How Children Learn New Behaviours

Manners and etiquettes are the integral parts of a person’s behaviour. The righteousness and depravity of good manners and etiquettes define how acceptable, socially, the person is and how virtuous his social connections are. However, there is a big difference between showing and actually possessing good manners and etiquettes. Hence, it is essential that a person is exposed to righteous behaviour at an early age, so that he can adopt it as a natural habit (Sigelman & Rider, 2012). The prime objective of this argumentative essay is to investigate and present different theories that explain children’s learning behaviours, and argue upon the best theory among them. According to George (2015), three most widely accepted theories are: i.) John B. Watson’s theory of classical conditioning (Watson, 1913); ii.) B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1948); and iii.) Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977). The essay focuses on the Bandura’s Social Learning Theory and presents opinions and arguments for its superiority against the other mentioned theories. The essay also presents the conflicting views against the Social learning theory in brief.


The most important argument in favor of Social Learning Theory (SLT) is that it encompasses the elements of both Classical and Operant conditioning. According to Watson (1913), a child is born with a tabula rasa mind—an empty or blank slate of mind. The child’s personality is direct result of his experiences, which are added to the blank slate of his mind and make a permanent place in his behaviour. According to Heffner (2004), “Classical conditioning is demonstrated when a neutral stimulus obtains the eliciting properties of the unconditioned stimulus through the pairing between the two.”  Similarly, Skinner (1972) proposed that a child’s learning and behaviour is directly related to “Law of Effect”, according to which a child is more likely to act in a certain manner, if his act is appreciated or results in pleasant consequences. Social Learning Theory acknowledges both these theories, but also postulate that a child’s experiences are a result of his social learning, which is neglected by both Watson and Skinner (Hayes, 2000).
Watson (1913) and Skinner (1972) both neglected the cognitive competencies of a child’s mind, and focused primarily on child’s external experiences. Bandura (1977), however, focused his theory on the social learning of the child as well as his cognitive competencies of identification and imitation. According to Bandura (1965), “Most human behaviour is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” According to SLT, imitation is the first phase of child’s learning where he copies or repeats the act of his models (parents, teachers, friends), if these actions bring fruitful or pleasant results to him. The second phase of child’s learning is “Identification”. In this phase, child uses his imagination to understand how his role model would behave in a certain situation, and acts accordingly (Hayes, 2000). Identification process is more cognitive in nature, as, in this phase, a child is not just imitating the good behaviour of his model, but attempting to produce a positive or negative behaviour based upon how his role-models would have acted in the similar situation (Hays, 2000).
Another important argument that can be made in favor of Social Learning Theory is how it defines the personality of a child. According to Bandura (1977), a child personality is sum of his social learning and internal and external experiences. However, both Watson and Skinner completely ignore the internal aspects of a child learning, and postulate that personality is nothing but the “learned behaviours”. Watson and Skinner’s theories are often called “Black Box Theories”, as they don’t take child’s mind into account and focuses only on how a stimulus triggers certain behaviour in a child. Due to this reserved or “reductionist” nature of Watson and Skinner theories, SLT comes as a more liberal and comprehensive theory as compared to the other two.
An important point to be noted related to Bandura’s experiment is that it was conducted on the human children (Bandura et al., 1961). The experiment is well-known with the name of “Bobo Doll Experiment”, where he studied the behavior of 72 boys and girls (equal in number) of age between 3-6 years. The children observed different role models of different behaviours (Aggressive, Non-Aggressive), and a few children were not shown any model. The results showed that the children who were exposed to aggressive models showed aggressive behavior than others, and the children who were exposed to non-aggressive models showed non-aggressive behaviour (McLeod, 2011).  However, Watson and Skinner’s experiments were done on the animals (Boulding, 1984). “In using animals as substitutes for humans in the exploration of human behavior, Skinner is making the big assumption that general laws relating to the behavior of animals can be applied to describe the complex relations in the human world. If this assumption proves false, then the entire foundation upon which behaviorism rests will come crashing down. More experiments with human participants must be done to prove the validity of this theory (Boulding, 1984).” Hence, based on this argument, it can be said that Social Learning Theory is seen as a more accurate study of child’s behaviour than Watson or Skinner’s studies.
There is also a group of scholars and researchers who criticize experiment done by Baduro. The most common argument is that the Bobo Doll Experiment was enforced on the children, especially while studying their aggressive behaviour. Children were not allowed to touch the toys and were teased which resulted in their annoyance and hence aggressive behaviour (Worthman and Loftus, 1998). Worthman and Loftus (1998) quoted: “How many more of the experiments finding a link between violence on television and aggressive behavior have ethical problems? It is not surprising that the children had long-term implications because of the methods imposed in this experiment.”
Another criticism against Social Learning Theory is that this theory doesn’t take into consideration the biological state of the individuals (Jeffrey, 1990). As no two children are same and they can have vast differences in their genetic structure, brain structure, IQ level and learning habits, Banduro fails to explain these factors while postulating Social Learning Theory (Jeffrey, 1990).  Hence, it can be argued that though SLT has hit the chord at the right places to define behaviour aspects in children, it still needs more elaborated approach to cover many other factors that help children develop their personality and behavioural traits.
This argumentative essay presented various arguments in favor and against the social learning theory, and attempted to prove how this theory is best available theory to present how children learn and adopt different behavioural habits. The arguments in favor of Social Learning Theory are: i.) it acknowledges both Classical and Operant conditioning theories. Further, it can be seen as a bridge between non-cognitive and cognitive theories related to social learning of children; ii.) SLT is focused on both the social learning of the child as well as the cognitive capabilities of identification and imitation; iii.) SLT is based on experiments conducted on the children as compared to Watson and Skinner’s experiments which were conducted on animals. In spite of having so many positives, SLT is not entirely a perfect theory. There are some limitations to it, such as: it doesn’t take into account the biological state (genetics, IQ, Brain and learning habits) of the individuals. Furthermore, a few researchers have criticized the conditions in which Bobo Doll Experiment was conducted. After studying all these points, it can be concluded that: although there are certain shortcomings in Social Learning Theory, it has several advantages over other theories. It has been adopted widely to understand the behavioural growth of children and can be said as the best available theory to explain how children learn social behaviour.


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About Francesco

Francesco was born and raised in Italy where he studied Law at the prestigious University of Naples. As a thinker, he enjoys problem-solving, being creative, and experimenting with new ideas. For ten years he travelled the world seeking knowledge and life experiences. He has lived in the UK and in South-East Asia and finally settled in Melbourne, Australia. Francesco completed his degree in Psychology and his Master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP). Francesco is happiest when helping peple achieve a better life.

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