What is shaping?

There is consensus among both clinicians and scientists about the importance of early intervention in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability (ID). In the previous teaching methodologies, the partners explained important interventions such as ESDM. Within behavioural interventions, four learning procedures are addressed, namely prompting, fading, shaping and chaining (Granpeesheh, Tarbox, & Dixon, 2009). This module focuses on the methodology called shaping. Shaping is a behavioural technique used as well as a number of naturalistic and developmental strategies, including the use of positive affect and the integration of play and sensory and social routines within treatment sessions (Scheffer, 2021). 

Skinner (1953), the discoverer of the technique, described shaping through an analogy: “Operant conditioning shapes behaviour as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay…The final product seems to have a special unity or integrity of design, but we cannot find a point at which this suddenly appears. In the same sense, an operant is not something which appears full grown in the behaviour of the organism. It is the result of a continuous shaping process.”

He often worked with it himself and soon the technique was widely spread and applied in very different situations. It became a basic technique in behavioural therapy. Shaping often uses prompting. Prompts are instructions, gestures, demonstrations, touches, or other things that we arrange or do to increase the likelihood that children will make correct responses. In other words, it is a specific form of assistance given by an adult before or as the learner attempts to use a skill.

Later, Hefin & Alberto (2001) and Delprato (2001) described shaping as a process in which an instructor teaches a new behaviour by systematically and differentially reinforcing “successive approximations” of a target behaviour while no longer reinforcing previous approximations of the behaviour. With shaping, the behaviour is reinforced every time it comes closer to what is desired (Spillebeen, 2018).

Shaping procedures are well-established learning principles and have been widely researched and shown to be effective in increasing a variety of skills to individuals with autism.

How can shaping be applied?

In order for shaping to be successful, it is important to clearly define the behavioural objective and the target behaviour. Also, in order to gradually achieve the target behaviour, a teacher must know when to deliver or withhold reinforcement (Wolfgang, 2001).

Shaping helps us reach an end goal, whether it is adding a new routine, acquiring a new skill, or improving on an already existing skill.We build momentum by starting with small steps we can be successful with, boost our confidence, and increase our tolerance for slightly more challenging tasks. 

You can apply shaping by going through the following steps:

When choosing which dimension of a person’s performance to shape, the trainer needs to examine the different dimensions of behavior

E.g. number of pages read. First reward after reading 1 page, then reward after reading 2 pages.

E.g. time spent studying.

This can be used for the athlete or sport-enthusiast – want to improve on your free throw or lay-up? Use shaping to help refine gross motor movements.

Think about when you ask your child to get ready for school. They take 20 minutes before starting their morning routine leaving them constantly late for class. Shaping can be used to gradually decrease the amount of time between the instruction “get ready for school” and the child engaging in their morning routine.

E.g. volume of speech, power when kicking the ball.

For whom it can be used?

Shaping is a procedure or method for teaching new skills (teaching behaviors that are not in the person’s repertoire or that the person does not engage in independently). The technique is used when students need to learn a new behavior. Shaping can be used when therapists want the students to engage in a certain desirable bevior that is, at present, infrequently or never displayed by them.

Shaping would not be used if a person could benefit from instructions or modelling. Shaping is especially useful when the desired behavior is difficult to learn by instruction, imitation, and verbal or physical cues. There is no age limit to applying this technique. ABA is effective at any age. One of the reasons why ABA is so useful in treating individuals with autism is that behavior change can be addressed at any age. Skills are assessed to identify what specifically needs to be worked on for the individual. However, it is argued the strategies are most effective for children before the age of five. In order for a program to be considered “early intervention,” it will start before the child reaches the age of four. 

Previous use of shaping with children with ASD.

When shaping a behaviour, the child begins by approximating a goal or “taking baby steps.” As the child gets better at each step, you raise the bar little by little. This cycle is repeated until the learner masters the end goal. There are many examples and studies of the usage of shaping. For instance, Fonger & Malott (2019) used shaping to teach eye contact to children with ASD. Hodges et al. (2017) used shaping to increase foods consumed by children with ASD.

Platten et al. (2013) used shaping within their lag reinforcement schedule to increase phonemic variability in children with ASD. Delli et al. (2013) did a study in a dental setting and also reported that shaping may be beneficial in fonding communication with a child with ASD in this type of setting. In 2003, Lori Frost used shaping as a method to motivate children to communicate in the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), developed to help children with ASD. 

Conclusion remarks

Many of the studies and practices are related to children with ASD, however not much research has been conducted on adult learners with disabilities and specifically adults with ASD. In addition, while it has been a very effective method, it is also a very time consuming one.

The progress is not always linear and the treatment requires constant monitoring of progress. There is also the danger that shaping is misused. While these limitations are evident, this is a very good and effective method to teach a person a new skill. 


Delli, K., Reichart, P.A., Bornstein, M.M., Livas, C. (2013). Management of children with autism spectrum disorder in the dental setting: Concerns, behavioural approaches and recommendations. Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal. 18(6): e862–e868. Published online 2013 Aug 29. doi: 10.4317/medoral.19084 

Delprato, D. J. (2001). Comparisons of discrete-trial and normalized behavioral intervention for young children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 315-325.

Evans, K. (1998). Shaping experience and shaping meaning. Art therapy for children with autism. International Journal of Art Therapy, 3(1), 17-25. Expert Consensus Guidelines, Treatment Guidelines to Answer Most Difficult Questions Facing Clinicians | EKS, bezocht: 17 maart 2009 op http://www.psychguides.com/ 

Fonger, A.M. & Malott, R.Q. (2019). Using Shaping to Teach Eye Contact to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Behavioural Analysis in Practice, 12, 216-221. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-018-0245-9 

Frost, L. (2003). The Picture Exchange Communication System. Perspectives on Neurophysiology and Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders. 12(2); https://doi.org/10.1044/aac12.2.8 

Heflin, L. J. & Alberto, P. A. (2001). Establishing a behavioral context for learning for students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16, 93-101.

Hodges, A., Davis, T., Crandall, M., Phipps, L. & Weston, R. (2017). Using Shaping to Increase Foods Consumed by Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, 47, 2471-2479. DOI 10.1007/s10803-017-3160-y 

Sam, A., & AFIRM Team. (2016). Modeling. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina. Retrieved from http://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/modeling 

Skinner, B.F. (1953).  Science and Human Behaviour. Simon & Schuster. 

Scheffer, N.P. (2021). Early Start Denver Model bij kinderen met autismespectrumstoornis en een verstandelijke beperking. Gedragstherapie. 


Shaping. Association for science in autism treatment (ASAT), not dated.


Spillebeen, S. (2017-2018). BEHANDELING VAN KINDEREN MET AUTISMESPECTRUMSTOORNIS  MET HET IMPACT-PROGRAMMAEFFECT  OP SOCIAAL-COMMUNICATIEVE  VAARDIGHEDEN  EN AUTISMEKENMERKEN. Universiteit Gent. https://docplayer.nl/128431731-Behandeling-van-kinderen-met-autismespectrumstoornis-met-het-impact-programma.html 

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