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.

Repurposed artwork thank you cards

Thank you cards

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a drawer that’s always overflowing with my tot’s artwork. I save her creations from preschool, the fun doodles she makes on her own at home, and the exciting artworks we create together. She sometimes selects ones to display on the fridge and I stash others to show her when she’s all grown up. The other day the drawer was so full it wouldn’t close, meaning it was time to go weed through the creations. It’s hard trashing your child’s art, but before making the final cut, we used a stack for creating thank you cards to send to friends and family thanking them for all the wonderful holiday gifts.

This is a great activity to do with tots just starting to figure out how to cut, which results in funky shapes and designs. Children as little as two can wield scissors with adult supervision, and cutting boosts your child’s budding fine motor skills. Older kids can enjoy cutting shapes for creating cards with patterns or representational forms. Right now my daughter is still figuring out the whole “cutting” thing, but has mastered the open-mouthed concentration while working…

thank you cards1

After you have a nice stack of shapes and funky forms, offer your child some glue to coat the cut paper and press onto the front of blank cards, which you can find at your local craft store.

thank you cards2

To personalize the cards, offer your child a thank you stamp to press on the front of cards. Older kids can use letter stamps to press “thank you” on the cards or even write the letters themselves.

thank you cards3

We had a few other fun graphic stamps that my tot pressed around her cards, along with in the inside as her signature. We sat together and talked about the gifts she had received, and who they had come from, while I wrote short notes from what she shared in the cards.

thank you card4

After addressing the cards and sticking on stamps, we popped them in the mailbox and waited for our mail lady to come and whisk them away. At first my daughter was a little sad they were being taken but then we talked about how the mail works and how everyone was going to love opening her special thank you cards.

Along with being a great art activity, this is a really fun way of introducing the mail system to your child. Since creating her cards, we’ve set up our own post office and she’s wonderfully busy making cards, folding them into envelopes, and addressing and stamping them herself.

Fine art for kids: Black and white with Picasso

It’s been raining the last couple of days, making the tot and I a bit ornery. We knew the rain was coming, but it’s so dark in the mornings, causing us all to cuddle deeper under the covers instead of popping out excited about the day ahead. There’s nothing to rush for, so I curl into the bed and wait for my daughter to mumble “good morning” from her room letting me know she’s ready to start the day.

After about an hour of rubbing our eyes and figuring things out, we go about our daily routines. The husband heads to work, I sip tea and write stuff, and the tot either goes to preschool or does projects with me. Because of the dark, and somewhat dreary day, I couldn’t help being reminded of when I was teaching high school art and what I would do with a class that was stuck in the doldrums. I’d pop in a movie, shove sketch paper and sticks of charcoal under my students’ noses, and encourage them to doodle while zoning out.

Sometimes you just need to do nothing to find creativity.

One of my favorite things to pop in the old video player was this documentary of Picasso. The music is a bit funky, Picasso is crazy, his paintings are so simple but amazing, and it’s black and white — which is actually soothing.

After showing this snippet to my tot, we got out black and white paper and black and white paints. I offered her a sheet of white paper and a selection of paintbrushes ranging in size from big to small, along with black paint, and encouraged her to make interesting lines. This is a great activity for introducing focusing on making long and expressive lines to tots. Your little one really wants to go with her gut and simply scribble, but encouraging her to make shapes, or even attempting to draw a form, makes for an exciting creation. Older kids can paint exaggerated forms with simplistic details, just like Picasso.

Once your child is finished, swap the white paper and black paint for a sheet of black paper and the white paint. Leave the black painted sheet of white paper within sight and encourage your child to create the same design, but with the white paint on the black paper.

Once the paintings are dry, display them side by side to see how they are similar and different.

Fine art for kids: Tints and shades

There’s nothing like the moment when your little one picks her favorite color. It’s awesome and so cute and then it becomes obsessive and overwhelming. At first it’s totally adorable when your tot asks for clothes in her favorite color, hair clips in her favorite color… But then when it becomes, “that has to be ____ (insert favorite color)!” or “I want a ____ (insert favorite color) cupcake NOW!” Then you know the favorite color obsession has hit a new level.

So after a bit of drama the other day when I refused to let her only eat the red goldfish from the rainbow multi-color box, I decided it was a good opportunity to introduce how red can be lots of different colors. Yes, I want to continue to encourage her to love the color red, but also expand her horizons to seeing more than just that bright hue.

