The 4 Processes Of Observational Learning And Its Implications

According to Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura‘s Social Cognitive Learning Theory, observational learning can affect the behaviour of a child, whose consequences can be both positive and negative. This is one of the reasons why gaining knowledge about the 4 processes of observational learning and its implications becomes crucial for parents, teachers and caregivers.

While observational learning can teach completely new behaviours in a child, it can also increase or decrease the frequency of behaviours that the child has already learned.

In this article:

  1. The 3 Principles of Social Learning Theory.
  2. The 4 Processes of Observational Learning and its Implications.
  3. Application of Social Learning towards Early Childhood Care Settings.

The Social Learning Approach

Two theories, namely the Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning concludes that every learning in a child is a result of direct experience with the environment, and that learning happens only by means by association.

But Bandura, though accepted with the theory of behaviourism, came up with the idea that all types of learning do not happen only by means of association or by direct experience with the environment.

For example, when a child who is given a cricket bat for the first time, the child would naturally look for a ball and try to hit it. However, this action or behaviour is not necessarily due to a direct experience of the child with the bat, but rather because the child has already seen others perform this action in person on TV.

Hence, according to Bandura, learning occurs by observing the action of others, and used this as the foundation in proposing the Social Learning Theory, also called Observational Learning.

Bandura believed that children are like sponges, as they soak up their everyday experiences. He therefore assumed that learning occurs predominantly through observation, imitation and modelling.

The 2 major elements are:

Behavioural Elements: Behavioural elements comprise conditioning through associations, reinforcements and punishments.

Cognitive Elements: Cognitive elements involves attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

The 3 Principles of Social Learning Theory

In his book “Social Learning Theory”, Bandura explained that most human behaviour is observationally learned from others by observing and forming ideas about a particular behaviour, and that the information observed gets coded and subsequently gets guided for the future actions.

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory has 3 core principles:

1. People Learn Through Observation

The Bobo Doll Experiment is the best examples of children learning through observation. Children observing adults acting aggressively at the Bobo doll were found to imitate the violent action of the adult when allowed to play with the same doll later.

However Bandura identified three models through which a child learns.

i) The Live Model

A live model is where a child observes an adult demonstrating a behaviour.

ii) Verbal Instruction Model

In the verbal instruction model, the child listens to the descriptions and explanations of a behaviour.

iii) Symbolic Model

The symbolic model is wherein the child watches a character (either real or fictional) displaying certain behaviours, through books, films, TV or any form of media.

2. Mental States are Crucial to Learn

As we all know, a behaviour observed is not always learnt by a child. For observed behaviour and learning to happen, the child’s state of mind and the reason behind his/her motivation are imperative. Bandura differs from behaviourists in saying that direct external reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.

To substantiate his difference with the behaviourists, he described what is called Intrinsic Reinforcement (reinforcement from within), which is a form of intrinsic rewards; such as pride, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

3. Learning Does Not Necessarily Lead to a Change in Behaviour

Behaviourists believe that learning leads to a permanent change. But Observational Learning contradicts behaviourism by saying that people can learn new information without actually demonstrating the new behaviour.

For example a child that watched another child steal a pencil may not necessarily demonstrate the same behaviour.

The 4 Processes of Observational Learning and its Implications

Social learning is said to be successful when the observed behaviour is well learned or demonstrated. For example, teaching a child is successful only when the child learns the skill and is able to demonstrate it without assistance.

For the learning process to be successful, four cognitive factors play a very important role in Observational Learning.

1. Attention

For any observational learning, attention is important from the learner’s side. At the same time, the model (adult) the child looks up to should be interesting to provoke the attention of the learner.

Example: Paying attention to and closely observing what the trainer or coach is teaching.

2. Retention

Retention is said to be the storage house of learning. In other words, retention means to remember the learned information and retrieving the information as and when needed.

Example: Retaining the many nuances (skills) of swimming.

3. Reproduction

Attention and retention of learning without practice or reproduction of what has been learnt can go waste in the process of learning. That is where practicing the learned behaviours becomes significant and yields results.

Example: Practicing intensive swimming adopting techniques and tips.

4. Motivation

After learning a new skill or technique and applying the learnt behaviour fully and efficiently, say swimming, it could be futile if the child does not receive motivation from others for his/her demonstrated behaviour (of the skill).

Example: Getting the rewarded for swimming along with a loud applause.

Succinctly put:

  • Attention helps to focus on that what really matters.
  • Retention depends on the context.
  • Reproduction occurs on demand.
  • Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic (from the outside through people).

Application of Social Learning towards Early Childhood Care Settings

Social Learning, otherwise called Observational Learning, should be considered as a tool for educating a child. Having said, it is important that the parent/teacher remember that: Children learn what they see. They also learn from what they experience by themselves, and from the experiences they are made to go through by those in their environment.

Positive Consequence, such as appreciation for a particular type of behaviour like doing homework regularly or participating actively in extra-curricular activities can motivate the child to repeat the behaviour.

Negative Consequence, such as getting scolded by the teacher of a particular type of behaviour like getting angry or getting into a fight with another child, may unfortunately make the child to demonstrate the same behaviour again.

The consequences of social learning in a child, therefore, depends on what the child sees and/or experiences; which could either be positive or negative. In other words, what children learn through social learning could be healthy or unhealthy, or constructive or destructive.

If the model (adult the child looks up to) is creative and unique, then observational learning takes place effectively; because the attention gets deeper and wider, and the retention can be for the long term.

This is why it becomes important for parents, teachers, caregivers or facilitators of a child to be not only creative but also very responsible; so that they can facilitate providing children with a range of positive, healthy and constructive experiences for learning.


The amazing thing about kids is that they are wonderfully equipped to learn by themselves – right from the day they are born. They learn by associating with the stimulus from their environment, and the associations they get from their environment has got survival value too.

As a parent, teacher or caregiver, once you understand the 4 processes of observational learning and its implications, you will know what not to do while facilitating learning for your child, so that they do not pick up unhealthy, negative or potentially destructive behaviours from their learning environment.

Disclaimer: The content in this page and across this website are for informational and educational purposes only. In case of any concerns about your child’s growth and development, please contact your professional child healthcare provider.