shaping behavior: turning out the light at night

It’s the middle of the night and the glaring light from your child’s room is shining straight into your eyes. He just started to sleep alone so you don’t want to make a big deal about it. But come on! You need your sleep too.

You tried cajoling, you tried explaining that big boys don’t need the light on at night, you tried sneaking in the middle of the night and turning it off. But as soon as he finds out, out come the steady streams of hot tears. You feel bad but you know that you need to deal with it once and for all. And your caving to his middle-of-the-night wailing is a can of worms you do not want to open.



this might be a good time to tell you about shaping

Shaping is a procedure used heavily in ABA, but if you look around, you will start seeing it everywhere once you learn to recognize it. Shaping behavior is fairly straightforward, but it requires a little planning, consistency along the way, and definitely a target goal. In this example, the goal is to completely turn off the light. But you can’t just do it, otherwise hysterics will ensue. So you start at the beginning… baby steps, remember?


what you need

a target goal

Talk about it with your child and offer him to choose his own reward. Be candid about the light bothering you, but assure him that you will help him conquer this task and that you have confidence in his ability to get through this. Use simple words but even so, don’t expect him to fully understand you. It’s okay, once you start the process, the structure of it will eliminate all doubts.

some perimeters

You will be using something called successive approximations. You will decide ahead of time how much you will dim the light at each step, and what will be in it for him (something special in the morning after), all the while keeping your eyes on the prize (the ultimate goal). Stick a masking tape on the dimmer switch and mark your intermediate steps. Make sure to talk about it beforehand, for example, “Yay, you slept on #4 for three nights straight, I think we can move down tonight to #3”. Give him extra goodies/attention when you have just upped the ante.

consistent rewarding throughout

Praise heavily, as many times as you can during the day following that first night (and after each new accomplishment). Once he has gotten used to each new stage (successive step), you can start withholding the praise a little, getting ready to lavish it when the next approximation is accomplished. Rewards should always be commensurate with the effort. Treat him to something super special and unexpected when done.

adjust the plan as needed

If your child needs more time in the current stage, don’t force the issue, just revisit your parameters. Tweak your reward-giving if you have to.

Mostly, make it clear from the beginning (and throughout) that you are determined to see him get through this and that if he needs extra time, so be it, but it will get done.


so, to recap

– Pick the target goal
– Set up successive approximations
– Reward heavily till skill is acquired, lessen it gradually afterwards
– Adjust the plan as needed to fit your child’s progress
– Look back at what you have accomplished and pat yourself on the back. Well done teaching him to stick it out!

Now that you’ve become a pro at this whole shaping business, you can graduate to more important (and complex) skills that you want to teach your child. Baby steps for you too :)

What new behavior would you like to teach your child with shaping?