Tints and shades are variations on a color, or hue. By adding white to a color you create a tint. When black is mixed with a color, a shade is created. I used to tell kids in the classroom, trying to remember which is which, to think of pulling a shade in their bedroom to make it darker — just like when thinking about mixing paint to create a darker shade. It’s never too early to introduce color theory to tots, so gathered a few materials for a tints and shades of red painting.

Select your little one’s favorite color of paint as well as white and black. I also tore a few bits of red tissue paper of different shades for a bit more excitement. If you’ve got a wee tot like me, offer them a sheet of paper and then drop a few drips of the red, white, along with hardly any black on the paper. Older kids can squeeze a bit of each color of paint in three small containers to do the activity.

Now offer your child a paint brush and encourage her to paint the entire paper, watching what happens when her beloved favorite color mixes with the white and black.

Invite your tot to paint and press the tissue paper on her paper to see how the color changes. Keep painting until all the white paper is covered. Add a few drips here and there as needed.

Let the paper dry and then find a special spot to display the tints and shades creation!

Good stuff

It was a wonderful week – my parents came for a quick visit, which was really awesome. I’m a bit busy at the moment so it was fantastic to have my mom and dad to hang with the tot while I got stuff done. I wish they were just a short drive away, but they aren’t, so we enjoy every possible minute of our visits. One of my favorite parts of this visit was heading to a local park for a good ol’ bird feeding session. While watching my tot hurtle handfuls of breadcrumbs at the birds, I couldn’t help laugh at her enthusiasm. She had named all the birdies before we left to go play in the park.

Tossing stale bread at the birds is also a great way to encourage gross motor skills! Your child coordinates big movements of the body with the brain, getting that bread to land in just the right spot in front of just the right bird. Looking for other fun ways to hone gross motor skills with your tyke? Check out this awesome post I put together over at LilSugar!



Happy Sunday!

Toddler drama

I’m no expert – just a mom. And I’m a toddler mom, so I guess I am an expert in some way or another. However, right now while I write this, my toddler is throwing a seriously epic tantrum. It’s putting a big halt to my afternoon plans, which included going for a jog, maybe some ice cream, reading a book while she played happily in the mud and so forth. My husband, as awesome as he is, can’t tolerate the toddler drama. His blood temperature rises (and sometimes his voice), so I usually shoo him outside or away when the tantrums unfold.


We were just about to walk into the store when it started. She didn’t want to sit in the cart – she wanted to walk all on her own. Because we were planning on doing a bit more shopping than toddler strolling allowed, we insisted she sit in the cart.


And things escalated from there.

Instead of trying to reason with her (really, I actually did so I’m kind of lying right now – there was total bribery involved but it didn’t work), I sent the husband inside to pick up the items we needed right now and took the screaming tot to the car.

Pummeling fists, kicking legs, and screaming ensued.

I shoved her into the car seat, locked her up tight, rolled down the windows, and hung-out around the car checking my Instagram feed while she SCREAMED AT THE TOP OF HER LUNGS.

Sure, lots of people stared me down. I just smiled back.

Toddlers have drama, there’s just no way around it, and sometimes it’s best to just let things go.

I’m not going to hug and kiss her and offer her this or that to get her to stop. I’m not going to give in when she’s the one that needs to do the right thing.

I’m just as stubborn – if not more – than she is.

But there are a few things you can do when your tot has a breakdown:

Take a deep breath! This sometimes isn’t the easiest thing to do when your toddler is screaming her head off, but just do it. After you get some air into your lungs, calmly tell your child what is going to happen – and stick to it. I told my tot that if she didn’t sit in the cart we would go to the car. She didn’t sit in the shopping cart so we went to the car.

Don’t bribe. Yeah, so I can’t really say I didn’t try, but when your child is already in the middle of a tantrum, most times she is so worked up even offering that bribe isn’t going to register. Older toddlers are starting to figure out that this type of behavior often results in receiving what they want, which isn’t great for us adults.

Try a distraction. If your child isn’t in the middle of throwing herself to the floor (which means she’s at the beginning stages of a total tantrum), offer a distraction. Sing a song, point out something amazing (LOOOOOK a dog!), or tickle her. This often works for us, but today things had already hit the uber tantrum level.

 Act like nothing is happening. Take it from me, removing yourself from the situation, while still being close enough if your child starts being a danger to herself, is a great way to de-stress the situation. After the husband got in the car with our essentials, we acted as if we didn’t have a crazed toddler in the back seat and, as soon as we arrived home, I deposited in her room and picked up my laptop. I’ve been typing away for about 20-minutes now and she’s starting to calm down.

