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What is Learned Behavior and Why Does It Matter?

Have you ever had a moment where your child did something, and it upset you very much? Most, if not all, parents have experienced this at some point in time and generally by age 2-3 years old. It doesn’t take long for our children to learn new things, test them out, and see how we react. But have you ever sat back, looked at the situation, and realized that they’re doing something or responding to a problem in a way that you do too? You very likely have because most parents have. This experience is an example of learned behavior.

What is learned behavior?

In simple terms, learned behavior means that children learn from us by example. They learn to react to situations based upon how we react to them. They learn how to treat people based on how we treat them.

Why is learned behavior important?

We have the power to change how we react, which can, in time, help our children learn to respond differently. Rather than being upset with our children for their reactions, we should look at ourselves and see what example we’re setting.

It’s our job to teach children how to behave.

As parents and educators, one of our most important roles in the lives of the children we spend our days with is to teach them how to behave by leading by example. If we want our children not to scream or yell, we need not scream or yell at them. When we yell and scream at our children regularly, they will believe that it’s OK, and in turn, they will yell and scream.

If we want our children to show respect and be kind, then we need to model kind, respectful behavior towards them and others. We can’t act one way and expect our children to act differently. We are their most trusted adults and the ones they will look to for guidance.

What if my child has behavioral issues? How do I fix them?

Sometimes kids pick up on our bad habits, or they learn things we wish they wouldn’t. Maybe we slipped up and said a swear word in a moment of anger, and the next thing we knew, our five-year-old repeated it when they were upset. At that moment, we have to take the time to explain to the child that it’s not an OK word to use and that we shouldn’t have said it either. If we don’t acknowledge that it’s not OK to use that word, they will believe it’s OK and use it again.

If your child is treating people with disrespect, yelling, or screaming, they’ve probably seen that behavior somewhere in their daily life from a trusted adult. Take note of your interactions with your children, along with those of your close friends, family, or childcare providers. If you can identify where the behavior is coming from then, you may correct the behavior modeled for your children.

What if my child throws temper tantrums over everything? Is that learned behavior?

Quite possibly. Children will generally try to get our attention in other manners. They’ll ask a question or start talking; they’ll run up to us excited by something and want to share. Sometimes we have the time; sometimes we don’t.

When kids can’t get our attention through positive interaction methods, they’ll try negative ways, including whining or temper tantrums.

If you don’t respond to the early/positive requests for attention and respond to the tantrum or whining, they’ll learn that the best way to get your attention is through negative behavior.

Kids don’t care if the attention is positive or negative; attention is attention. If you’re having behavioral issues with your child, try to pay attention to the tantrums, was there an attempt for interaction before the tantrum occurred? If not, you may need to work on re-establishing newly learned behaviors such as helping them learn how to calm themselves down with deep breaths, teaching them to use their words, and talk to you about what’s bothering them or other methods.

How do we change our child’s behavior?

The only thing we can do to improve our children’s behavior is to improve our behavior because they’re like little sponges. They watch us figure out what to do next and how to react to situations.

Set boundaries, set behavioral expectations, model the type of behavior you expect from your child and hold firm. If they test out behavior that they’ve seen someone else use and get results from and it is not something you want in your home, let them know, that’s not acceptable behavior in our family. Redirect them to how you’d like them to respond and model the behavior that you want.

More than anything, if you want your children to be kind, thoughtful, and considerate of you, your family, and others, you need to show them kindness, thoughtfulness, and consideration too. Your child’s behavior is a direct reflection of you and how you treat them. They’re always learning from us.