Shaping Behavior of Children One Step at a Time

Discipline kids by teaching new skills incrementally.

Permissive parent
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The practice of "shaping" is a great way to teach kids about new behaviors. Shaping is a step-by-step process based on psychology.

It involves teaching a child a new skill one small step at a time. Each step is reinforced before a new step is taught. Then, children are able to master more complicated tasks.

Examples of Shaping

Telling your preschooler to clean his room isn't likely to be successful if he's never cleaned his room before. So rather than expect him to make his bed, put his toys away, and vacuum the floor, shaping would involve teaching him one step at a time.

You might start by teaching him to pull the blankets up on his bed. Then, after he does that consistently for a few days, you might work on making his bed more neatly. Then, after a few days, you might work on making his bed and picking up his toys.

When he shows you he can handle those steps consistently, then you can move on to other chores, like vacuuming his room. Eventually, he'll be able to clean his entire room on his own.

You can also use shaping to extinguish behaviors you want your child to stop. For example, if you want your child to begin sleeping in her own room, instead of in your bed, you can help her do that one step at a time.

Praise Your Child Each Step Along the Way

Praise is a great way to shape a child’s behavior. For example, if you want your child to do chores regularly, praise him when you catch him throwing something in the trash can or putting a dish in the sink.

Make your praise specific so he knows why you are praising him. Instead of saying, "Great job," say, “Great job putting that dish in the sink as soon as you were done with it. I really like it when you put things away.” This lets him know the importance of behaving responsibly.

Use Attention and Ignoring

Give your child the most attention when he is behaving well and ignore some mild misbehavior, as long as it is safe to do so.

If you want to shape your child’s behavior around treating others with respect, give him lots of positive attention when he uses his manners. Then, ignore him when he is slightly disrespectful.

If he demands, “Get me a drink,” pretend you don’t hear him. But as soon as he asks politely, “Can I please have a drink,” give him your full attention. This teaches him that using manners is the best way to get what he wants.

Provide Plenty of Pre-Teaching

Pre-teaching provides your child with an explanation of what behavior is expected of him. Teach him the rules before you enter a situation.

For example, remind him, “At Grandma’s house, we have to take our shoes off when we go inside. And we only use walking feet inside her house.” A frequent reminder about the rules, along with warnings about the consequences of breaking the rules, gives kids an opportunity to comply.

Teach Your Child What to Do

If you want your kid’s behavior to change, you need to teach positive behavior. Instead of yelling, “Don’t hit your brother,” teach him what he can do when he feels frustrated. Teaching him to use his words or tell an adult when he is mad may be great alternative skills.

When shaping a child’s behavior, keep the focus on the desired behavior as much as possible. For example, tell your child, “Walk while we are in the store,” instead of saying, “Don’t run.” When kids hear the desired behavior, they are much more likely to remember it.

Provide Logical Consequences

Logical consequences are directly related to the misbehavior and can be a great tool in shaping behavior. If you want your child to start picking up after himself, take away his privilege to play with the toys he doesn’t pick up. This very quickly teaches him that he needs to start picking up after himself if he wants to continue playing with his toys.

Create a Reward System

If you are working on a new behavior, a reward system is a great way to start shaping that behavior. Just don’t expect perfection. Instead, reward some close approximations.

For example, if you want your child to be more compliant, don’t say he has to comply with everything for a full week before he earns a reward. Instead, consider a token economy system where he can earn tokens each time he is compliant.

Initially, if he rolls his eyes or argues but still does what you ask, give him a reward. Over time, it makes it more difficult to earn the reward. But initially, reward small steps toward the behavior you want to see.

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