Talk about it later. Whenever we have a breakdown like this I always make sure to talk about it later. I offer her the words she might need to tell me about why she got so upset. I also make sure to share how I felt frustrated with the situation and discuss how we can make things better next time. It’s important to give big hugs and kisses once things have calmed down to let your child understand you still think she is super special even though things weren’t so fun for a little bit.

What works at with your tot when it’s toddler drama time? DO SHARE!

I’m off to chat with my little creature so we can hopefully still have that ice cream….



Impromptu learning – Spiders

Yesterday, while I was trying to get a bit of work done and the tot was watching Curious George, she came into my office and said there was a spider under the floor. I assumed her yammering was connected to something she was watching so I brushed her off and kept typing. But, a few minutes later, she came back to tell me the spider was really under the floor. Then my brain hiccupped back to last year (remember the black widow incident?!) and I went to make a thorough investigation. Sure enough, there was a spider, but just a small one, crawling along the floor. I am not a fan of spiders – at all. But she was looking at me with those big, excited eyes, so instead of squashing it up, I grabbed a glass lidded jar, swept in the spider, and figured it was time for some impromptu learning.


My toddler is three. No need for bug vs. spider discussions – just a bit of observational learning. We discussed what color the spider was, how many legs he had, how he could walk upside down, if he had a family – or a name…

learning about spiders

After about an hour (full of showing the entire house to the spider) I was beginning to become worried about lil’ spider’s well-being and declared it time to head outside. We could look for spider’s family and release him if we found any relatives.

It was decided that spider loved water so a shallow mud-pit was created. During this time, spider was positioned safely on a table so he could see.


When I asked my tot if she was ready to let spider go and have lunch time, she said NO.



I have to KEEP HIM.

He LOVES me.

All I could think was that dear old spider was going to be lifeless any second and how I needed to use my super-mom abilities to save poor spider (whom I actually didn’t really like). I offered lunch and the incentive of some sort of sweet treat, which sent the tot trotting up the stairs. While her back was turned (and hopefully before she’d remember to grab spider) I popped the top of the jar and hoped spider would make a quick escape.

Once upstairs, she realized she had forgotten spider, looked out the window and observed the open container.

Oh NO! SPIDER! Ohhhhhh!

We talked about how spider had decided it was time to find his family but that he’d probably be back to visit.

After lunch, and a quick clean-up and change, we sat down to draw spider – and his family.

Drawing spiders

We taped the finished drawing to the fridge and both enjoyed a much-needed nap/quiet time.



Toddler art

displaying your child's artwork

My tot is totally into getting creative. Along with making lots of art, she has begun to master the concept of putting her art tools away and how to display her own artwork. I’ve also encouraged this through a few simple things, like giving her a dedicated drawer in the kitchen to keep her crayons and such and leaving out the tape for her to use. Displaying your child’s artwork shows you are proud of her creativity, which encourages her to strive to create more. For toddlers, creativity is more about the process than the end result, meaning most artworks won’t be representational in any way – just a bunch of big scribbles.

Nurturing self-esteem is one way to foster successful, healthy, and happy kids (and adults). For toddlers, art is one of the main means of self-expression, so when your child sees her art displayed within the home, she truly feels special. We adults can focus on:

– The child’s ideas (and not our own) during creative times. Hey, if your toddler wants to scribble her way through a drawing of a dinosaur cooking dinner, so be it.

– Providing accessible art materials available for when your child wants to create. This is a challenge because no one wants crayon-coated walls. Start with leaving out paper and stickers and eventually moving to mark making implements as the child develops. I cleared out a drawer in the kitchen and my tot has proudly organized her art materials. Here’s her craft drawer compared to mine….

craft drawer

– Creating a comfortable creative space. No matter if it’s a spot at the kitchen table or a dedicated art table, if your child has a go-to scribble spot, she’ll feel good about getting arty when she feels the creative juices flowing.

– Allowing your child to display her finished artworks! Sure, if you have a few favorites along the way, pop them in an old frame or hang from a clothesline in your home. Leaving out a few strips of tape for your child to use to hang her own creations is a wonderful way for her to be in charge of where she wants her art to be seen. I tear off a few strips and leave them on the edge of the kitchen counter for her to pull off and then stick onto her paper – and then wherever she wants that art to go (which is usually the fridge).

