Modeling, direct instruction and coaching, using reinforcement and comments, managing the environment, stating expectations, and encouraging children to modify their attitudes and understanding all can influence children. All adults—authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive—use these basic processes to directly and indirectly influence children. In this section, you will read about each of the basic processes that are used by adults, whatever the caregiving style, to influence children. For example, all adults use the basic process of modeling, but an authoritarian adult demonstrates behavior that is very different from that modeled by an authoritative adult. The process is the same, but the content is different.


Much human behavior is learned simply by watching someone else perform the behavior. The other person is the model, and the basic process is modeling. Perhaps the best-known researcher to give us information about this process is Albert Bandura. His classic research (1971) demonstrates that children can effectively learn a behavior just by watching it. Although children can learn from several types of models (e.g., cartoon characters, pictures in books, and movie or video characters), Bandura’s group showed just how powerful adult models are in demonstrating aggression. Adults can also model other behaviors such as kindness or fear.

Children learn undesirable behaviors—such as aggression or abusiveness—by observing models. An authoritarian parent or teacher who disciplines by hitting or with sarcasm actually models (demonstrates) aggressive behavior. You will also see evidence throughout this book that children just as effectively learn more desirable and positive behaviors—such as generosity, cooperation, kindness, and helpfulness—through the same basic process. An authoritative adult who uses positive discipline teaches a different lesson than does the authoritarian adult.

Imitation is different from modeling. A child might learn, for example, how to be kind to animals by observing his teacher model the behavior. The child learns the behavior. There is no guarantee, though, that the child will also perform the behavior that he has learned. When he does perform a behavior learned via modeling, then he has imitated the behavior. Children in this country observe thousands of acts of violence on television and in video games before they enter first grade. They have, then, several thousand sessions of modeling of aggression and violence. They learn the violence. Whether they imitate what they have observed is another story. Avoid saying, “He modeled after the television violence.” Instead, consider saying, “He imitated the violence modeled in the television show.”

Direct instruction

involves intentional and explicit teaching. There are many examples of adults influencing children through direct instruction. Teacher education students take curriculum courses so that they can learn developmentally appropriate methods of giving instruction in math, science, social studies, and language arts. Adults also instruct children in physical safety, such as traffic safety, safe use of toys, and how to recognize “good” and “bad” touches. We instruct children about so many things: the correct way to hold a baseball bat, build a campfire, ride a horse, or execute a figure eight on skates.

Consider the benefits of instructing children in social skills—how to make and keep friends, how to take another person’s perspective, how to work cooperatively with friends, and how to resolve conflicts (King & Kirschenbaum, 1992; Lavallee, Bierman, & Nix, 2005).

Practicing with Coaching

The next step, after giving direct instruction, is to encourage a child to practice a new skill. It is very helpful to give on-the-spot guidance or coaching as the child practices.

Mr. Claiborne had taught Ryan how to wait for his turn at the computer (he is working on helping Ryan be more observant about approaching activities and other children because Ryan just barges right in). The teacher believes that Ryan will make changes, but is going to do so gradually. Now, he is at the computer with Ryan. He encourages Ryan to go through the steps that he has modeled and taught:

  • First, check the list of names to see who is next.
  • Second, put his name on the list if necessary.
  • Third, find something else to do while he waits for his turn and ask for help if he needs it.

The teacher coaches Ryan through each step. “What’s the first thing to do, Ryan? Right! Look at the list.” He continues this coaching.

Mr. Claiborne believes that this is a much better approach than punishing Ryan for pushing ahead of others on the list to use the computer. It actually teaches something positive.

Giving Feedback

Adults influence children by giving them feedback. Information from adults about how a child has done something or what a child knows is an important source of information about the child’s competence. Feedback is critical to constructing skills and competencies as well as for making changes.  Giving good feedback means that teachers give positive feedback as well as suggestions for change, when appropriate.

Positive, unconditional feedback
This is positive information independent of anything that the child has done; the child does not have to earn the feedback. Examples include “I love you,” or “I like being your teacher” (teacher to class).

Positive, conditional feedback
These are positive comments expressed after a child has done a specific task. For example, “Thank you, Reese, for showing Sam how to feed the gerbils without disturbing them,” or “The fire alarm was very loud but everybody listened so carefully to my instructions.” This is positive, meaningful feedback, not empty flattery, and should help children build a healthy view of their competence.

