Behavioral Vs. Social Learning Theories

By Rebecca Herron

Child-develoment theories about how children learn can be divided roughly into behavioral and social-learning explanations in the field of psychology. Behavioral explanations seek to show how environmental interaction influences behavior. While based on the behavioral theories of classical and operant learning, social-learning theories go further, aruging that children learn in more ways than by direct influences.

Classical Conditioning

Beginning with the work of Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov and adopted by U.S. psychologist John Watson, the classical conditioning theory proposed that learning is reflexive to environmental stimuli. In his well-known experiment with "Little Albert," in which he taught the boy to fear a white rat, Watson showed that children can be conditioned to respond to stimuli and thereby learn a new behavior.

Operant Conditioning

American behaviorist B.F. Skinner developed operant conditioning, proposing that children also learn through the consequences of their actions. This method of learning occurs within the context of rewards and punishments.

Environmental Influences

Classical and operant conditioning together form the theory that learning is based on environmental influences. These influences are either reinforcements, which increase the probability of the behavior being repeated, or punishments, which decrease the probability of the behavior being repeated.

Social Learning

The social-learning theory, proposed by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, was built on the principles of the behavioral learning theories. Bandura proposed that while children did learn through reinforcement and punishment, these influences were not always required for learning to occur.

Observation and Imitation

Bandura's social-learning theory proposed that children also learn through observing the behavior of others and how those behaviors are reinforced or punished. The child then imitates the behaviors he sees are reinforced and avoids the behaviors that are punished.

About the Author

Rebecca Herron has received a background in education from Bluefield State College which, in addition to four years of study, involved volunteer service in public schools and student teaching split between the elementary and middle school levels. She has written online for various websites.