I love finding the tot totally engrossed in getting creative without any prompting. Sometimes it involves mess, but, hey, that’s what sponges are for, right?

making art

Sticker finger paint

sticker finger paint

This is such a simple project with fun – and educational – results. Along with honing fine-motor skills, it also encourages color recognition. Toddlers love getting messy – and finger paint doesn’t disappoint. Combining stickers and finger paint also creates a multi-step activity, which also helps tots learn how to wait and follow directions. This doesn’t mean that things are going to go smoothly – plan for chaos by having wet-wipes or a few damp paper towels handy and donning your tot in a smock or okay-for-mess clothing.

Finger painting is an exciting way to introduce color theory through mixing paints. Most toddlers are on their way to mastering color recognition, which means it’s time for the next step. Using two colors keeps things from turning into a big brownish-grey mess o’ paint. Most tots are also still in the scribble stage and getting pretty comfortable using pencils, crayons, and markers to draw, draw, draw.  This activity encourages kids to use the entire paper, focusing on the big picture, and use something exciting (fingers!) to make those big scribbles.

Start by taping a sheet of white drawing paper to your work area or on a plastic place mat. Offer your toddler a selection of stickers to peel and stick to the paper. We used a combination of puffy stickers as well as regular stickers to mix things up and add to the fun textural feel when finger painting.

sticker finger paint

Once your tot has finished stickering, place about a tablespoon of one color of finger paint on the paper. Encourage your child to spread that finger paint all over the paper until it is completely covered.

Now add a small dollop of another color of finger paint for your child to mix with the first color observing what color is created. See if your child can figure it out all on her own!

sticker finger paint

Let the finger paint dry and then invite your child to peel the stickers from the paper revealing the white paper underneath. Removing the stickers takes focus and concentration – as well use of those fine-motor skills!

Hang the finished sticker finger paint creation on the fridge for all to see.


Healthful Mondays – Eating with your kids

yogurt fettuccine

Things have been seriously crazy over here. I had an awesome job interview last week, the tot and I spent lots of wonderful quality time together (now that we stopped going to the preschool), and I made the big decision to have us start eating dinner together every night. What we had done was I fed our daughter dinner around 5 or so. Then, when the hubs arrived home at 6 – 6:30-ish, he’d have one-on-one time with her until bedtime at 7:30. But, by that time, she was out of control, not fun, and my husband wasn’t having any sort of quality time with her at all. Then, after we put the tot to bed, I’d cook dinner (and have a drink) and we’d have adult dinner around 8:30.


Since stopping the preschool (another story for another time) the tot’s behavior has been better, but we still seemed to be running into a bit of trouble during the last few hours of her day. And the two dinner thing wasn’t working. I decided we’d try eating all together around 6:30. I figured she’s old enough to start sitting with us while eating, and we’re old enough that we really should be eating much earlier in the evening, so we tried it for the entire week.

Some nights were better than others.

I’ll be honest, by the weekend I’d decided I needed a break, so the tot  enjoyed peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches (her new favorite) while I cooked our adult dinners that we enjoyed after she went down for the night.

The highlight? *Creamy yogurt fettuccine! Along with a more enjoyable time together in the evenings, our toddler loves setting out napkin placemats for us, learning more about table manners, and assisting with dinner clean-up!

yogurt fettuccine for toddlers

Eating together as a family has so many benefits, including an opportunity to really chat together about everyone’s day, and studies show eating family meals encourage healthy eating habits, better school performance, and positive behavior. I grew up in a family that ate together every night, which was sometimes seriously annoying as a teenager, but it worked. I sulked my way through many a dinner, but deep down I valued that time together with my family. Even after my sister had gone off to college, I sat down to eat with my parents most nights of the week.

On a side note, I had a tragedy over the weekend. My laptop crashed. This was seriously traumatic for me – resulting in a bit of crying and some serious brooding. Wonderfully, it was an $80 fix, but I lost everything on the computer. Everything. I hadn’t backed-up my pictures in months, resulting in hundreds and hundreds of lost pictures. Yes, I take a lot of pictures, and, now that I’ve got the fancy phone, many are on the phone, but I’m still a bit sad over what’s not there anymore. I got a seriously wrist slapping from the husband about how I hadn’t backed up. All I’m saying is invest in a small hard drive, or get yourself set up with a back-up system, and back your stuff up! This way if your computer decides to take a dive you won’t lose your precious stuff.


Do it now.

(It was also my birthday and my husband bought me a cake – and lots of chocolate)

Happy Monday!

*I’ll share the recipe for yogurt fettuccine later in the week….