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Strategic modeling

You may have noticed that the term “modeling” frequently comes up in these newsletters. It also comes up in my office, in my recommendations and even out in the wild. So, I thought I’d take a newsletter to really flesh this idea out.

In the field of psychology, when we talk about modeling, we’re really talking about observational learning. It’s a form of learning that’s been well studied and it’s actually one that’s pretty straight forward: observational learning is learning that occurs through watching others and then imitating that behavior. It plays a huge role in child development, and is one of the main ways that children learn about the world, and even themselves.

If you ever took Psych 101, you may have learned about Albert Bandura’s Bobo Dolls experiment. If not, let me fill you in on the basics: back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bandura conducted an experiment in which a group of children observed other children acting aggressively towards a Bobo doll. Want to guess what happened then the first group of children, the observers, were in the presence of the Bobo doll? Of course, the children acted in a very similar way to the children they observed acting aggressively.

Bandura later proposed Social Learning Theory, and theorized that observational learning actually goes beyond just imitation, but that cognitive processes (thinking) are also involved. So, while we can certainly think of examples where a behavior is merely mimicked, there are also examples of a behavior not being imitated - likely due to someone thinking about the behavior. For example, in a variation of the Bobo Dolls experiment, some children observed others receiving consequences for their aggressive behavior towards the Bobo dolls, and then those children (the observers) did not act aggressively towards the dolls.

This reinforces the idea that children and teenagers are, in fact, watching all the time. So yes, it matters who they spend time with and who they observe. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you have to interview everyone that comes in contact with your child, but it does mean that it’s something to pay attention to. It also means that we can use this to our advantage and engage in some "strategic modeling". And, don’t forget about the part that not all behaviors are mimicked - this gives us an opportunity to potentially step in if a child or adolescent observes something we wish they didn't.

Since the opportunities for modeling occur all the time, let's think through a few examples and things to consider:

1- If your adolescent’s friend engages in a behavior that you want your adolescent to steer clear of, take advantage of the component of this learning style that hinges on cognitive processes and ask your adolescent what they think about that behavior, and what happened to their friend afterwards, was there a consequence, how did they feel, etc.

2- Maybe you're working on helping your child build frustration tolerance. Is there someone modeling what it looks like to feel frustrated, tolerate that feeling and move through it? This might look like an adult attempting a task only to have it not work out, says out loud that they are frustrated, pauses, takes a few breaths, says they are still frustrated, takes more breaths, and says they are going to try it one more time before asking for help.

3- Let’s use applying make-up as an example. A child or adolescent watches an adult apply some blush. They then pick up the blush and apply it at a later date. Now let’s say that a child or adolescent watches an adult apply blush and also observes them say “ugh, I look terrible, still.” That negative self-talk also gets modeled, observed and potentially imitated.

Two other points to keep in mind: Play it cool when it comes to strategically modeling with certain behaviors. This is actually really important. Once you say “did you see what I did just now?” you lose credibility. You actually have to walk the walk, and you need to do it more than once, which leads me to the second piece to keep in mind - strategic modeling will likely need to occur more than once to have a real impact. Like many other strategies, repetition is key, but don't worry, we know they are watching!

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Kate

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