Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Exploring children's learning

2.6 Evaluating behaviourism

As the previous section indicates, although ‘classic’ behaviourism is rare in contemporary explanations of child development, many of its guiding principles have been retained in some form or other in the field of learning difficulties. One of the advantages of behaviourism lies in its utility as a form of direct communication with children who are too young to speak, or who are otherwise difficult to communicate with about their behaviour. It resulted in decades of research, becoming the dominant theory in psychology during the 1950s and 1960s. Behaviourism continues to stimulate research and inform debates both in child development and psychology more generally, albeit in a modified form, as illustrated by advocates of behavioural analysis. ABA shows how operant conditioning principles relating to the reinforcement of desirable behaviour can be successfully applied.

A missing factor in ‘classic’ behaviourist explanations of child behaviour is the importance of children's thoughts, beliefs and interpretations of a situation. The development of appropriate social behaviour is more likely if the child understands why they are being treated in a particular way (Huesmann et al., 2003). It is an oversimplification to propose that children can only learn through direct experience and contingent rewards. This does not seem to explain the vast array of things that children master in the areas of language, cognition and social behaviour. Furthermore, Section 2.4 on punishment indicated some important limitations in the application of that aspect of behaviourist theory. In particular, research has shown that children learn more from experiencing punishment than just its relationship to their own behaviour. Adults who are aggressive towards children, either verbally or physically, are modelling a behaviour and potentially signalling its acceptability as a means of affecting the behaviour of those around them. Such concerns are reflected in the ideas developed by Bandura, in his social learning theory.

Clip 1

Download this video clip.Video player: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.
Skip transcript: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.

Transcript: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.

