Have you ever tried to teach a dog to roll over? First, you might reward the dog each time he sits. Then, you might reward him when he lies down. Finally, you reward the dog only when he performs the motion of rolling over. You have intuitively shaped the dog’s behavior.
Shaping is the process of reinforcing successively closer and closer approximations to a desired terminal behavior. The shaping of behavior starts at an early age. For example, a child learns to pull himself up, to stand, to walk, and to finally move about through reinforcement of slightly exceptional instances of behaviors.
Walking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to a child, but through subtle reinforcements of being able to reach a toy or move more independently, the child’s behavior is shaped.
The behaviorist B. F. Skinner was an important researcher of the behavior analyst model of discipline and shaping student behavior through reinforcement. Skinner first researched the behavioral processes of shaping by trying to teach a pigeon bowl.
The desired outcome was that of a swiping of a wooden ball by the beak of the bird so the ball was sent down a miniature alley toward a set of toy pins. That process involved carefully designed series of discriminative stimuli and reinforcements for subtle changes in response referred to as a program.
In order for shaping to be successful, it is important to clearly define the behavioral objective and target behavior, and to know when to deliver or withhold reinforcement.
Steps in the Shaping Process
There are specific steps to follow in the process of shaping behaviors.
1. Reinforce any response that in some way resembles the terminal behavior.
2. Reinforce the response that closely approximates the terminal behavior (no longer reinforcing the previous reinforced response).
3. Reinforce the response that resembles the terminal behavior even more closely.
4. Continue reinforcing closer and closer approximations to the terminal behavior
5. Reinforce only the terminal behavior