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.