Feedback that helps children construct more helpful skills or competencies
Adults, with their expert knowledge and skills, can help children construct positive and satisfying interaction skills. For example, Mrs. Vargas, a preschool teacher, said to Jackie, “You look upset. Is that right?” Jackie told her yes and that Ralph would not give him the wagon. Mrs. Vargas had observed Jackie capture the wagon, pushing Ralph in the process. He needed to learn a better way to get what was rightfully his. “I see. Now, everybody is upset. Let’s figure out how to use words to tell Ralph that it’s your turn.” The teacher expanded her feedback to include specific words: “You can say, ‘It’s my turn now, Jackie.’”

Feedback from computers
Interesting new research shows that children can get feedback from computers just as they can from teachers or parents. Bracken and Lombard’s study (2004) examined the effect of praise from a computer on young children’s learning. They found that children do have social responses to computer-generated praise and that their responses can lead to increases in recall and recognition in young children.

Managing the Child’s Environment

Adults influence children by setting up the physical environment of the classroom well and by providing clean, safe, and appropriate learning materials. Teachers also influence children by developing an appropriate time schedule and by developing appropriate classroom routines and structures. It is possible, for example, for children to learn social skills such as conflict resolution through direct instruction—skits and scenarios. Learning the skill, however, does not guarantee that children will use the skills on the playground, in the cafeteria, or in other place outside the lessons directly focusing on specific skills (Johnson, Poliner, & Bonaiuto, 2005). Children need to practice their new skills through the school day.


The teachers at Oakwood manage the environment so that children have opportunities to practice skills. They use a morning meeting (Kriete, 2002), a structured beginning to each day for children to get to know one another, to feel welcomed, to shape the classroom culture, and to practice social skills. They value social interaction in learning activities and use learning centers. They reflect on routines like recess and lunch, and decided to have recess first and then lunch so that children might unwind and have a quiet transition to afternoon activities. They plan transitions, realizing that good transitions reduce stress for children.

Such developmentally appropriate practices can improve children’s achievement in urban settings (Huffman & Speer, 2000). Fawcett and Garton (2005) found that both social interaction and children’s explaining how they solved a problem helped children develop better problem-solving skills. At-risk 5- to 6-year-old children in Hamre and Pianta’s study (2005) improved in achievement scores and their relationships with teachers when they were placed in classrooms with strong instructional and educational support.

Stating Expectations of Desired Behaviors Example.

“Ryan,” called Mr. Claiborne, “wash your hands and then you can join the group and help us cut up the fruit for our snack.”

Mr. Claiborne makes a conscious effort to define cooperative, helpful behavior. Authoritative adults like Ryan’s teacher develop good rules or limits and then communicate them clearly to children. Authoritarian adults, on the other hand, tend to set too many arbitrary limits, and permissive adults may fail to communicate expectations at all.

Encouraging Children to Modify Attitudes and Understanding

A young child’s brain enables him to process information and make sense of the world. Children can act cooperatively when someone takes the time to present them with additional or different information in a way that is appropriate to the child’s particular level of development. Focus on teaching children to understand why they should or should not do certain things. Be gently firm about the need for the children to act more appropriately, and make it clear that there is a reason for acting more appropriately. Be kind at the same time, though. Authoritative caregivers are firm and kind.

An effective way to do this is to help a child become more empathic. The goal is to help a child to understand gradually how his actions affect others and to be able to take somebody else’s perspective. Like most learning, this occurs gradually over a period of  years and begins in infancy. The goal here is not to induce excessive guilt or to shame a child. A good way to arouse empathy is to describe another’s situation in an open, direct way that still validates the other person and that does not accuse him.


Mrs. Vargas said to Ralph, “I see from the job chart that it’s your day to feed the gerbils. I’ll bet that they’re hungry. So get the gerbil food and I’ll help you put it in their house.”

Mr. Lee, the third-grade teacher, said to Rory, “Name-calling hurts feelings, Rory. Remember our class rules? That’s right. Treat each other with respect.”

Each adult avoided sarcasm, threats, and accusations while focusing on how the other person or animal might have felt. Arousing a child’s empathy—having her “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes or tracks”—is a powerful technique because it encourages the child to examine and begin to understand how her behavior might well have affected someone else.

A common thread linking different forms of antisocial behavior, including child abuse, is the perpetrator’s inability to take another person’s perspective (Chalmers & Townsend, 1990). Preventing abuse involves helping abusive adults learn social perspective taking. Helping children become empathic, to take the perspective of others, then, is an important task for teachers and parents during early childhood.