Children are remarkable – they are always learning. Even before birth, children can recognise things from the world outside. Babies, only a few hours old, are able to differentiate the sounds of their native language from those of a foreign one, proving that babies are ‘listening’ to their mother’s speech patterns whilst still in the womb.

So, if children are learning things in the womb, and we know that when they are born, their capacity to learn is almost exponential, it begs the question – if they are always learning something, shouldn’t we be a little more aware of WHAT that is?

A few years ago, there was an impactful TV advert that showed young children copying things their parents were doing. One parent was washing up, and we saw their child playing at a play sink. Another was exercising, alongside their young child who was copying their moves. The final image was a person smoking, and then we saw their young child copying their moves and ‘acting out’ the action of smoking. The advert had a powerful message and showed visually what science has shown over decades – that young children copy what they observe from adults. But what does this mean for early years practitioners, and how can we ensure that the ‘learned’ behaviours that children are picking up from us are the ones we’d want them to have?

The data

In the 1960s, a series of ground-breaking studies called the “Bobo doll experiments” by psychologist, Albert Bandura, researched the impact of social behaviour on the behaviour of young children. The aim was to see if children would imitate aggressive behaviour having previously witnessed aggressive behaviour by an adult. A group of children were split into two groups, matched for previously identified levels of aggressive behaviour. One group was exposed to an adult behaving aggressively towards an inflatable, child-sized doll (the Bobo doll). The study found that the group who had witnessed the aggressive adult behaviour were more likely to act aggressively towards the doll when it was placed in the room with them.

Another more recent study tested 120 toddlers aged 14 - 24 months. Some watched a video of a stranger playing with a toy and then pulling it apart 3 times. Others saw the same stranger playing with the toy and not taking it apart, and the third group were not shown a video at all. The results showed that 90% of the children who had watched the first video took the toy apart themselves, compared to only 20% of those who watched the second video. So, toddlers as young as 14 months will copy the actions of a person they see on TV, even if it is a stranger. And how long do they need to watch something to copy it? Research suggests only 14 seconds. Just think what they can learn by watching hours of TV, social media or game culture.

In 2019, data from the Early Head Start Family and Child Experience Study showed there were links between parental stress/family conflict, and children’s behaviour aged 1 and 3. It concluded that early prevention programmes should focus on reducing family conflict and increasing parental supportiveness to break the negative cycle.

This means young children are continually picking up behaviours and attitudes from people they see, the programs they watch and the general world around them. It reminds us how important it is to think carefully about what we do in front of children including:

  • What we say
  • What we do
  • Our behaviour towards others
  • What we eat
  • How we react to challenges such as fears and phobias
  • The messages from the mass media around us
  • The media we allow our children to watch and play with

Research suggests that there are other factors involved too, such as whether children observe a reward or reinforcement for the behaviour in question. For example, a child might overhear another child swearing or hitting someone else, but it doesn’t automatically mean they will do the same. However, if the swearing child is seen to be ‘rewarded’ by people (peers laughing or adults ‘accepting’ the poor behaviour), then the observer may conclude that this is the behaviour to adopt to receive similar acceptance.

Can children learn fears from others?

Observational fear learning, or “observational threat learning,” is the process of using social cues to identify whether something is threatening or dangerous, and children do this too. Fear learning happens quickly. If we put our hand in the fire and it burns, we generally won’t do that again. But we don’t always need the experience ourselves. If a child sees another person react fearfully to something (e.g., a spider), they can develop a fear themselves.

Modelling wanted behaviour

Deliberately modelling wanted and positive behaviours and attitudes is fundamental to working with children. But it takes patience, self-awareness and control. If we as adults, are not able to control our own emotions in certain situations, how can we expect the children in our care to act differently?

The same is true for other things too, such as how we react to:

  • Diversity or gender issues
  • Seeing people different to us
  • Attitudes to food
  • Stigma around different cultures or ethnicities
  • Taboos or other societal issues (weight/body image, homelessness, age etc.)

Ways to promote good behaviour and attitudes


It is crucial that early years professionals model the behaviours they want to encourage, so:

  • Walk the talk – make sure you are being a good role model and not someone who teaches them: “Do as I say, not as I do”!
  • Design your environment with positive examples such as diversity posters (e.g., men in childcare roles, different types of families, positive images from different cultures etc.)
  • Praise and reward positive behaviour and attitudes
  • Reduce or eliminate children’s exposure to negative influences – a good ‘litmus test’ here is to ask yourself: “What would I think if I saw the child copying this behaviour?” If you are concerned about the answer, then reduce or eliminate their exposure to that stimulus
  • Talk freely about things to children (especially about emotions) and discuss positive and negative aspects so they can begin to develop their own critical awareness
  • Try to control your own fears and phobias so as not to ‘transfer’ these
  • Be consistent, especially about any consequences for poor or unwanted behaviour

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