Social Learning Theory

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Understanding the social learning theory is highly relevant for today's classroom. If you are a teacher, you will be teaching social skills.

Teaching social skills begins with teacher modeling. Whether you realize it or not, your students watch how you behave and will emulate you in many ways. If kids feel certain behaviors are acceptable because you do them, then it is a certainty that many of them will too.

Albert Bandura brought the social learning theory into the forefront of education. The implications of his study are far-reaching for teachers.

When children watch adults and other kids behave a certain way, that behavior is most often imitated. This is the original study done using a Bobo doll.




J.E. Ormond (1999) describes this social learning as focusing on what happens within a social context.  For teachers, it is how our students learn from one us and one another.

Students learn by observing behaviors and discussing outcomes. Teachers use the social learning theory often within a behavior intervention plan.  Other uses are when teachers model conversations and help students self-regulate conversations and behaviors.

There are many types of social discourse that occur in a classroom setting. Classroom teaching methods impact communication.  Peer interaction in a group work setting or on the playground is effected by it.

Within a Classroom Performance System, there are areas that support how to successfully interact within the classroom.  These areas are: 

  • Conversational Knowledge
  • Classroom Language
  • Situation Specific
  • Pragmatic Language Structure
  • Nonverbal Communication


Classroom Language

Classroom language use is part of the social interactions between the teacher, students and their peers. Students must have content-specific conversational skills to successfully participate in classroom discussions.

Being able to use classroom language effectively also means that students can use and understand situation-specific registers. This means they can adjust, adapt and fit their conversation patterns in different situations. Often this is learned through teacher modeling, as referenced for adjusting behavior in the social learning theory.

Without a working knowledge of classroom language and situation specific register, students might be perceived as low, rude or inarticulate. A speech therapist is often a good resource for teaching social skills or helping educators improve classroom teaching methods.


Assessing Classroom Language Use

The student should:

  • Organize thoughts for discussions and interactions
  • Be able to revise sentences for content and logical conclusions when asked
  • Paraphrase or summarize what is being said
  • Clarify expressed meaning of discourse when asked
  • Give and follow directions
  • Monitor expressions and feedback in acceptable ways
  • Ask effective questions at the right time
  • Will talk at an appropriate rate of speed and take turns in a conversation
  • Change style of interaction according to the participants
  • Be able to express thoughts in a variety of ways
  • Use appropriate conversational tone of voice
  • Use polite conversational features, such as "please" and "thank-you."


Conversational Knowledge

Conversational Knowledge is the foundation for most interactions. Without good conversation skills, a child will not be able to effectively engage with adults or peers.

Often children do not understand that conversation is a two-way street. Even some adults still don't understand it! They also need to know when it is appropriate to stop and listen, as that is a critical part of having a conversation.



Assessing Conversational Knowledge

The student should:

  • Stay on topic in a conversation
  • Make appropriate comments during a conversation
  • Understand how to initiate, maintain and end a conversation appropriately
  • Be able to account for lack of background knowledge in a listener and adjust the conversation to compensate
  • Revise and adjust tone, word choice and rate of speech to math listeners emotions
  • Be able to request attention and ask for more information appropriately during a conversation
  • Answer direct and indirect questions in an appropriate length of time
  • Understand the difference between "playground language" and "school language"


Non-Verbal Communication

bobo the clown from the social learning theory



There are many different types of non-verbal communication in the classroom. Stress, intonation, body movements, personal space issues and eye-contact are all part of non-verbal communication.

The social learning theory clearly shows that students will pick up modeled behaviors in the classroom.



Remember that poor Bobo the clown was pounded on, kicked and tormented because the children in the study saw adults doing it. They didn't even have to say anything - they showed them and the kids couldn't get enough of it.


Sometimes, without even realizing it, teachers are modeling poor non-verbal communication skills by how we react to students and situations.

Assessing Non-Verbal Communication

The student should:

  • Respond to non-verbal cues appropriately
  • Express reactions without dialogue
  • Support the tone and intent of the conversation with different types of nonverbal communication cues (eyebrows raised, gestures)
  • Use appropriate eye-contact (or not if it is not appropriate for certain cross-cultural communication styles)
  • Be able to keep an appropriate social distance for the situation
  • Use appropriate gestures to support dialogue
  • Display attending behaviors to conversations, such as watching, using active listening skills, or making appropriate eye contact
  • Be able to self-monitor types of nonverbal communication and make changes in responses if necessary


The social learning theory is not just about behaviors but also has education implications for communication in the classroom.


If you suspect there is an issue within the communication domain, your first step should be to talk to your school's speech therapist.










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