Do you ever catch yourself thinking or expecting specific things to happen, especially with loved ones? Have you ever wanted someone to just "do it right" or expecting a person to learn something novel to them immediately and demonstrate it fluently? If so, don't worry. We have all been there.
Shaping, is the use of reinforcement upon successive approximation to establish a response. In other words, reinforcing closer and closer responses toward the final outcome of a behavior (i.e., doing laundry, learning how to walk, potty training, etc.). Shaping is the most complex, yet simple process to understand when it comes to behavior and how we get from A - Z. How does a person start at "A" and learn to get to "Z" when they might have never learned the steps in between (e.g., H, I, J, K. etc.)? When asking your child to do their laundry for the first time, do you expect them to automatically know how to it? How about saying "onomatopoeia". I hope the answer is no. When looking at behaviors and how they may form to be the final product, such as saying "I want cookies", we might break down the vocal behavior into smaller achievable steps and reinforce small approximations of responses over time. Once the individual achieves the set criteria for the approximated vocal response, set a slightly higher expected response as the new criteria. When the individual achieves that criteria, progress the criteria to a new slightly higher expected response, and so on.
For example, if I am trying to teach an individual to say is, "I want cookies", I might first expectation the individual to consistently say, "Coo". Once they have demonstrated saying "Coo", our expectations for cookies might be "coo-kie". Then, once they have demonstrated saying "cookie" consistently, our expectations for cookies might be "want cookie, more cookie, cookie please, etc. (2 word phrases)". Then we shape it to 3 words, 4 words, and so on. Note, that after each response that the individual meets our set criteria, we provide reinforcement (e.g., the cookie). Keep in mind to not discourage the individual's attempts with their responses by not providing the reinforcer of cookies if they don't meet the set criteria. Rather, provide other forms of reinforcement or differing levels of reinforcement that may continue to encourage the individual to keep trying (e.g., "good trying on saying, cookie, you can have 1 cookie, instead of 2").
Shaping may be applied to how we learn new skills, use products, establish routines, create recipes, you name it. It is the process or journey that takes place between the individual's responses and the environment, with respect to reinforcement. So when someone is struggling with a specific skill, think whether or not the individual has learned the appropriate prerequisite responses to achieve that final outcome.