Behaviour & Emotions Core Concepts

Social cognitive learning theory 101: How kids learn

Social Cognitive Learning

Ever wondered about how we learn things? Or, how our kids learn things? They’re little ‘sponges’ apparently, but what does that actually mean in theory? How do they soak up what they do, and why?

Before Albert Bandura proposed his Social Cognitive Learning Theory, the commonly held belief about why people did things was based on the idea of rewards and consequences. Behaviourism was the official word. If a child did something good, you should reward them, and they would do the good thing again. If a child did something bad, you should punish them, and they would stop doing the bad thing. In this way, when parents provided rewards and punishments, the child would learn to be good and not bad.

While behaviourists focused on how the environment and reinforcement affect behaviour, Bandura recognised that people learn by observing how others behave, as well as by observing the rewards and punishment others receive. He put forward the idea that learning occurs within a social environment, resulting from a shared interaction between person, environment and behaviour.

Bandura believed we are social creatures and we are able to learn from each other.

Bandura believed we are social creatures and we are able to learn from each other. While still valuing the role of rewards and punishments in altering motivation, he added the idea that we are capable of learning social behaviour (emotional reactions, attitudes and behaviours) through observation. And ‘observation’ could include watching a real person (live model), or a character in a book or movie (symbolic model), or even through hearing an explanation or description of what to do (direct instruction). By watching or listening to these role models, we can copy (imitate) and practice (modelling) new behaviours, attitudes, emotional responses and even personality traits. By watching the consequences these role models experienced for their behaviours, we can learn behaviours without having to experience the reward or punishment ourselves. (The technical term for this is vicarious reinforcement.)

Thought processes

Bandura also believed that there was a lot more thinking going on than behaviourists gave people credit for. He proposed that people could actively consider all the information before deciding to take action. He proposed four key factors that influenced whether people would choose to do a certain behaviour or not. These are:

  1. Attention:
    Before we can copy a behaviour, we have to have noticed it – it has to grab our attention. Our attention increases when behaviour is more striking or different, and when the role model is more similar to ourselves.

  2. Retention:
    As well as noticing a behaviour, we have to remember it. Repetition of the behaviour or practising the behaviour (rehearsal) can help us retain the behaviour in our memory. Much of social learning is not immediate, so this process is especially vital in those cases.

  3. Reproduction:
    As well as remembering the behaviour, we have to have the ability to actually do it. While I might watch a lot of surfing movies, it does not mean I have the capability of imitating those role models. We are limited by our physical ability and for that reason, even if we really want to reproduce the behaviour, we cannot. This influences our decisions whether to try to imitate it or not.

  4. Motivation:
    We must be motivated to demonstrate what we have learned. We will take into consideration the rewards and punishment that follow a behaviour. If the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived costs (if there are any), then the behaviour will be more likely to be imitated by the observer. If the vicarious reinforcement is not seen to be important enough to the observer, then they will not imitate the behaviour. Motivation can be extrinsic (rewards given by others, such as money or stickers) or intrinsic (rewards that come from within, such as feelings of pride, satisfaction or accomplishment).

Children are masters of observational learning.

What does this mean for our kids?

Children are masters of observational learning. They learn from others around them in three important ways:

  1. What they see others do:
    Children are surrounded by many influential role models, such as parents, characters on kids' TV, friends within their peer group and teachers at school. Children observe the people around them behaving in various ways. These people provide examples of behaviour to observe and imitate. Children are more likely to pay attention to and imitate those people they perceive as similar to themselves. Identification occurs with another person (the model) and involves taking on (or adopting) observed behaviours, values, beliefs and attitudes of the person with whom they are identifying. Children will have a number of models with whom they identify. These may be people in their immediate world, such as family members, or they could be fantasy characters or people in media. The motivation to identify with a particular model is that they have a quality which the individual would like to possess.

  2. How they see other people's behaviours responded to:
    Children will also take into account what happens to other people when deciding whether or not to copy someone's actions. A person learns by observing the consequences of another person's behaviour, for example, a younger sister observing an older sister being rewarded for a particular behaviour is more likely to repeat that behaviour herself. This is an example of the vicarious reinforcement we mentioned earlier.

  3. How their own behaviours are responded to:
    The people around the child will respond to the imitated behaviour with either reinforcement or punishment. If a child imitates a model's behaviour and the consequences are rewarding, the child is likely to continue performing the behaviour. For example, if a parent sees their child consoling their teddy bear and says "You're so kind," this is rewarding for the child and makes it more likely that they will repeat such gentle and caring behaviour. The child's behaviour has been strengthened. A child will behave in a way which they believe will earn approval because they desire approval. If a child wants approval from parents or peers, this approval is an external reinforcement, but feeling happy about being approved of is an internal reinforcement.

What does all this mean for parents?

Have you ever heard yourself say something and then realised, “Wow, I sound just like my mother/father.” This is because parents do and say what their parents did and said. We pass things on to our kids, and not just our genes.

As we’ve learnt, children are more likely to pay attention to and imitate role models who they feel similar to, who they relate to and respect, and who they see as competent. This makes parents hugely influential. Everyday examples of parental role modelling can be seen in emotion regulation and stress management. The way parents manage their strong emotions plays such a big part in helping children to manage their own big feelings. Similarly, the way parents manage anxiety influences the way their children deal with anxiety This is particularly important for responding to traumatic community events (of which we’ve had more than our share in recent years!), such as earthquakes, terrorist attacks and global pandemics. And, how we respond to anxiety around everyday things like preschool drop-offs and barking dogs? You got it, our ability to cope helps our kids cope. Calm breeds calm!

Children learn new behaviours by imitating their parents and will perform the behaviour if the reward is sufficient. This has implications for parenting styles – Parent Coach, AKA ‘authoritative parenting’, being the style we encourage parents to aim for.

Parents’ modelling also influences a child’s sense of self-belief and self-efficacy.

Parents’ modelling also influences a child’s sense of self-belief and self-efficacy. If parents succeed by working hard and pushing through trials, children are likely to believe they too have capability to succeed. Alas the opposite is also true – children who witness their parents experiencing failure later limit their own potential.

Self-efficacy – a person’s belief in their capacity to do what’s needed to produce specific results – is not fixed. Parents may find their sense of self-efficacy decreasing with the changing demands of parenting an adolescent. In other words, they may feel less influential in the life of their teenager. On the other hand, they may notice their self-efficacy increasing with the acquisition of new skills following attendance at a parenting course. (Hence our Toolbox courses harness this theory in order to support parents to feel more confident in their role.) Parents with high self-efficacy are more likely to have high motivation to do well, to initiate difficult tasks and invest effort in perseverance. This is likely to increase parenting competence and results in better outcomes for children. Win win!

Bandura, A. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Katherine Tarr

Katherine Tarr

Katherine is a Child and Family Psychologist with experience working in both the early intervention and education settings. She was part of our Programme Development team where she was responsible for researching and developing training programmes to equip facilitators to deliver our courses to a high standard. Prior to training as a psychologist, Katherine was a high school teacher and an outdoor instructor. She has four primary school aged children and in their spare time the family enjoys having adventures in the outdoors.

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