Observational learning (That moment when you realize your kid listens and watches everything you do)

observational learning

Observational learning is exactly what it sounds like — learning through observing. And let me tell you, there’s been so much more of it going on at my house than I ever realized. So my tot’s now not such a “tot” anymore since she turned four a month or so ago, and I’ve been seeing some serious attitude, behavior, growth, development, and all-around-cool stuff happening lately. I wrote this educational post for Funderstanding awhile ago and felt it was a good one to revisit, mainly because I caught my four-going-on-full-grown-year-old testing out a few of my favorite adult sayings the other day.

But there is more to it than that. 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 sweet 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 through watching and doing. And if your child is anything like mine, she’s watching and learning more than you even realize.

Observational Learning and The Brain

Okay, here are the facts: 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. And, of course, the children copied the modeled behavior, aggressively hitting and kicking those adorable bobo dolls. The realization that the children changed  behavior even 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.

Attention: Your child notices something within her environment and  is attentive to it. From the television to your cat to you, anything exciting and new is going to capture your sweet child’s attention.

Retention: As soon as she gloms on to that thing or person or behavior, it’s duly noted in her ever-growing brain.

Reproduction: Guess what? Your little one’s going to try out whatever caught her attention, without concern of repercussion.

Motivation: Depending on if you freak out or overly praise the behavior determines if it happens again. But, guess what? Sometimes even if your little one is treated negatively as a result of her tested-out behavior, she may do it again.

The mirror neuron theory along with observational learning encourages your child’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, which means once your sweet child starts repeating swear words you begin to realize how important observational learning really is.

Behavior and Observational Learning

Now 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. But, let’s be honest. We become frustrated when our child misbehaves and forget to look at our own actions. So we start  yelling and carrying on, and then punish our child when she yells in anger.


Modeling behavior is the first step in observational learning and is sometimes hard to remember to follow our own rules and regulations. If you ask your child not to eat in her room, but she sees you enjoying a snack in bed, she’s 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, and 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.

If you’re feeling heated the next time your tot misbehaves, take a deep breath and think about how you’re expressing your feelings. By modeling a calm put direct way of dealing with the situation, you’re helping your child do the same in the future.

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