Social Learning Theory

All about the social learning theory and how it can be applied to areas of a child's development and evaluating the effectiveness of the theory.

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Social learning theory - how learning takes place

Social learning theory believes that learning can take place in several ways and these are:

- As a result of Reinforcement

- By Modelling

- By extracting cognitions from observed behaviours

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How learning takes place


Social learning theorist agree with Skinners belief that consequences of behaviour can influence learning.

These methods can all shape a child's behaviour:

- Rewarding

- Encouragement

- Punishment

- Discouragement

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Modelling means observing behaviour and imitating it.

The theory suggests people can acquire new behaviours simply by observing and imitating them EVEN if those behaviours are not rewarded or encouraged.

Parents and siblings influence a child's behaviour the most in their younger years and as they get older it becomes their peers influence that affects their behaviour the most.

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Extracting cognitions:

Children look for a pattern or rule in the behaviours they observe.

This then enables them to work out rules of behaviour, or beliefs about how a person should behave.

An example: children can learn when it is, and is not, appropriate to tell lies by observing truth-telling and lying in their parents.

Children can discover rules of behaviour but not be able to put them into practice.

Social learning theory (unlike other theories such as Skinner's learning theory) recognise the importance of cognitions in learning.  

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Application of social learning theory to prosocial

Social learning theory provides several explanation of prosocial and antisocial behaviours which involve these behaviours being developed by reinforcement, modelling and extracting cognitions.

Example: One christmas when Huw was 6 years old, his older sister recieved a box of chocolates. Huw was surprised when his sister shared the box of chocolates with everyone. If he had recieved the chocolates, he would have preferred to keep them for himself. Another occasion, Huw noticed other people sharing sweets. He decided sharing was the right thing to do. A year later Huw one a prize of sweets in a competition. He decided to share his sweets with the other competitors. His trainer praised him for doing so.

The example illustrates the main processes of the social learning theory. He observed the positive behaviour and then he extracts the rule from the examples he has seen that sharing sweets is the right thing to do. When he shares his sweets around he is modelling the behaviour he observed in others including his sister's behaviour.  The behaviour is then reinforced when his trainer praised him for sharing the sweets he won around.

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Key study on antisocial behaviour

Bandura (1965) studied the modelling of aggressive behaviour. He showed the children a film of an adult attacking a Bobo doll. In the film the adult was kicking, punching and throwing the bobo doll.

Three groups of children were used, to study three different conditions.

These were:

 - Group A: saw the adult being rewarded with praise, sweets and lemonade after beating up the doll.

- Group B: saw the adult being told off after beating up the doll.

- Group C: was a control group, who just saw the aggressive behaviour.


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After seeing the film, each child spent 10 minutes in turn with the bobo doll. The child's behaviour was observed and the number of times the child copied the adults behaviour was recorded.

Children in group A & C showed similar levels of imitation of the aggression. This suggests that children will model aggressive behaviour regardless of whether or not they have the behaviour rewarded.

Children in group B showed much less aggression. This suggests that the children had extracted the cognition that aggressive behaviour would be punished.

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Evaluation of social learning theory explanation o

Social learning theory is a convincing explanation for the acquisition of pro- and antisocial behaviours.

It's unlikely to be a complete explanation. This is because two children exposed to similar behaviour will not always show the same degree of pro-social and antisocial behaviour. ( every child is different & therefore will not react in the same way as another child)

Genetic and biological differences between children, produces differences in personality and temperament which then affects a child's behaviour.

Meaning biological differences affect prosocial and antisocial behaviours and social learning theory over looks this.

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