This week, I was talking to a family who loved each other dearly but wanted to reduce the amount of nagging in the household (this story is shared with their permission.) The mother had carefully created a list all the household tasks, and offered a reward if the kids fulfilled one of the tasks in “the binder” every day in the week. Her son winced at the mention of “the binder” so I offered to explain why. I wasn’t very poetic in my choice of visuals; “You’re here right now. And you want to get up here,” I ventured. “This jump seems overwhelming. You want to start with little changes.”
The mother lit up. “It’s like the 24-inch box at Crossfit!” She described the first time she was presented with the task of jumping up to a 24-inch box with two feet, and the paralysis and discomfort she felt. She looked at the box and froze, so she started with the 12-inch instead, and worked her way up. As she told me the story, the pride in her face was obvious, and the insight was sharp.
Most of our big accomplishments in life are the result of little changes over time. We don’t ask babies to sprint. We don’t ask undergraduates to write textbooks. We take baby steps most of the way.
Behaviourists call this process “successive approximation.” We ask the learner to perform some version of the task that they can already manage, and then increase the difficulty very gradually, so it resembles the target more and more closely. Educators will recognize this as a key aspect of Vigotsky’s theory of the “zone of proximal development” which is the point at which the learner is performing new tasks with support. It’s not too easy, and it’s not too hard. It’s just right.
Here’s a great example of shaping in action. The teacher is using Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAGteach) (which I will absolutely be writing more about in the future.)
As you can see, any complex athletic feat is learned through shaping. Here are some other behaviour challenges that I’ve addressed using shaping:
- conversation skills
- waiting for a turn
- using language to request
- learning to play imaginatively with toys
Whenever you feel you have hit a wall or you are stopped in your tracks by a challenge in life, it’s a good idea to think about shaping. What version of the skill can you already do? What’s the next tiny change you can make?
(If you need some help to apply behaviour science to a challenge, you know where to find me!)