Sean Rhodes(Behaviour therapist):
The programme that we’re working on with Joe is based on an approach called Applied Behaviour Analysis, which is the scientificstudy of behaviour in terms of the behaviours that people will use,the responses in the environment that will maintain those behaviours, and understanding whether or not those behaviours are what might be deemed functional or appropriate.
Andy Toller (Joe’s Mother):
He’s gone from being a child who could hardly communicate at all.Well he could but not, not really with functional speech, to a child who’s very sociable and is able to, and talks, and we can’t stop him from talking now. When we first started, we had a lot of temper tantrums and that’s really the way he got his point of view across.
Sean Rhodes:
What we did with Joe when we first started with him was we identified which specific behaviours were affecting his ability tofirstly, interact with other children and, and other people andspecifically, looking at what his language deficits were.
Rebecca Moseley (Tutor):
Joe earns tokens for doing things appropriately so if you’re doing things straightaway or, for example, walking from school to the car without running off ahead and staying with me, for example, or for if it’s carpet time at school and putting his hand up rather than just calling out, putting his hand up and waiting for the teacher to ask him what he wanted to say.
Sean Rhodes:
So what we identified was the kind of activities and object, games, responses that he finds reinforcing and enjoyable, and we taught him how to ask for those things so that’s how he got access tothem.
Rebecca:
Ok, what do you say?
Joe:
Well 4 and 5 is 9.
Rebecca:
Good Boy.
Joe:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 , 9…
Rebecca:
I don’t believe it! How lucky are you?
Joe:
Yes!
Rebecca:
Oh I just don’t believe it.
Rebecca Moseley:
Joe loves playing snakes and ladders with me and that’s because I always try and make it really, really fun, and really reinforcing for him, but at the same time being able to bring in lots of Maths targets as well, and other language skills.
Rebecca:
What’s going to stop me from winning?
Joe:
A snake.
Rebecca:
What number is that snake on?
Joe:
98.
Rebecca:
So how many do I need to get to land on 98 on the dice? How many spaces?
Joe:
Two.
Sean Rhodes:
It’s all very well us teaching children lots of language but, if theydon’t have the social situations where they can go and apply those skills that we’ve taught them, then really it’s a bit pointless teaching them. Playtime is a time when most children get the opportunity toreally practise their language, so Joe needs to be able to go out and interact with children at playtime rather than being stood on the periphery observing.
Andy Toller:
It has a huge impact on a family running, an ABA programme,because we have people working with Joe all day every day, and we have, so Joe has this big entourage of people, and initially we started with them working in the house, so it’s quite a big thing having people in your home all the time, so it’s not easy in a sort of,we have another child as well and it’s not easy for her, but because of the huge progress that Joe’s making then it’s definitely worth it.
Sean:
Oh, right! So you were watching Star Wars 2?
Joe:
What were you watching?
Sean:
Well I wasn’t watching television, I was playing my guitar…
Joe:
Yeah.
Sean:
Yeah.
Sean:
Do you play any instruments?
Joe:
I haven’t got any.
Sean:
What would you like to play?
Sean Rhodes:
At the moment, he’s doing very well on his conversational target. He understands how to have a conversation. The difficulty for Joe at the moment is dealing with the speed at which conversations go, and the unpredictable nature of conversations, particularly withinpeer groups.
Sean:
So you were telling me about rugby. OK, so how do you play rugby?
Sean Rhodes:
Adults will be far more forgiving within a conversational setting than his peers will be. Joe needs to be able to think much faster within those conversations.
Joe:
….if you’ve got the ball somebody grabs you to the ground and if they don’t drag you to the ground you run and then you score a‘try’!
Sean:
Fantastic! and what do you do after you’ve scored a ‘try’?
Joe:
…You say then ‘Yeah, TRY!’
Sean:
That’s right, you do…
Sean Rhodes:
I’ll wait but one of his peer groups, they may well not wait for the answer and decide that Joe isn’t really a very reinforcing person to converse with, so the main target would be looking at improving his conversational skills.
Joe:
… the referee.
Sean:
The referee, and what would he say?
Joe:
Um…
Sean:
He’d say…
Joe:
Lee.
Sean:
You can’t do that.
Sean:
You can’t do that.
Joe:
Don’t do that.
Sean:
And what does he keep in his pocket? Do you know?
Joe:
A prize?
Sean:
Not a prize.
Joe:
But they do get a silver cup.
Sean:
They do get a silver cup if they win.
Rebecca Moseley:
When I started working with him, he was not in school the wholeday so he would be in school maybe for the morning, and then at home in the afternoon or vice versa, and then we would do work with him at home about half of the day, and then be his shadow atschool when we’re at school, and now he’s in mainstream school full time and the tutors shadow him when he’s at school, and then we also come home and do some work with him after school for an hour or an hour and a half each evening.
Rebecca:
Okay, choose something else. You’re allowed five things.
Joe:
That!
Rebecca:
Spiderman suit. Good. One. How much is that?
Joe:
Can I say something?
Rebecca:
How much is that?
Rebecca:
We use the menu with Joe. Each morning, we’ll choose five things to put on the menu, and those things are reinforcers that he wantsto have so there’s a large list that he can choose from, and he picks five per day, and they all cost varying amounts of tokens and at theend of the day he has a time where he can cash in those tokens andbuy effectively one of his reinforcers that are on the menu. He earns them by doing things that he’s been asked to do straight away, by complying. We make sure that we’re all, all thetutors are consistent in how many we give him for different things.The calendar that we use with Joe has various things that happen throughout the day on it. I’ll read that through with Joe at various points throughout the day, just reminding him of the, of the fun things that are coming up, and he knows that if he behaves inappropriately, i.e. if he speaks to me really aggressively, maybe when at a time when I'm asking him to do some work or something like that, then he knows that we’ll put a line through one of the things on the calendar and he knows that that means that he then won’t get it.
Andy Toller:
Joe’s progress has been really phenomenal since the therapists have started working with him as intensively as they do. He’s taught, they’ve taught him to communicate through speech really, rather than through other methods, and we never thought that he would’ve made the progress that he made, we never anticipated that Joe would be the child that he is now. He’s pretty much joined our world, which is what we really wanted, him to become part of our family and he has done that, which isreally encouraging.
End transcript: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
ED209_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus