Shaping Children's Behavior One Step at a Time

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. Eventually, children are able to master more complicated tasks.

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

You might start by teaching them to pull the blankets up on their bed. Then, after they do that consistently for a few days, you might work on making their bed more neatly. Then, after a few days, you might work on making their bed and picking up their toys.

When they show you they can handle those steps consistently, then you can move on to other chores, like vacuuming their room. Eventually, they'll be able to clean their entire room on their 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 their own room, instead of in your bed, you can help them do that one step at a time.

Praise Your Child

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

Make your praise specific so they know why you are praising them. 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 them know the importance of behaving responsibly.

Use Attention and Ignoring

Give your child the most attention when they are 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 them lots of positive attention when they use their manners. Then, ignore them when they are slightly disrespectful.

If they demand, “Get me a drink,” pretend you don’t hear them. But as soon as they ask politely and say "please," give them your full attention. This teaches them that using manners is the best way to get what they want.

Provide Pre-Teaching

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

For example, remind them, “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, teach positive behavior. Instead of yelling, “Don’t hit your brother,” teach them what they can do when they feel frustrated. Teaching them to use their words or tell an adult when they are 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 themself, take away their privilege to play with the toys they don't pick up. This very quickly teaches them that they need to start picking up after themself if they want to continue playing with their 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 they have to comply with everything for a full week before they earn a reward. Instead, consider a token economy system where they can earn tokens each time they are compliant.

Initially, if they roll their eyes or argue but still do what you ask, give them a reward. Over time, make it more difficult to earn the reward. But initially, reward small steps toward the behavior you want to see.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.