Aspects of Social Learning Theory which Can Inform the Care of Children and Young People

Date Posted: Thursday, 6 November 2008


Social learning theory in my view brings together a number of approaches from different schools of psychology. Like behaviourists, social learning theorists agree that  the conditioning of  punishments and rewards can play an important role. However, they also pay great attention to the mental processes intervening between the perception of a stimulus and the decision to respond. Unlike behaviourist theories, social learning theory suggests that value judgements are always being made when a particular type of behaviour is being considered.
With his research and writing during the 1960s and 1970s the Canadian born Albert Bandura is the psychologist most closely associated with social learning theory and his work particularly his book Social Learning Theory published in 1977 greatly influenced the direction psychological theory and research was to take from the 1980s onward. Social learning theory is now often described as Social Cognitive Theory. The aspects of social learning theory which I focus on here are ‘observational learning’ and ‘modelling’.


Observational learning and modelling

Bandura is the psychologist most closely associated with the notion of observational learning. While he accepted the behaviourist Skinner’s view that we learn to do what we do because of the direct reinforcement of our responses to stimuli, Bandura added that we learn also by observing the consequences of other people’s actions. We can then imitate or ‘model’ ourselves on the behaviours that bring rewards and avoid those that are punished. We don’t have to wait to be run over by a car ourselves before we learn to be careful when we are on the street.
Bandura’s principal method of research consisted of observing children who were shown a ‘model’ behaving in a particular manner. The extent to which they imitate the model was then measured. The results appeared to show that children are more likely to imitate models

• who are similar to themselves.
• who are seen to be rewarded for their actions.
• who have some kind of prestige (because of their possessions, their strength and so on).

Other factors also appeared to play a role:

  • if the motivational elements are increased, for example by offering a reward for imitation of the model, then subjects are more willing to imitate.
  • when previous experience influences the attention paid to particular aspects of the model’s behaviour; for example children who are accustomed to violence are more likely to pay attention to violent aspects of the model’s behaviour.

Bandura concluded from his observations that learning does not take place solely through direct reinforcement. He described this type of learning as observational learning or vicarious learning because it seemed we learn by observing what happens to others. It has  also been referred to as imitative learning because we imitate what others do if we conclude from observation that their behaviour will be rewarding. Bandura was also quite sure that this kind of learning can be done symbolically through language. In this way, for example, parents can pass their attitudes to their children.


Self-regulatory processes

For Bandura the reinforcement of behaviour was internal as well as external. An important aspect of social learning theory is that a specific behaviour, besides merely producing an external outcome, also leads to a self-evaluative reaction. People ask themselves whether their conduct is satisfactory or not according to their standards.
But what happens if the two don’t coincide? For example, we may gain material rewards for behaviour which we consider unacceptable by our standards. It would be quite easy under certain circumstances to steal with little risk of being caught, but most of us don’t do it because there will be no self-reinforcement; We are, according to Bandura, prevented from doing it by a sense of self-reproach.
This strongly suggests that reinforcement is not as straightforward as the behaviourists stated. External reinforcement certainly works, but it will be at its most effective when it is consistent with self-reinforcement. It will be at its least effective when it directly contradicts the self-evaluative response.
If we accept Bandura’s views, the implications of social learning theory for those who care for, educate and support children in the life space –  whether they do so as parents or professionally  – is clear. Adult behaviours and attitudes are models for children and influence children’s  actions and their values. The nature of  the behaviours and the values children develop from these adult models will influence  their individual and social development. Professional  carers too are  influenced by the models of carers from their own childhood and indeed are influenced by the caring models which colleagues provide for them.


The link between social learning theory and milieu and psychodynamic theory

Bandura concluded that people who held a low estimate of themselves credited their achievements to external factors rather than themselves and that people who have a strong sense of their own ‘efficacy’ deploy their attention to the demands of the situations they face and are spurred on by any obstacles in their way to greater effort to overcome them. Here I think Bandura is ranging on territory to do with the psychodynamic term ‘ego’, though I am sure he would not agree. Yet there are clear indications in social learning theory that we are influenced by our environment. Otherwise why would there be a person who could not credit himself with his own ‘efficacy’ while another has a strong sense of it ? In my view social learning theory though it does not offer sufficient explanation of how the reparation of already powerfully reinforced anti-social behaviours and values may be achieved, can helpfully be linked to aspects of psychodynamic theory and milieu theory to give further insight of  the developmental aspects of the relationships between adults and children. The psychoanalytic theorist Isobel Menzies Lyth, when considering the influence of the milieu on the development of the self in group living settings for children, wrote in a language of ideas which I feel Bandura would comfortably have accommodated.


Isobel Menzies Lyth’s theory of ‘introjective identification’

Menzies Lyth contended that healthy development depends on the availability of appropriate models of individuals, relationships and situations in a group living setting. While acknowledging that these models may be available to the children in the adults who care for them, she stresses that the individual adult’s relationship with the children, together with the adults’ relationships with each other and  the ambiance of the setting for care, are all also models for what she calls ‘introjective identification’. In identifying with the caring adult, the child takes the adult’s attributes into herself.  Menzies Lyth recognizes too that a child’s healthy development may require the management of the child’s identification  with inappropriate models, for example other children within the institution. She argues that children in the group living setting of an institution are likely to find the most significant models for identification within the institution as a whole, and in its sub-systems and in the individual children and staff. Like Bettelheim (1974), she saw this process as the basis of the concept of the institution as a therapeutic milieu whose primary task may be described as providing conditions for healthy development and providing therapy for emotionally damaged children. It follows that all the child’s experiences in the institution contribute positively or negatively as models for the child’s development, not only through education, individual or group therapy or child care, but also by the more general features of the institution. Such an aggregate she argues, points to a need to take a wide view of an institution in assessing its effectiveness in carrying out its primary task. This assessment would include the whole way the institution functioned, its management structure, including its division into sub-systems and how these related to each other, the nature of authority and how that is operated, the social defence system built into the institution, and its culture and traditions. These factors have to be considered in the context of how far they facilitate the provision of healthy models for identification, or alternatively inhibit the provision of such models. Although it is possible to regard the whole institution as the model, Menzies Lyth suggests that for the child the impact of the living setting is in large measure mediated through its staff who are the individual models for identification. While individual staff have their own personalities with their differing strengths and weaknesses within the institution, she maintains that the extent to which individual staff are able to deploy their personalities, their different qualities, their strengths and weaknesses within the group care setting will depend on characteristics inherent in the institution. She argues that due attention should therefore be given to the maximizing of the opportunities available for staff to deploy their capacities, and for it to be seen that children respond to them (Menzies Lyth, 1987).
While Menzies Lyth here concerns herself with the institutional aspects of  a group living setting, I believe her ideas may be generalised to all the places where children live or attend; be it the family home, the day nursery, the children’s home, youth group or the school.


Concluding remark

I have considered Isobel Menzies Lyth’s thoughts at some length because I think her ideas can enrich thinking around Bandura’s theoretical stance. Social learning theory brings our attention to the fundamental  significance of the way adults present themselves as role models when they are with, are caring for, or educating children.

From your observations of the young people you work with, is social learning theory operative?
Are you aware of  being a ‘model’ for others ? How would you describe the characteristics of this process ?
Further reading

Bandura, A., & Walters. Richard H. (1959). Adolescent Aggression; A Study of the Influence of Child-training Practices and Family Interrelationships     New York: Ronald Press.

Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development   New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory    Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1989). ‘Social Cognitive Theory’ in R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of Child Development, Six theories of child development  Greenwich, CT: JAI Press   pp. 1-60

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control   New York: W. H. Freeman.

Bandura, A. (1999). ‘Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities’ in Personality & Social Psychology Review,  3 , pp193-209.

Bettelheim, B. (1974)   A Home for the Heart    London    Thames and Hudson

Menzies Lyth, I.(1985) ‘Development of the Self in Institutions’ in Containing Anxieties in Institutions: selected essays  I. Menzies Lyth. London. Free Association Books 1988. (pp236-264)

Sharpe, C. (2000) “In Care, In Therapy”? in Writings   C.Sharpe   Accessed online at

Skinner, B. (1938) The Behavior of Organisms : An Experimental Analysis    New York   D.Appleton-Century Company
Charles Sharpe, October, 2007
Revised November,2008

© and Charles Sharpe