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child tracing letters

Shaping is an ABA-based teaching technique in which “successive approximations” toward the target behavior being taught are reinforced until the learner can perform the behavior successfully. Let’s first define what successive approximation is. It is an attempt to perform a task that is slightly better than the previous performance. For example, an instructor reinforces the way a student writes the letter “A” each time he writes it better than the last time he wrote it.

How To Use

Shaping starts with a task analysis in which a desired behavior is broken down into smaller and more manageable steps that would move the child successively closer to that desired behavior. This is referred to as a behavior chain. There are two different types of chaining:

  • Forward Chaining is a teaching technique in which the learner is prompted/taught the first step in a series of steps with the therapist/parent performing the steps after the step targeted for learning.
  • Backward Chaining is when the ABA therapist or parent goes through each step of a process with the child with autism together until the last step, which the therapist prompts the child to complete.

Once the small approximations of the desired behavior are clearly identified, one must select the reinforcement to be used and make sure that everyone working with the child knows which behavior, when, and how to reinforce the approximations. Data on the behavior should be collected and reviewed by the team. The program must continue until the child demonstrates the desired behavior.


Shaping is a powerful tool for teaching new behaviors. It involves reinforcing small steps toward the ultimate goal. This technique is particularly helpful when the desired behavior is challenging to learn through traditional methods. By identifying and rewarding progress, shaping can lead to incredible results. Shaping is particularly helpful when the desired behavior is difficult to learn through instruction, imitation, or verbal/physical cues.

Related Glossary Terms

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