Modeling: It's More Than Just Imitation

By Horner, Sherri L.; Bhattacharyya, Srilata et al. | Childhood Education, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Modeling: It's More Than Just Imitation


Horner, Sherri L., Bhattacharyya, Srilata, O'Connor, Evelyn A., Childhood Education


Ms. Lee's Classroom Vignette

As children enter Ms. Lee's preschool classroom, she has them choose an area in which to play during the free-time period before circle time. As the first child to arrive, Jasmine chooses to play at the sand table. When Juan is the first to arrive, he typically chooses to play with the blocks; today, he sees Jasmine at the sand table and walks over to join her. As MacKensie and Tyler come in, they also start playing at the sand table. Ms. Lee asks the next child who arrives, Damon, to choose a different area; soon, he is listening to a CD of alphabet songs. Maria joins Damon in using the second set of earphones. Maria sings along with the CD and Damon chimes in as well. In the kitchen area, Michael says that LaDonna should cook dinner because she's the mommy. Riley and LaDonna respond that boys can cook, too--their daddies make them dinner and LaDonna's grandpa cooks breakfast sometimes. Then, Riley and LaDonna pretend to cook while Michael role-plays being their son. In the block area, Sarah greets Naohero, saying, "Hola--Dora the explorer says that means 'Hi." " Naohero says, "Konnichiwa, Sarah. That's how we say "Hi" at home." At the sand table, Jasmine pours sand on the floor. Right as Tyler is about to dump a cupful of sand on the floor, Ms. Lee goes over and has Jasmine leave the sand table and sit in the time-out chair. Tyler then pours the cup of sand in the table. MacKensie and Juan continue to pour the sand in the table. Once all 12 children have arrived, Ms. Lee starts singing the clean-up song. Even though all the preschoolers start singing, only some of them actually start cleaning up. Ms. Lee, in a loud voice, states, "I like how Riley and Michael are cleaning up the kitchen area. I like how Sarah is picking up the blocks. Damon and Maria are sitting nicely on the rug." Soon, all the preschoolers are putting things away and running to sit down for circle time.

Anyone who has observed or played with young children probably has noticed how they imitate what they see--their friends, siblings, parents, and teachers; television, movie, and book characters; and sometimes even their family pets. Frequently, this imitation can help children learn appropriate behaviors, attitudes, and thinking patterns. Unfortunately, it also can be harmful when the child ends up imitating behaviors, attitudes, or thinking patterns that can cause the child to act inappropriately or could cause injury. Like most things in life, how modeling occurs and who children choose to emulate are not as straightforward as we would hope. Albert Bandura, the founder of social cognitive theory, and others have conducted research demonstrating some of the factors that help determine who and what children and adults emulate (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2003). If we, as teachers and parents, understand these factors, we can help children to choose models who exhibit positive behaviors, attitudes, and thinking patterns.

Using the vignette of Ms. Lee's classroom, we will explain the different elements of modeling, according to Bandura and other social cognitive theorists. Then, we will give some suggestions and examples from our own experiences of how teachers and parents can use their knowledge of these social cognitive concepts to help young children choose appropriate models.

Functions of Modeling

"If human behavior depended solely on personally experienced consequences, most people would not survive the hazards of early development" (Bandura, 1986, p. 283). Social cognitive theorists postulate that people learn the vast majority of their behaviors through a combination of personal experience and modeling. Modeling occurs when a person observes someone else's actions as well as the consequences of those actions and changes his or her behaviors, cognitions, or emotions (Schunk, 2000). In the vignette above, many of the children modeled their behaviors, attitudes, and thinking based on observations of their friends, family, and a television character. …

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