Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam voluptua.

For over 10 years, I have worked with both mainstream children and children with severe learning difficulties and behaviour problems. These have been within family homes; residential camps and schools as well as respite care homes. I believe that to understand children and their behaviour, we need to have an understanding of their developmental history. This includes the environment that the child grew up in, relationships within the family unit and peer groups as well as actual physical development. Social workers have a large part to play in child welfare, especially within the child protection sector, fostering and adoption sector and also children and families services. I believe that knowledge of child development may assist social workers in their practice and I hope to show this throughout my essay, with particular reference to learning theory.

Developmental psychology looks to answering the following question. “Why did that happen?” (J, Kagen 1984.) Rather than concentrating solely on the immediate reason, adaptive reason or evolutionary reason, developmental psychology looks to the historical reason, whereby the child’s past and history of experiences are used to gather answers. The three main schools of thought in developmental psychology are Piaget, who believes that children make sense of their world by dealing actively with people and objects, Freud, who believed children make sense of the world through conflict, deriving from sexual instinct and finally Skinner, who believes children make sense of the world through their learning environment. The latter is the theory that will be discussed in further detail.

Learning theory stems from the ‘Behaviourist’ school of thought, whereby the focus is on behaviour that is observable. Internal processes are deemed as irrelevant. It is an experimental approach that follows the nurture debate, (environmental factors and the external shape behaviour.) This approach looks to answer questions about how we, as human beings, learn from our environment. It focuses on three different areas; ‘Classical Conditioning,’ ‘Operant Conditioning’ and ‘Social Learning Theory.’ I shall be looking at them in consecutive order.

Classical conditioning was the main psychological approach used during the early twentieth century. It looked to a kind of learning in which a previously neutral stimulus came to elicit a response through its association with a stimulus that naturally brought about the same response. Pavlov, (1910) carried out much research on his pet dogs, hoping to explain why an unconditioned stimulus results in a learned response. He noticed that his dogs salivated on the presentation of food and wanted to find out if he could get a repetition of the salivating response, even if food were not presented. For a consecutive number of weeks, Pavlov rang a bell on the presentation of food, hoping to reinforce the bell with the presentation of the food. This was successful. The dogs had learnt to have a conditioned response to a conditioned stimulus.

1. Food-------salivates 2. Bell + food-------salivates 3. Bell-------salivates. (unconditioned (unconditioned (conditioned (unconditioned (unconditioned (conditioned (conditioned stimulus) response) stimulus) stimulus) response) stimulus) response)

Pavlov found that if he did not present food after ringing the bell, the salivating response would disappear. This became known as extinction. However, if food were presented in the future with the bell sound present, the salivating response would be learned at a much faster rate. This he called ‘spontaneous recovery.’ He also found that if the conditioned stimulus, (in this case a bell) was removed and replaced with a similar sounding stimulus such as a chime or instrumental triangle, the same salivating response could be observed. This was called ‘generalisation.’ If no connection were made between the conditioned stimuli, there would be no response. This was called ‘discrimination.’ From this, Pavlov concluded that the conditioned response was not a permanent response and could fade with time. However, it could be re-learned at a faster rate on its representation with the unconditioned stimulus. Also, the stimulus did not have to be identical every time, as long as a connection is made for the subject, (in this case the dog.) If no connections were made, there would be no response.

Watson, (1920) now known as the ‘Father of Behaviourism,’ who believed in the ‘Black Box Theory,’ where the internal mappings of the brain where irrelevant and only external behaviour was worth looking at, carried out experiments on young children looking at their fear response. He presented ‘Little Albert’ with a white furry rat on several occasions, each time making a loud bang on the presentation of the animal. He found that a fear response grew in ‘Albert’ when any white furry animal was presented to him. (Generalisation.) Like Pavlov, he also found that the fear response was not permanent. (Extinction.)

Tolman and Thorndike, (1920) believed that to explain behaviour, the internal must be looked at. They carried out experiments with pigeons and puzzle boxes to see if the route of escape could be relearned at a quicker rate than the original attempt. They found that this was the case. They created a new term, the ‘Law of Effect.’ This stated that behaviour is maintained as a result of its consequences. This was the first way of thinking towards ‘Operant Conditioning.’ So how can this knowledge aid social workers and help them to carry out effective practice?

