How role models can influence learning in children

Role models can be anyone and anywhere. Children learn various behaviours through the observation of these role models. This observational learning, discovered was by Albert Bandura who is a psychology professor working at Stanford University and named this theory the ‘Social Learning Theory’. This theory is influenced by a wide variety of conditions that are required for the learning process to begin. These are: Attention, retention, motor reproduction and motivation.


Attention is required in the process of active observational learning through role models. Without the attention from children, their under-developed minds see you as non-existent until they are able to see you, which in turn means that they can’t imitate the behaviours observed.


Retention is remembering what the model actually did. If you are unable to retain the information or observation, you are not able to rehearse and implement it.

Motor Reproduction

In order to be able to imitate a behaviour or act and imitate it, a child needs to be able to replicate it. If a child observes how to do a back flip but is unable to do it, they will not imitate the behaviour.


A child needs to be motivated to learn the certain behaviour. Only seeing is not enough for learning from role models to begin, they need to have a reason to replicate the behaviour.

__These four conditions required are dependent on the following:__


If the behaviour that is shown to the child is consistent across many situations, they are significantly more likely to observe the behaviour than in a one off situation.

Identification with the model

The children need to identify with the model as this influences motivation. A male is much more likely to imitate a male’s behaviour and a soccer playing child is more likely to imitate a soccer player’s behaviour.

Rewards and Punishment

Also known as reinforcement, if a child observes somebody getting punished or rewarded for acting a certain way, they do not need to experience it themselves to learn that behaviour. Albert Bandura calls this Vicarious Reinforcement.

Liking the model

Last but not least, a child imitates behaviours more often from somebody they like, such as their parent or friend than somebody they don’t like cold and uncaring people.

Multiple psychology studies were carried out on Bandura’s theory which demonstrates the process of observation learning.

Bandura and Ross (1961)

The first study, carried out by Albert Bandura and a colleague of his, is famously known as the Bobo Doll study. In 1961, they brought in 72 children of both genders from the Stanford university nursing school. The children were shown a film of an adult acting aggressively towards a floating bobo doll, which included kicking it across the room and hitting it on the head with a mallet. However, there were three different conditions. In the first condition, the adult was then rewarded with sweets and candy upon beating the bobo doll. In the second condition, the adult was scolded and spanked after hitting the bobo doll. The final condition was the control group where they were neither punished nor rewarded.

The children were then let in to a room with a bobo doll and all the tools the adult used to hit it with. The results showed that the control and rewarded condition of children imitated the adult to equal levels of aggressiveness. However, the punished condition had a significantly lower level of aggression. Later, when the children were asked to reproduce the film, they were rewarded with candy for each act of aggression. All children showed the same level of aggression.

This study demonstrates that children are able to understand that they can be punished for behaviour just by seeing somebody else being punished for it. The control condition showing the same level of aggressiveness as the rewarded condition shows that children will imitate behaviour if they do not see the consequences of the behaviour, whether a reward is there or not.

Do children imitate aggressive behaviours through television?

Many people believe that children are often more aggressive due to what they see on television but is this really true? Psychologist T. Charlton and his colleagues performed a study on the small island of St. Helena where television was introduced in 1995. The study began in 1993. Their aim was to investigate the role of television in aggressive behaviour in children

Charlton et al (2002)

A study was conducted in which 160 children from St. Helena that were between 3-8 years old and had never seen television before had their behaviour analysed in 1994 and were also filmed in their play time. Their behaviour was analysed again, as well as their play times filmed after television was introduced. The film showed 26 different behaviours, ranging from aggressive to pro-social. Parents, teachers and other students were interviewed after the introduction of television to compare behaviour before and after it was introduced.

The results found that there were no increases of aggressive or anti-social behaviour after the introduction of television. This was still the case 5 years after the introduction of television. Charlton concluded that exposure to violent television does not necessarily increase aggressive behaviour in children. This shows that children are more likely to imitate behaviours from people they actually know and are near than those they see on television.

Both these studies demonstrate how role models can influence the learning of behaviours in children. This shows the importance of being a good role model around children as it can severely hinder their learning if you are not. This also explains why some children who were abused as a child then go on to abuse their own children. While their brain was developing, they did not learn how to be a parent when observing their parents and they now use the behaviours they observed on their own children. While this is not always the case, there is almost always a negative correlation between child abuse and behaviours in adulthood. However, children who have good role models almost always end up in a positive place in life.


Bandura, A. Ros, D. Ross, S. (1961) Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Retrieved from

Charlton, T. Hannan, A. Gunter, B. (2002) Broadcast TV Effects in a Remote Community (Mahaw, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates)

Children and adolescent | Education | Psychology

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