Observational Learning and the Young Child


observational learning

Observational learning is what it sounds like, learning through observing. The old saying, “monkey see, monkey do,” is fitting when discussing this learning theory. With the child’s internal motivation to learn and accomplish new things, observational learning is the first way of exploring her abilities. She see’s a caregiver’s smile and reciprocates it. She hears her parents’ voices and mimics the sounds. Observational learning allows the brain to tap into its inner need to excel and advance at the most basic level – watching and doing.

Observational Learning and The Brain

Albert Bandura, a leading researcher in the area of observational learning, is well known for his bobo doll studies dealing with observational learning in the early 1960’s.  He created a movie of a young woman hitting, kicking, and yelling at a blow-up doll.  After showing the film to a group of young kindergartners, they were sent to a playroom filled with bobo dolls. As one might guess, the children copied the modeled behavior, and aggressively hit and kicked the bobo dolls. The realization that the children changed their behavior without reward didn’t fit with traditional behaviorist thinking of the time, and Bandura labeled the learning “observational” or “modeled learning.”

Along with observing and doing, Bandura combined the cognitive and operant view of learning to formulate a four-step pattern seen in observational learning.

  1. Attention – something is noticed within the environment and the individual is attentive to it.
  2. Retention – the behavior is noted and remembered.
  3. Reproduction – the individual copies or emulates the behavior that was observed.
  4. Motivation – the environment provides a consequence that changes the chances the behavior is repeated through either positive or negative praise or punishment.

The mirror neuron theory along with observational learning encourages an individual’s desire to sympathize and also respond similarly when behavior happens. Mirror neurons are a collection of brain cells that fire when an individual observes someone making the same movements as her own, causing a reaction. For example, when observing someone folding a sheet of paper and receiving a paper cut, one often flinches in sympathy. This plays a role in observational learning. Just as a child learns from observing others, her brain is ready to respond in ways from observing other’s responses from actions. Also, mirror neurons are fired when making faces in response to others, such as smiling when someone else smiles, or frowning in disapproval as someone else does.

Observational learning takes place automatically, and begins at birth, which means it is a powerful learning tool and way to shape a young child’s mind. A parent is the first model to a child, and in later years, friends and other adults offer the child models for establishing learning and behavior. And, observational learning can be one of the most powerful strategies for modifying or shaping behavior.

Behavior and Observational Learning

When a child is in a situation where a peer or an adult exposes her to a new behavior, she is attentive to what is new and often tries the behavior for herself – sometimes with not such positive results. As adults, it is our role to jump in and model the behavior desired to assist with promoting appropriate outcomes. Often, an adult becomes frustrated when a child misbehaves but forgets to look at his or her own actions. If the adult models yelling when angry, and then punishes the child when she yells in anger, the adult is not taking into consideration observational learning theory.

Modeling behavior is the first step in observational learning and sometimes it is hard to remember to follow your own rules and regulations, whether in the home or the classroom. If you ask a child not to eat in her room, but she sees you enjoying a snack in bed, she is getting mixed messages. A child often benefits from observing others perform tasks successfully, encouraging her own behaviors and decision-making. Aiding a child in accomplishing a challenging task, like tying her shoes by modeling how it is done, is an example. It is beneficial for the child to be exposed to several models, which helps break stereotypes and preconceptions.

Along with holding attention while modeling behavior, following with proper motivation is key. Setting realistic expectations for children, as well as explaining them in detail, offers the ability for the child to feel she can succeed along with building self-esteem. Also, clearly defining consequences can aide in increasing positive behaviors.

As adults, we can take the time to model behaviors we desire from children and young adults, which benefits all. Along with modeling positive behaviors for youngsters, spending time communicating clearly and defining consequences creates a comfortable environment for observational learning.


About the author -

Sarah Lipoff

Sarah is an art educator and parent. You can visit her website here.


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