Shaping and Chaining to Teach Skills

Children must learn many new skills during their first years of life. Shaping and chaining are two of the techniques that can help them with this learning.
Shaping and Chaining to Teach Skills

Last update: 28 June, 2021

As parents, we’re responsible for helping our children acquire new abilities. We’re their life mentors and it’s up to us to make learning new skills easier – skills like walking, talking, washing their hands, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, etc. Shaping and chaining are two techniques that are simple and effective in achieving these goals.

Both shaping and chaining are operant techniques based on positive reinforcement. And both help little ones master new skills or behaviors in a progressive manner. Given the ease with which you can apply them, it’s easy to use these techniques at home without needing the intervention of a professional.

Shaping and chaining: Two operant techniques

Both shaping and chaining fall into the operant focus of behavior modification. Behavior modification is based on the premise that our actions are influenced by the consequences that follow them. 

So, if some sort of reward or reinforcement comes after a behavior, then this behavior will become more frequent. In the same way, if a particular behavior is punished or ignored, then it will decrease.

Shaping and Chaining to Teach Skills

On this basis, both techniques utilize reinforcement and extinction in order to shape children’s behavior in a positive way. Parents can use them to instill new behaviors as well as modify behaviors that already exist. However, shaping and chaining involve some different specifications that you should keep in mind.


Shaping is used to establish simple and unitary conducts in a progressive way. For example, to teach a child to pronounce a certain word or to cut with scissors. To do so, the method involves successive approximations which consist of reinforcing behaviors that come progressively closer to the target action.

So, first of all, you need to identify your objective. For example, you want your child to learn to pronounce the word “doll.” The next step involves establishing a baseline from which to begin.

In other words, a behavior that already exists in the child’s repertoire which will serve as a starting point for your work. In this case, your child may say “bafoom” when he or she needs to go to the bathroom.

From now on, you must reinforce pronunciations that are closer and closer to the final objective. So, at first, you can simply reinforce the original pronunciation of “bafoom.” That way, you’ll continue to motivate your child to keep verbalizing his or her needs.

However, later on, you’ll need to up the anty; meaning you’ll cease to reinforce “bafoom” and try to get your child to get a little closer to the proper pronunciation.

If, for example, your child manages to pronounce “bafwoom” then this is the next approximation to reward. At the same time, you’ll no longer reinforce the previous pronunciation, “bafoom.” So, through our attention and praise, we’ll slowly guide our children towards the correct and complete pronunciation of a goal word.

Shaping and Chaining to Teach Skills


Chaining is used to link simple behaviors in such a way that they form a sequence. This is what we hope to achieve, for example, when we want our children to learn to brush their teeth. Doing so requires a series of actions that occur in a specific order. There are two types of chaining: Forward chaining and backward chaining.

In forward chaining, children learn the first step of the process first. In this case, children are rewarded for putting toothpaste on their toothbrush. Then the adult completes the rest of the sequence. With time, further steps are added, in order. For example, brushing the top teeth, brushing the bottom teeth, brushing molars, spitting, rinsing, etc.

Adults only reinforce the last step that the child is working on. If a child has already acquired the steps up to brushing molars, then it won’t make sense to keep rewarding him or her for putting toothpaste on the toothbrush.

Another variant to this technique is backward chaining. Here, children first learn the final step of the sequence and work their way backward. For example, if you want your child to pick up after playing, you can pick up all the toys yourself, except one. Then have your child pick up the last toy and reward this behavior.

The next day, your child will put away two toys, and on the following day, three toys. This will continue until your child becomes fully responsible for picking up all of the toys. The great thing about this option is that children start out much closer to the target or, in other words, success. This may make motivation seem greater from the first day.

In conclusion, both shaping and chaining are simple techniques that are easy to apply at home. They’re a great alternative when helping children acquire new skills in a positive and rewarding way.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Caballo, V. (1998). Manual de técnicas de terapia y modificación de conducta (4a Ed.). Siglo XXI.
  • Labrador, F, J. (2013). Técnicas de modificación de conducta . Ediciones Pirámide.
  • Olivares, J. y Méndez, F. (2005). Técnicas de modificación de conducta  (4a ed.). Biblioteca Nueva.
  • Ruiz, A., Díaz, M. y Villalobos, A. (2012). Manual de Técnicas de Intervención Cognitivo Conductuales . Desclée De Brouwer.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.