Learning Through Behavior Modeling

Behavior modeling is observational learning. Children learn by observing the people in the world around them. When your infant observes you smiling, he will learn to smile. When your toddler watches you throw a ball, she will learn to throw a ball. When your three-year-old observes you using colorful language with a telemarketer on the phone, he will enjoy repeating that phrase on his next phone call with Grandma.

Yes! Children are always observing and, therefore, always learning. They are tuned not only into what you are doing but also into your emotions. If you get angry and start slamming pots and pans because you burned dinner, your son will learn not only that slamming pots and pans is an acceptable behavior when you're angry, but also that burning dinner is reason enough to be angry. This is all the more reason to learn as much as you can about behavior modeling. A successful parent will use this observational learning process to her advantage. She will turn it into a useful parenting tool.


Don't think you'll ever fool them. Your children know you better than anyone in this world. If you are sad, tell them you're sad, and if you can, why. If you choose to tell them that nothing is wrong, you will be teaching them the unhealthy practice of burying their feelings.

The History Behind Modeling

Modeling comes from cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory, or social cognitive theory. He believed that people acquire behaviors through the observation of others and then imitate what they have observed. One of his most famous studies involved the Bobo doll, an inflatable, egg-shaped doll that was weighted on the bottom so you could punch it and it would wobble but not fall over. It always returned to its upright position. At the time of the study, Bobo the clown was painted on the doll. The study group consisted of a woman, Bobo, and a group of kindergartners. The woman punched Bobo saying “Sockeroo,” hit him with a hammer, sat on him, and kicked him. The children giggled and enjoyed watching her play with the toy. They were then led to an observational playroom that had a brand-new Bobo in it. The children proceeded to beat the daylights out of poor Bobo, obviously imitating the woman, even saying “Sockeroo” when punching him.

This, and hundreds of other studies like it, led Bandura to develop his theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he explains how so much of the learning that people do is based on observation of others' behavior. People don't have to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to learn how to behave. Observing others helps people see how new behaviors are performed, so that even if they don't imitate that behavior immediately, they have it filed away in their minds for the time when they do confront a new situation where the behavior can be applied. Observational learning can be broken into four underlying component processes.

Will Modeling Work?

The first two underlying processes that make modeling work are observational. They are attention and retention. In order for a child to learn anything, he needs to be paying attention to the behavior. If he is sleepy or grumpy, he will not be paying attention and will not grasp the full scope of what is happening. Therefore, he will not be able to imitate it. Likewise, if the child is not able to remember the behavior—retention—he will also not be able to imitate it.

The second two underlying processes are reactional. They are reproduction and motivation. In order to model a behavior, the child must be capable of reproducing it. A boy who watches his father hit a home run in baseball may be able to swing a bat but not yet have the eye-hand coordination it takes to hit the ball. Fortunately, a person's ability to reproduce a behavior improves with practice. If the father praises his son on his efforts, he will be providing motivation to continue that particular behavior. Through this practice-praise cycle, the son will someday learn to hit the ball and possibly imitate his father's home run.


The social learning theory has been used to help psychologists and other researchers understand aggression and psychological disorders, particularly issues in behavior modification. It is also the theoretical foundation for the technique of behavior modeling that is widely used in many training programs.

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