‘Classical Conditioning’ helps to explain why children elicit certain fear responses and offers therapies such as systematic desensitisation to eradicate the phobia. (The fear is introduced to the person experiencing anxiety at a number of different stages, starting with a minimal anxiety response and concluding with the fear itself). Associations about a person or object, rather than the specific person or object that causes anxiety among children which may stem from abuse, can help social workers to find out the route of a child’s fear and anxiety. This learning theory also specifically explains one way in which we learn and offers ideas of how to ‘control’ learning or ‘shape’ learning among those that display undesirable or unsocial behaviours, such as spitting, shouting or kicking. Associations are made with all forms of learning, especially during childhood. Grandma coming round for dinner could lead to an association made by a child of receiving pocket money, or birthdays are looked forward to because they lead to an association of parties and receiving presents. If children learn by association, made in their past and present, then social workers can look to breaking these associations or enhancing them to reduce or encourage behaviour.

However relevant ‘Classical Conditioning’ was in explaining learning, it did not explain why people avoid certain behaviours. B.F. Skinner, during the 1930’s introduced a new way at looking at explaining human learning. He called this ‘Operant Conditioning.’ This is a type of learning in which a response is strengthened or weakened depending on the positive or negative consequences that follow the behaviour. Skinner believed that for every behaviour displayed by both children and adults alike, one of four things occurred. This was the ‘ABC’ model, (antecedents, behaviour, consequence.) Either one of four consequences occur after every displayed behaviour. They are positive reinforcement, (R+, where something good is given to encourage positive, desirable behaviour,) negative reinforcement, (R-, where something bad is taken away to reinforce good behaviour,) nothing occurs, (0) or punishment, (0-, where something bad is given to reduce negative behaviour.) However, the problem with punishment is that it does not offer an alternative, more appropriate behaviour. Depending on the intermittence of the reinforcement depends on the level of success the reinforcement has on behaviour. The four suggested intermittent periods are fixed interval, fixed ratio, variable interval and variable ratio. Ratio depends on the number of responses displayed after the behaviour and intervals depend on the passage of time that passes before reinforcement is given. These intermittent periods strengthen or weaken the chance that desired behaviour will be repeated and undesirable behaviour will not be repeated.

This knowledge can help social workers in their practice as it explains the key basis of behaviour modification. To change behaviour, especially in young children displaying difficult or ‘challenging’ behaviour, we must understand how they have learnt these undesirable and unsocial behaviours in the past, and how to teach them new desirable behaviours for the future. If children learn through their consequences, then Operant Conditioning explains another way of how children learn, including why they are able to avoid consequences such as punishment. An adolescent may prefer to lye to her mother than admit the truth and face a punishment.

This type of learning also offers ideas to encourage desirable, sociable behaviour. Systems of star charts and extreme praise are all examples of positive reinforcement and can be used in nurseries, schools or by parents within the family home. The same can be said for negative reinforcement. A mother shouting at their child to tidy their bedroom is trying to use behaviour modification to enforce behaviour that the mother wants. The child’s compliance results in the mother stopping shouting. Similar to negative reinforcement but with key differentiating factors, and used far more commonly by all people in society trying to extinguish undesired behaviour, is punishment. If a child kicks another child who refuses to share their toys with them, and the parent shouts at the child and sends her to her room, it may be effective in temporarily stopping the undesired behaviour, in this case kicking, but no alternative behaviour is given. Punishment can be effective to reduce or stop negative behaviour, depending on the level of appropriateness of the punishment, but the person giving the punishment must be aware that an alternative way to behave has not been offered, so maybe ineffective in diminishing the behaviour altogether.

Social workers can use this knowledge to teach parents new techniques in reinforcing or extinguishing behaviours shown by their children. These techniques are used with young children displaying any undesirable behaviour in the family home, in residential care and in respite care homes. Information can also be given and taught to carers when working with children with learning disabilities and, or severe challenging behaviour. Understanding the learning process can help introduce new, more positive behaviours as well as giving an understanding to the ‘carer’ where undesirable behaviours originate. Whist working in a respite unit for children with learning difficulties and challenging behaviour, this type of behaviour modification is used frequently to encourage or extinguish certain behaviours. Encouraging a child to eat with a knife and fork rather than fingers can be done with extreme praise or gaining a star on a star chart as long as all agencies work in the same way. This can also be used to encourage a child to get dress independently and appropriately, remain seated at the table during meal times or verbalising manners rather than using ‘Makaton’ signs. (Basic signing of specific and relevant words such as toilet, drink or sleep.) Children respond well to praise and positive attention, especially those who are used to receiving negative attention. Carers must be careful not to reinforce negative behaviour. Giving a child some chocolate to stop them crying is giving the message that crying in the future will increase the likelihood of receiving chocolate.

