I recently attended a Halloween party at my grandson’s nursery, which involved all of the children dressing up. To begin with, the children were read a story and then they sat in groups with their nursery staff and family members who had come along for the party. I was there in my role as grandad. What struck me straight away was how well behaved all of the children were, how attentive they were when the story was being read and how well behaved they were when eating their party food, and later when playing with staff, family members and each other. Throughout the party, my thoughts frequently turned to my work as a psychologist many years ago, and I reflected on how these young children were responding to the positive behaviours of their adult role models, whose own behaviours were influencing and even shaping those of the children. This made me think of the work of those theorists known as the ‘Behaviourists’ who argued that it was possible to shape children’s behaviours through reinforcement.
Much of the thinking behind the approach adopted by the Behaviourists can be found in the ideas of the American psychologist, Burrhus Skinner (1904 to 1990), who is regarded by many as the primary figure in the field of Behaviourism. Skinner’s ideas, however, emerged from those of the Russian theorist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), who, when carrying out experiments with dogs in his laboratory, noticed how they salivated when an assistant entered the room to bring food. Pavlov then noticed how the dogs salivated even when the assistants did not bring food and that merely entering the room was enough to make the dogs salivate. Pavlov referred to this behaviour in the dogs as ‘associated learning’ and suggested that the dogs had formed an association between the assistants entering the room and being fed. Pavlov then trained the dogs to respond to different associations, such as ringing a bell when food was introduced so that they then salivated at the sound of the bell, which suggested that they had formed an association between the sound of the bell and being fed – in its most basic sense, the dogs were ‘learning’. Pavlov’s ideas about forming associations were taken up by Edward Thorndike (1874- 1954), who saw possibilities in applying these to understanding children’s learning and later by John Watson (1878 to 1954), and more recently by Burrhus Skinner (1904 to 1990).
Do children learn by trial and error?
Thorndike originally saw many aspects of children’s learning as happening through trial and error. However, he also believed that if outcomes of children’s activities were positive, then associations would be formed between the activity and the positive outcome, which would then lead to the repetition of behaviours. Thorndike developed an experiment in which he put a hungry cat in a box built in such a way that the cat could see a fish outside of the box and within the box there was a lever, which when pressed would open the box. He then observed how the cat attempted to escape from the box, to eat the fish. On each occasion when the cat escaped from the box, it was returned to it. At the start, the cat’s attempts to escape were of am trial and error nature, though as time went by, the cat became quicker at escaping. Thorndike reasoned that the cat was making an association between how to escape and a lever on the box, which when it was pressed opened the door in the box. Importantly, Thorndike viewed this process of learning as moving from random acts to more deliberate attempts by the cat to use its paw to push the lever – he called this the ‘law of effect’ and suggested that acts that result in positive outcomes such as having a reward increase; and also that acts that lead to undesirable or non-pleasurable outcomes become weaker and eventually disappear. Later, in 1913, John Watson established the ‘school of Behaviourism’ based, to a greater extent, on the ideas of Pavlov and Thorndike, which focused on children learning through behaviour. Watson’s confidence in Behaviourism as a means of explaining learning in children, can be seen in his often quoted assertion: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief – regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors” (Watson, 1928, p. 82).
The importance of reinforcement
Drawing upon Watson’s ideas and the earlier ideas of Pavlov and Thorndike, Skinner recognised how reinforcement that is positive, strengthens the behaviours of children. Importantly he also observed how the frequency with which reinforcement follows behavioural responses is a key factor in increasing children’s behaviours. Skinner developed what was known as, ‘Operant Conditioning’, which was based on his idea that children’s learning is not wholly a passive process as had been thought by earlier Behaviourists but rather, it was an active process; this was a major step forward in how we came to understand and explain children’s learning. Operant conditioning asserts that it is the child as learner who triggers changes in behaviour and that learning occurs when behaviours are either rewarded or punished, and when associations are formed by the child between their behaviours and the consequences of their behaviours. Skinner believed that children’s behaviours could be shaped and then sustained by consequences. He argued that pleasant responses strengthened behaviours and unpleasant responses weakened behaviours, which would then diminish. Put simply, positive reinforcement strengthens children’s learning whilst negative reinforcement diminishes it.
Behaviourism in practice
The principles of Behaviourism can be seen every day in classrooms and early years settings where practitioners offer stimuli to children and then positively reinforce the children’s behaviours and their learning, often without being fully aware of what they are doing. Examples of positive reinforcement between an adult and a child might, for example, include the adult’s smile or some verbal praise in response to a new activity that the child has become engaged in, such as, “that’s really good” or, “you have tried very hard, well done!”. Indeed, a common practice in many settings is when practitioners place a star on a chart after a child has successfully completed a task or shown a desired behaviour. In order to gain the star, the child has to demonstrate the desired behaviour. In contrast, examples of negative reinforcement might be where practitioners use ‘time out’ for a child who is presenting with unacceptable behaviours.
In summary then, my reflections on the party at my grandson’s nursery can be explained by applying many of the principles of Behaviourism. The children were well behaved and attentive because the adults who worked with them in the nursery had modelled good behaviours within the nursery and then reinforced these with the children thereby establishing positive behaviour patterns, such as sitting quietly, listening to the adult reading the story, being attentive to what adults were saying and sitting quietly when eating. All of this, of course, reflects the hard work and commitment by practitioners in early years settings and their understanding of how children learn.
Watson, J.B. (1928) Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: Norton.
For further information on how an understanding of the Behaviourists can support practice in the early years, see the following link to Sean’s latest book: MacBlain, S.F. (2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. London: Sage.Readers
Readers can also find some of Sean’s other publications here.
About the author
Professor Sean MacBlain PhD, C. Psychol., C. Sci., FRSM, FHEA, AMBDA is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at masters and doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.
What are visuals? Visual aids are a set of individual pictures that communicate a meaning to someone through the use of an image. Otherwise known as visual aids or just visuals, it could be a picture of a toilet/ apple/sand tray/story time/a particular emotion – anything! You can use drawn images or you could use photos. The important thing is that you are using a picture that someone can easily recognise to illustrate an item. These usually have the word written underneath as well, to help encourage early reading.
As early years professionals, you will be aware that the child that knows what is happening in their day, is likely to feel much calmer and less anxious in your setting than the child that doesn’t know. Imagine if someone took you somewhere for the first time and you didn’t know where you were, what you were going to be doing all day, where the toilet is, when (or if) you were going to get fed, and when you get to go home again. And all of that at a very young age. Wouldn’t that be scary? Compare that with knowing where the toilet is, when food is coming, and you can see that eventually you are going to go home – it’s not hard to realise that this is bound to make a small child feel a lot more settled.
So how do we communicate to children what is going to happen in their day and where everything is? We can’t just write a list since the majority of children in an early years settings are unable to read yet. Using words is great but can be overwhelming, easy to forget and, for some children, hard to process. Using clear visual images around your setting provides a great way of supporting children to become as calm and settled as possible, and therefore reduce anxiety.
One of the very early signs of reading is children being able to recognise familiar signs and logos around them. Many children will recognise the ‘Asda’ sign as they arrive at the supermarket car park – not because they can read the individual letters, but because they recognise the big, bold, green group of letters and they correlate this with the car park and big building full of food! Likewise, clear visual images in your setting can quickly become familiar to children, allowing them to have some control in their day by knowing what is happening and where things are.
A visual timetable is a set of visual symbols displayed one after the other, showing what is going to happen in the day. A display such as this is great for showing children what is going to be happening in their day. This is really helpful for all children but vital for those that feel anxious because they don’t know what the day will hold. Visuals allow children to see what they are going to be doing next, plus, if there is a change to the usual routine, visuals offer the added bonus of helping a child to process that change.
- To label areas and resources
As you will already know, it is essential that a child feels comfortable in your setting in order for them to flourish. By labelling the areas, drawers, cupboards, boxes, toilet etc. then children will be able to learn their way around their environment, allowing them some control over what they can access. This is also vital for tidy-up-time – you can’t expect children to tidy up effectively if they can’t see where things go.
- To allow children to be themselves
Giving children access to visuals allows them to communicate with you where they otherwise may have been unable to. A chart displaying emotions symbols helps children identify how they are feeling and, in time, will hopefully allow them to share this with you.
Visual images are a great way to show children a step-by-step guide of how to do something without you having to constantly remind them with verbal instructions. This lets them learn a new skill and provides them with a reminder as they practise that skill. Hand washing is a great example of this. Have visual images above a sink showing a child each step of washing their hands. They will then be able to follow these at their own pace rather than depending on an adult showing them, thereby encouraging independence as well as good hygiene.
- To support children with additional needs
Visual aids are a great support for all children, but for some children with additional needs, they are vital. Children on the autism spectrum can find it particularly hard to process language. Visuals offer a consistent way for children to communicate without the added complications of tone of voice and different choice of words etc. which are aspects of communication that some people struggle with. Such children may benefit from having their own particular set of visual aids that is specific to their routine and their needs. This could be in the form of a personal visual timetable; visual symbols on a keyring or in a communication book; or a board that displays what is happening ‘now’ and ‘next’. For the non-verbal child, giving them visuals allows them to share their wants and needs with you, such as ‘drink’ or ‘toilet’.
It’s important to emphasise that these visuals are by no means intended to replace spoken language. Modelling and encouraging speech are vital to a young child’s language development. These are intended to support spoken language and are often a first step for children before understanding or using spoken words.
