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Shaping is a powerful tool for teaching any new skill. Although most shaping of our behavior is done inadvertently, people who use this process purposefully are better coaches and leaders who produce faster learning. The shaping process involves identifying and reinforcing successive approximations towards a final goal. What does this mean? Looking for baby steps or small improvements in performance and reinforcing those small improvements over time. The process of shaping allows us to deliver reinforcement at a much higher frequency than waiting for the person to engage in the desired behavior; which, may or may not happen. To illustrate the process, and power, of shaping I will share a personal example: teaching my significant other to rock climb. I am an avid climber. By avid I mean I take every opportunity I can to climb, either in the gym or outside on real rock. Needless to say climbing is something I find pure joy and reinforcement in. I also value my relationship and want to spend as much time together as possible. Therefore, getting her to enjoy climbing was a priority for me. Not that she has to love it like I do, but desire to climb at least a couple times a week, and hopefully, want to spend some portion of our travel exploring different climbing destinations.
Rock climbing, in the beginning, has some pretty big inherent negative consequences to overcome including: fear of heights and/or falling, quick muscle fatigue, awkward movements, and social fears associated with being around people when you are new to something. Once someone develops the skills necessary to climb it becomes much easier and more fun (a.k.a. reinforcing!). My job as her trainer (for lack of a better word) was to develop those skills as fast as possible and deliver enough reinforcement to bridge the gap between starting out and hating it and being proficient and choosing to continue. This is where shaping comes in. Here are five shaping steps I used to teach her to climb.
Shaping has allowed me to share something I love with the person I love. Now she thoroughly enjoys climbing and we get to spend more time together doing something we both really enjoy. Although this is a personal example, the five steps above can be used to teach anyone a new skill and ensure that skill becomes a habit. By designing a shaping plan you will be able to acquire new skills faster and do so using a positive behavioral approach.
You might also like: 6 Steps to Shape Performance: Overcoming the Insurmountable and Eating Elephants
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