The third area of the behaviourist approach when looking at learning theory is the Social Learning Theory. This attempted to re-interpret Freud’s psychoanalytical theory during the 1950’s. Research into developmental theory grew from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, developed mainly during the early nineteen hundreds. Freud believed that the personality consisted of three parts. The ‘ID,’ which was a person’s basic instinct, the ‘EGO,’ being a persons rational and logical sense of reality, and finally the ‘SUPER-EGO.’ Freud believed this to be a person’s moralistic set of ideals. This meant that ‘a person in moral conflict, was in fact, a person at war with these three sub-components of the self.’ (Freud 1900.) He believed that conflict was inevitable as we lived in a society that could not let our ‘ID’ overpower our ‘EGO.’

‘Social learning theory attempts to update these theories in terms of conditioning. (Dollard and Miller, 1950.) The difference between social learning theorists such as Bandura and past theorists such as Skinner, Watson and Pavlov are that social learning theorists interests lie within human learning, especially the acquisition of social and moral behaviour. It is defined as ‘behaviour learned in interpersonal situations and linked to the needs that require for their satisfaction, the mediation of other people.’ (McLoughlin, 1971.) They believe in observing observable behaviour but also looking at cognitive processes going on inside the brain. Classical and Operant learning are rejected by this group, as they do not explain ‘novel’ or undisplayed behaviour. This form of learning is called, ‘observational learning.’

A child will copy the behaviour displayed by the people around them. This is often at an unconscious level and does not necessarily depend on the relationship with the ‘model.’ No effort is or intention is present on both parts and both emotional and physical behaviours can be modelled in this way. ‘This learning takes place without any reinforcement.’ (Bandura 1963.) He believes that there are five contributing functions involved in observational learning. They are, paying attention to the model, recording a visual image or semantic code into memory so behaviour can be repeated, memory permanence to retain information, reproducing observed motor activities accurately and finally motivation in order for the learner to understand consequences of their own behaviour.

Applications of this type of learning can assist social workers in their practice because it attempts to explain the influence of those around children. A family that uses undesirable vocabulary such as swear words or aggressive words regularly, in front of a young child, will invariably have a child who will use the same sort of undesirable language. In reverse, a polite, well mannered family, using age appropriate and socially desirable language will invariably have a child that uses the same sort of desirable language. This pattern also follows within displayed aggression or violence within the home, either geared towards a male partner or more commonly a female partner, as well as unacceptable sexual behaviour geared towards a child within the home. Children copy what they see, whether socially appropriate or inappropriate. Young children, although most susceptible to this type of learning, are not the only vulnerable group in society that do this. People with learning disabilities, who may also display ‘child-like’ behaviour, learn from those around them. This knowledge can help improve basic independence skills such as encouraging people with learning disabilities to eat, get dressed or do up shoe laces appropriately and independently. This is also true for adolescents. However, this group is slightly different because they seek approval from their peers rather than their parents and therefore model their own behaviour on how they see their friends behave. This can often be unsociable, especially in examples of trying alcohol for the first time, often in excess, or alternatively trying smoking or illegal recreational drugs.

I hope that in this essay, I have shown how knowledge of child development with special regards to learning theory can assist social workers in their practice.


Coolican, H (1990.) Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology. London, Sydney, Auckland. Hodder and Stoughton

Davies, M (1999.) The Blackwell Companion to Social Work. Massachusetts. Blackwell

Gross, R (1992.) Psychology: The Study of Mind and Behaviour. London, Sydney, Auckland. Hodder and Stoughton

Lindon, J (1998.) Understanding Child Development. Michigan, London. Macmillan

Mussen, P (1974.) Child Development and Personality. New York. Harper International Edition

Richardson, K (1989.) Understanding Psychology. Milton Keynes, Philadelphia. Open University Press

Shaffer, D (1989.) Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence. London. Brooks and Cole

Thompson, N (2000.) Understanding Social Work: Preparing for Practice. Basingstoke, London. Macpress

Printer Friendly Print this page