One of the things I love about the behaviour analytic approach to learning is that it assumes learning is possible no matter the person’s age, cognitive level, diagnosis or life circumstances. We engage in new behaviours every day; shaped largely by our past experiences, some slightly altered social and environmental conditions and a set of changing expectations.
Shaping is a process whereby smaller approximations of a larger goal or behaviour are reinforced in succession until the end behaviour is reached (Copper, Heron & Hewart, 2007). Essentially, this means giving credit for the “baby steps” someone accomplishes on their way towards learning a more complex skill. You can shape a variety of dimensions of behaviour - from what it looks like, its frequency, duration, intensity and fluency.
Shaping is the science behind such skills as learning how to walk and talk, training in a sport, learning how to read, learning how to drive…the list goes on. We don’t set the high jump bar too high and fault someone for not being able to clear the bar just as we don’t give a young child a book and expect her to read it from beginning to end. Instead we set a criterion that is more realistic for the person to achieve. At the same time, the social and physical environment is arranged so that it is available for and responsive to earlier forms of a behaviour in the form of reinforcement (e.g., using a T-ball stand when teaching how to swing a baseball bat ensures greater chance of making contact with the ball). Without these earlier accommodations made, a learner will become easily frustrated and might give-up on acquiring the skill. As the skill is developed, others and/or the environment expect just a little bit more of the person. Now reinforcement is only received if the person is able to meet the new expectation (e.g., now practicing our baseball swings with someone throwing the ball from 10 feet away). This continues until the desired behaviour or skill is demonstrated.
The key to shaping is changing those expectations ever so slightly so that it is highly likely that the person will still succeed. If you set the expectations too high and the person does not meet the new criterion, they may experience frustration and no longer try.
Teachers, parents, caregivers, therapists etc. carry out shaping procedures as part of their guidance and support to various learners. Skills that were once assumed to be unattainable may just be possible with planned attention to and teaching of approximations using this process. Who says someone can’t learn? It is us that can guide a learner towards achieving new skills and behaviours! When we re-arrange task materials so that the learner is likely to attend to them and/or make use of them we are assisting in the shaping process. Notice too the reinforcement and encouragement for “trying” or “almost getting it” we are so apt at providing. Some of us are just natural born shapers without even giving much thought to what we are doing.
Our behaviours are shaped when others expect just a little bit more from us. Remember your first few weeks on the job? Hopefully your employer started you off with a small list of expectations while checking in on you to provide feedback that it was going well. Months later (and after demonstrating that you’ve met their expectations) perhaps your boss is now assigning you a special project that takes your skill set to the next level. Reinforcement awaits if you’re up for the challenge.
In the coming weeks I will go through this very experience as my career path exits from one highway and onto another. I have recently accepted an offer to work with a school board as an ABA facilitator. I will be immersed in school board culture, policies, relationships and expectations and I will acquire a slightly different set of skills than what I’ve demonstrated in my current role. Expectations will be different but perfectly attainable given my past experience and the supports I know I’ll receive walking in. I’m ready to be shaped into my new role and I look forward to shaping new ideas and processes based on ABA.
Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E. & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Play Ball! http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/5295382925/this-was-taken-as-we-were-shaping-my-nephews
Survival through shaping: http://behaviouristatplay.tumblr.com/post/12308562036/survival-of-the-species-through-operant-conditioning