of good behavior instead of solely punishing undesirable actions​5​.

If the decision to use punishment as a reinforcer is made, then it should be a specific punishment in adjunct with a target aberrant behavior. It should be noted that research has shown that a combination of cognitive and behavioral strategies tends to have the most impact on behavior, as attitudes and behavior are intrinsically linked.

Therefore, if shaping is not working, it may be useful to use a combined approach to target both thoughts and behaviors.


  1. 1.
    Peterson GB. A DAY OF GREAT ILLUMINATION: B. F. SKINNER’S DISCOVERY OF SHAPING. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Published online November 2004:317-328. doi:10.1901/jeab.2004.82-317
  2. 2.
    Skinner BF. THE SHAPING OF PHYLOGENIC BEHAVIOR. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Published online July 1975:117-120. doi:10.1901/jeab.1975.24-117
  3. 3.
    Mowrer OH. Learning Theory and Behavior. John Wiley & Sons Inc; 1960. doi:10.1037/10802-000
  4. 4.
    Kazdin AE. Acceptability of child treatment techniques: The influence of treatment efficacy and adverse side effects. Behavior Therapy. Published online September 1981:493-506. doi:10.1016/s0005-7894(81)80087-1
  5. 5.
    Chaiklin H. Attitudes, behavior, and social practice. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. 2011;38(1):31–54.


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