Monkey see, monkey do: Model behavior in early childhood

Helping children discover positive behaviors through observational learning.

Children learn and imitate behaviors by watching and listening to others.
Children learn and imitate behaviors by watching and listening to others.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do?” Children, it turns out, will actually do both. Children learn and imitate behaviors by watching and listening to others. This is sometimes called “observational learning,” when children can learn things simply by observing others. The models do not have to be people that the child directly interacts with. Children learn from models all around them, on television, in the grocery store, at school and at home.

You have likely witnessed some observational learning with your child or even in your interactions with other children. Maybe your child comes home from school casting imaginary webs like Spiderman, even though they have never had any introduction to the character at home. Or perhaps they show off a new, not-so-child-friendly vocabulary word after the family reunion. Wherever they are, whomever they are around, children are observing and learning.

Watching a specific behavior does not necessarily mean a child will perform the behavior themselves; watching someone break a toy does not automatically mean your child will begin destroying things. Whether or not they demonstrate a new behavior, they are picking up new knowledge. Children are learning about the behavioral choices of others and also about the consequences of those behaviors.

What modeled behaviors children will imitate depends partly on what sort of reinforcement those behaviors receive. People are more likely to imitate a behavior if they get some sort of positive reinforcement for it. For example, if a child overhears another child swearing, he might learn new words, but may not necessarily use them. If, however, the child gets some sort of reward for swearing, such as acceptance or encouragement from an adult, an observing child might be more likely to copy this behavior. Don’t forget that laughter can be an unintended positive reinforcement. The same can be said if someone witnesses a negative reinforcement, such as scolding for swearing. A child may be less likely to imitate the behavior.

Through the process of modeling, children can learn aggressive behaviors by observing them. Sometimes this occurs through live models and direct experiences, but it often happens by watching television and other programming where aggressive behaviors occur. If these aggressive behaviors are reinforced, children might be likely to imitate them and execute aggressive acts themselves.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, children can also acquire prosocial behaviors through observational learning. Watching someone cooperate, share, take turns and demonstrate altruistic acts can teach children to show those behaviors too.

Michigan State University Extension has some tips on how to ensure your child has opportunities to witness and experience modeling in a positive way.

Be intentional about your child’s surroundings. Do your best to surround your children with constructive models and situations where positive behaviors are reinforced. If there are places, people or activities that model negative or worrisome behavior, work to find more positive situations for your child.

Notice the positive. When it comes to child behavior, you will often get more of the behaviors you are noticing. Point out positive behaviors in your child and in others, provide reinforcement and talk about them with your child. Catch your child being good!

Limit or eliminate exposure to negative influences. Violent or aggressive television shows, movies, games or activities are teaching your child. Even interactions with other children and adults can prove to be a negative modeling experience for your child. When possible, limit or eliminate these experiences and work to provide more positive models for your child. When in doubt, think of your child doing exactly what they are observing and ask yourself if you would be proud of that behavior. If the answer is “no,” you may be helping your child learn a lesson you don’t want them to know.

Talk about it. When a situation cannot be avoided or a child witnesses negative modeling behavior, think of it as a teachable moment. You can talk to your child about what constitutes acceptable and helpful behavior, what it looks like and why the negative behaviors are not acceptable. Children not only learn from watching, but listening too.

Do as you say. You are your child’s first and most important teacher. They are watching and learning from you each and every day, whether or not you intend to teach them. Show them kindness and love, model compassion and helpfulness and teach them positive ways of interacting with people and the world around them.          

Learn more about modeling and technological influences in the following Michigan State University Extension articles:

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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