Social Learning Theory in Children

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There are many avenues to learning, but perhaps one of the most direct is simple observation. Kids learn best by example, whether it’s a toddler imitating Mommy talking on the phone or a high schooler picking up new slang words from his friends. Social learning theory holds that people learn by observing the examples of those around them, both good and bad.

General Principles

Social learning theory focuses on learning that occurs within a social context, meaning that people learn from observing, imitating or modeling others. According to J.E. Ormrod’s book, “Human Learning,” people can learn by observing the behaviors of others and the outcomes of those behaviors.


Social learning theory also concentrates on the rewards, or reinforcements, that we receive for behaviors. Reinforcements could be concrete objects or praise, or more abstract things like a reduction of tension or increased self-esteem, according to Margaret Delores Isom, professor of criminology at Florida State University. Reinforcements or punishments that result from learned behaviors have a major effect on the behaviors that people exhibit. For example, a student who changes how he dresses to fit in with a certain crowd has a good chance of being accepted and thus reinforced by that crowd. The same idea applies to punishments.

Theories about Aggression

The man behind social learning theory, Albert Bandura, believed that aggression was a socially learned behavior. He claimed that kids learn to be aggressive by watching the violent actions of family members, friends or the media. In one of his studies, children watched a video of a model hitting an inflated clown doll. One group of children saw the model being praised for his behavior, and, without being told to do so, that group of kids also began to hit the doll.

Practical Applications

Many behaviors, good and bad, can be learned through modeling. Parents and teachers can take advantage of social learning theory by providing kids with examples of desired behaviors, or modeling. According to Ormrod, examples of behaviors that can be learned through modeling are reading, demonstrations of math problems, and even bravery or courtesy. Moral thinking is also influenced by observation and modeling. Kids learn how to choose between right and wrong by watching adults make these decisions.

Conditions for Modeling

Ormrod writes that four conditions are necessary before an individual can successfully model the behavior of someone else. First, the individual must pay attention to the model. He must also be able to remember the behavior that has been observed, which is made easier with repetition. Third, he must be ready developmentally and physically to replicate the action, which is important to remember when trying to teach very small children. Finally, he must have motivation; he must want to demonstrate what he’s learned.