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How shaping behaviours enhance learning in autism

By instilling appropriate behaviours, it will help the child understand what is fitting and accepted in different social contexts.

Shaping behaviours

How do we reduce challenging behaviours? One of the key steps is to identify the function of children’s disruptive behaviours and develop strategies to decrease them while imparting more practical skills. This is known as ‘shaping’ in which the desired behaviour is broken down into smaller and manageable steps that would move the child successively closer to the desired behaviour.

Let us use two common scenarios to illustrate how shaping behaviours can potentially benefit a child:

Tantrums or Crying

Have you ever removed the child’s favourite toy only to have them wailing and screaming loudly? If this situation sounds all too familiar, you may first wish to look at the function of the behaviour. Are they behaving this way just to get an adult’s attention or was it due to denied access to the item?

If they are attempting to seek for your attention, some of the ways you can correct such behaviours would be to not give any attention to the action but instead, repeat your desired instructions once more in a calm and firm tone.

If the child is wailing due to denial to access, you can teach him/her the appropriate manner to ask properly. For example, “Richie, if you want to play with the train, say “I want to play with the train.”

By instilling appropriate behaviours, it will help the child understand what is fitting and accepted in different social contexts. This will help the child increase the functionality of possessing appropriate means to gain attention or help in different settings.

Over time, they will be able to regulate their emotions and feelings better and such good behaviours will indefinitely spill over to different social settings. For example, most children spend a bulk of their day hours in school and with less frequency of disruptive behaviours, it helps to create a conducive learning environment for both individuals and peers.

Additionally, teachers will spend lesser time redirecting the child back to the task and focus on creating a wholesome environment for learning. The child would also come to enjoy being in school as he/she continues to experience success both academically and behaviourally.


Stimming refers to self-stimulatory behaviour that includes hand-flapping, rocking, or repetition of words and phrases. This is common in children with ASD because it helps them to manage any strong emotions such as fear or anger and handle overwhelming sensory inputs such as light or noise. As mentioned above, it is important to analyse the behaviour first before implementing relevant strategies.

For example, you notice your child starts flapping when he/she watches a video. One of the possible triggers could be that the video clip that he is watching is too overly stimulating or he is getting sensory inputs in his fingers. Therefore, we can choose to either pause the video or remove it completely. Over time, you can introduce more appropriate ways to allow the child to “stim” such as allowing him/her to squeeze a stress ball rather than flapping. You may try several replacement behaviours to find what works best for your child.

Through proper management of stimming, children will be able to learn and practice self-control which will enhance their ability to focus and interact with others so that they can be part of the typical classroom. With an increased attention span, it will positively affect the child’s ability to learn and communicate with others.

Stairways to success

Ultimately, the goal of shaping is to help a child to be successful both behaviourally and academically in the real world. Therefore, we must ascertain the function of the action before analysing and implementing the best way to decrease the challenging behaviour.

The whole process is akin to helping a child up to a flight of stairs. Often, the progress can be effortless and quick but there are times that are slow and difficult. Sometimes, your child may leap double steps and then he/she may turn around to walk down a few steps. This is when family and therapists have to continually work hand in hand to help the child up to those same steps again.

Written by Jermaine

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