It’s worth considering that visual symbols are not the only way to provide visual learning in your setting. Other visuals such as sand timers, puppets and Makaton signing are great ways to provide even more visual clues to the young learner.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.
Website: www.createvisualaids.com Email: email@example.com
In this third of four articles exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects founder, Joanna Grace, explores how we can use our noses to support wellbeing. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet guides, more can be found at: www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/guides
Our uniquely emotional sense of smell
In our settings, we often play with colour and texture, but how often do you employ your children’s olfactory sense: their sense of smell?
Our olfactory sense is unique among the senses, being the only one processed directly by our limbic brain – our emotional brain. All the other senses can end up with limbic responses but they are processed by the thalamus first – the thinking brain – which acts as a kind of ‘gate-keeper’.
You probably have a smell or two that when you smell them transport you through time to a special place. Usually, such scent time-travel experiences take us to happy memories which is wonderful, but from time to time they can link to frightening times – no one likes the smell of hospitals!
This emotional processing of the sense of smell means that scent has a big effect on our emotional wellbeing. An engagement with your sense of smell has actually been shown to be preventative of stress, depression and anxiety. So we might do well to take that old phrase “wake up and smell the roses” literally! The connection between scent and wellbeing goes both ways, and people who are depressed often experience a physical impairment to their sense of smell. This, in turn, often affects their eating habits, as much of the joy we get from food comes to us through our olfactory sense. People no longer receiving the input they once had from food, will either eat more to try and find it, or go off eating as it no longer holds the joy it once had, which accounts for why people experiencing depression often find it affects their weight.
The good news is that as you go about sourcing smelly activities for your setting, you’ll be doing something good for your own mental wellbeing too – sniffing stuff is good for everyone!
Bonding with our noses
Scent is very important when it comes to bonding. Although we may feel ourselves to be very different to animals, we still choose our partners partly dependent on their smell. Our personal scents carry information about our genetic makeup and we are likely to be more attracted to someone whose scent indicates biological compatibility. For those closest to us, especially children, our personal scent is naturally very comforting and smelling that scent helps us to form tight, emotional-bonds with one another.
By scent I do not mean we stink. There are two types of smells: volatile ones and pheromone ones. It is the volatile ones that we think of as being “smelly.” Pheromone ones are much more subtle – they are not B.O. – they are the scent of a person. If you have ever smelt the clothes of a loved one who has died, or held a partner’s t-shirt to your face, you’ve probably had an experience of searching for these smells.
You might think that you do not want pheromones racing around your setting but actually they can be a very useful tool for supporting children who are anxious or who have attachment problems. If you’re curious to learn more, look at the “Smell the Roses” guide on www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk guides or connect with me on Facebook where I share photos of sensory-makes, some of which are connected to sharing pheromone smells therapeutically. There is also further information in my book “Sensory-Being for Sensory Beings” published by Routledge.
Playing with smells
Fostering an engagement with smell is a fun way to support mental wellbeing. Different smells will produce different emotional responses. Try some of the following:
- Smells with heavy base notes, for example chamomile or bergamot
- Zingy smells, for example peppermint or lemongrass
- Sickly-sweet smells, for example, banana or vanilla
- Make some smelly playdough – simply add drops of essential oil to a plain dough. Handling the dough will warm it and make the scent stronger
- Offer the children fresh herbs to play with. They can practice their knife skills, snip them with scissors, or rub and squash them with their fingers to release the scent. Making potions is a favourite hobby of my small assistant (aged 4) and a great way to explore scent. Provide warm water for potions to increase the scent released (as hot things release more odour than cool things)
- Dab a little scent on to a cuddly toy as if it were wearing perfume
- Take time when shopping to smell different products
- Find things in the natural environment to smell
- Make a scent shaker: to do this, you need an empty pop-lid drinks bottle or an empty Pringles tube (other crunchy tube-based snacks are available!) Use a heated metal prong to melt small holes into the sides of the bottle or the lid of the tube. Be sure to have the windows open as the fumes are not pleasant. Pop fresh herbs into the container and secure the lid. With the drinks bottle you can just tighten it beyond the point where children would be able to open it, with the tube you may want to tape the lid on. Along with the herbs, place a small piece of gravel or a small dryer ball, something which when shaken will bash the herbs causing them to release their scent. When the child first picks up the container it will have a mild smell, shaking it will make the smell stronger.
It is easy to overwhelm people with smells, so it’s a good idea to just play with one or two at a time. Rather than have ten smells to play with at once, simply take time out from your day as it progresses to stop and smell the roses…or the grass… or the dinner…or the soap….Enjoy your connection with the olfactory world – it is a gorgeous, gorgeous thing!
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.
Joanna is a big fan of social media and is always happy to connect with people via Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.