What is Observational Learning & How it Affects Your Child

Have you ever watched a video on YouTube to learn how to do something? Although not everyone is familiar with it by name, we all have experience with observational learning. It's exactly what it sounds like. Learning new things by watching others do something. This ultimately allows us to build new skills and abilities, all thanks to observation. There are four types of learning styles: Visual (observational), listening (auditory), kinesthetic (hands-on), reading/writing. Although we can engage in observational learning at any stage during our life, it starts with young children. They say kids are like sponges, soaking up what they see. This is because the act of learning through watching is the main part of the socialization process. For example, when your child learns how they should respond to other people, they base this on the behaviors they see. They’re looking at their family, friends, and teachers to see how they should interact with others.

The 4 Stages of Observational Learning

This learning process happens over four stages. Motivational or social reasoning should be involved in the situation. This variable will influence whether your child will decide to try what they see or avoid that behavior in the future. Example: Your child watches their parent smoke every day. They may imitate that action or try it themselves.

Who is Modeling This Type of Learning to Them

Your child is learning these things from a model. We aren't talking about a fashion model (unless your child wants to be a fashion model, then we are talking about them). But you ask, what makes someone a model for your child? A model for a child is someone they look up to, admire, a family member, someone famous, or someone that rewards them for learning.

Here are the four stages of observational learning:

    1. Attention

Your child needs to be in the correct mindset. They must have enough energy to focus on the behavior that the other person is performing. Your child must also be able to watch the other person for enough time. Otherwise, they won’t likely understand what they’re doing.

Example: Your toddler watches you dust the house with a cloth or duster every week. You may see them wiping down surfaces of their toys or the furniture that they can reach with a washcloth.

    1. Retention

Next, retention will happen if your child is focused on the other person who is demonstrating. To help learn, the information must be demonstrated in an easy-to-remember format.

Example: Your child watches you tie their shoes. They want to try themselves, so you show them one of the tried and true methods out there (bunny ears, bow, or cheerio being the most popular methods).

    1. Reproduction

If your child paid attention and remembers the information, they may be able to do the action they watched. Depending on your child, their ability to do what they observed can vary. Not every person can successfully imitate every action. Being able to focus and remember isn’t a guarantee that your child will be able to do what they watched either.

Example: Watching someone dive into a pool repeatedly doesn't mean they can do it without trying multiple times. It will also take someone to give them pointers on how to do it correctly.

    1. Motivation

Once your child has learned a new behavior, they will need some motivation that pushes them to try it. If your child receives some reward for trying the behavior, it could motivate them. Alternately, if your child is punished for the behavior, it will discourage them from trying it.

Example: Your child sees one of their siblings get in trouble for hitting a friend. They learn that they shouldn't hit people.

The Outcome

When your children engage in observational learning, there can be both good and bad outcomes. The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that context is essential to observational learning—whether we’re considering positive or negative behaviors. Children won’t simply imitate every behavior that they see. The context of the situation is critical. For example, the likelihood that a child learns a particular behavior through watching could depend upon who they’re watching. Also, if there's parental involvement. Or who they are watching the behavior with. As you can see, learning isn’t just about direct involvement in a particular behavior. Instead, some learning is subtle, such as when a person engages in observational learning.

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