Shaping, chaining, and task analysis are concepts identified in the behavioral science or behavioral psychology literature. They are commonly used within applied behavior analysis services.

These concepts can also be used and observed in everyday life.

What is Shaping?

Shaping refers to the process of reinforcing closer and closer approximations to an end goal or skill. Shaping can be accomplished by first identifying what the ultimate target behavior is and then providing reinforcement for behaviors that are closer and closer to that goal starting where the learner is at in the present moment.

An example of shaping is when a baby or a toddler learns to walk. They are reinforced for crawling, then standing, then taking one step, then taking a few steps, and finally for walking. Reinforcement is typically in the form of lots of praise and attention from the child’s parents.

Another example is teaching a child to brush his teeth. Shaping is present when the child is reinforced for getting better and better at brushing their teeth. They might first receive praise (and the experience of having a cleaner mouth) for doing a quick brush around their mouth. Then, their parent might start expecting more out of them and only praising when the child gives more effort to cleaning more of the surface of his teeth. The child might even begin to use floss and mouthwash which may be part of the ultimate goal of independently completing a tooth-brushing routine.

What is Chaining?

Chaining refers to the concept of putting together multiple behaviors that form one “larger” behavior. The single behaviors are linked together like a chain and form one behavior as a whole.

Chaining can be completed in multiple ways.

Forward chaining is when each behavior in the chain is taught in its logical order and each behavior is reinforced. The individual is reinforced for completing one step accurately until mastery. Then the next step is added and the learner is reinforced for completing this step until mastery. The chain continues until the entire behavior is learned.

Backward chaining is when the teacher (or parent) helps the learner complete all tasks until the last task in the chain. The learner is reinforced for completing the last task independently. Then, the learner is expected to complete the last two parts of the chain and is reinforced when he does so accurately. Additional parts of the chain are added and reinforced until the entire chain is mastered.

What is a Task Analysis?

Within the chaining process, a task analysis is used to identify the separate behaviors, or the separate steps, of the larger behavior.

Although tooth-brushing was given as an example of shaping, it can also be viewed through the lens of chaining and task analysis. When a learner not only needs to learn to improve his overall quality of toothbrushing, a task analysis with chaining strategies might be necessary.

If a child is skipping a step, such as not putting toothbrush on the toothbrush properly or they aren’t putting the toothbrush or the toothpaste back where they belong, identifying these steps by looking at a task analysis can be helpful.

A task analysis can be as detailed as needed to help the individual learn. Some individuals require more detailed task analysis such as breaking down the skill into very small steps.

A parent who uses a task analysis to teach their child the entire tooth-brushing activity may show their child how to open and close the toothbrush. They may show the child how to brush each area of the mouth. And so on. On the other hand, a learner who is more skilled at toothbrushing may not need this detailed of instruction. They may just need to be told to get the toothpaste, toothbrush, and brush their teeth and then to put the items back where they belong.

Shaping, Chaining, & Task Analysis

Shaping, chaining, and task analysis are common behavioral concepts that exist in a variety of settings and with a variety of experiences. Using these concepts, parents, teachers, and interventionists can help a learner learn new skills and expand on his or her behaviors in meaningful ways.