Applying Social Learning Theory in Social Work & Education

Social Learning TheoryMany of us are familiar with the notorious Bobo Doll experiment by Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961), but what does it have to do with social work and education?

As it turns out, a lot.

Social learning is a natural approach to acquiring new information relevant to all students and clients and, most of the time, a preferred method of learning.

Social learning presents an alternative avenue for obtaining new knowledge and frequently reinforces social work and education concepts. This type of learning involves observing others and requires four elements:

  • Attention
  • Retention
  • Reproduction
  • Motivation

Let’s explore this applicable theory further.

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Social Learning Theory of Personality Explained

Our personality may encourage or limit our capacity for social learning.

A shy individual or someone who has introverted qualities may experience fewer opportunities for social learning than someone who is outgoing and frequently seeks social situations.

Additionally, personality can be molded through the environment via social learning. Curran, Hill, Madigan, and Stornaes (2020) studied perfectionism in adolescents and found that social learning and parent socialization predicted the occurrence of the potentially harmful trait.

With social learning, children also pick up academic, athletic, and artistic skills via society, gender groups, peer groups, and their families (Social Work License Map, 2021).

Applying Social Learning Theory in Social Work

Social Learning Theory in Social WorkThe foundation of social learning theory posits that people learn by observing.

This new knowledge could include both positive and negative behaviors.

For social work practitioners, this theory can apply to behavioral issues or conflict. Social learning theory can be used to both learn and unlearn certain behaviors. Suppose that an abusive parent raises a child. The child may resort to physical violence in their own household when they are older.

Further, social learning theory can explain other deviant behavior. For example, a drug habit could be rationalized and attributed to copying friends’ habits, being influenced by others, or simply being surrounded by the “wrong” people (Kolodziej, 2015).

The importance of surrounding yourself with people whose qualities you wish to emulate cannot be emphasized enough.

Differential association theory

The differential association theory, one of the most discussed theories of deviance, was developed by Edwin Sutherland (2015).

Similar to the social learning theory, the premise of this theory is that individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior through interaction with others. This is an example of observational learning, but in the most unfavorable way.

Sutherland (2015) asserted that associations with criminal behavior and a lack of association with noncriminal behavior encourage deviant behavior in an individual.

Interestingly, these researchers provide a logical analogy of a Southerner in the United States who does not pronounce the “r” sound when they speak. Because people in the southern United States may not pronounce “r” sounds, other Southerners are inclined to do the same.

As a social worker, it is helpful to understand this theory, as it may sometimes explain the origin and intent of criminal behavior.

Social learning & depression

According to Frey, Frank, and McCabe (2021), there is very little research concerning learning from social outcomes in depression or social learning in depression; however, research by Frey and McCabe (2020) suggests that depression is affiliated with learning deficits.

Not only do people with depression experience impaired learning from social outcomes at the neural and behavioral levels, they often have decreased occasions for social interactions, limiting their opportunities for social learning.

Just as personality affects and is affected by social learning, depression has the same relatedness. People with depression may have a difficult time participating socially and gaining new knowledge from social learning.

Health promotion and social learning theory

Promoting positive and healthy habits is a critical part of an educator’s or social worker’s position.

Parcel et al. (1987) concluded that health instruction alone is ineffective in schools’ health promotion. The health instruction needs to be supported by the school environment. Therefore, expected behavior was modeled in classroom activities, such as in stories and role-play.

Students practiced the behavior in the school cafeteria, in simulated situations, or at home, and self-monitored for feedback on current practices and behavior change. Surrounding ourselves with individuals who practice healthy habits can also encourage us to exercise good habits.

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7 Social Learning Interventions & Treatments

Below is a selection of interventions and treatments where social learning theory has been applied.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive therapy is a powerful tool to elicit behavioral change. Cognitive restructuring aims to achieve schematic change through structured, goal-directed, and collaborative intervention strategies (Clark, 2013; Gardner, n.d.).

With collaborative being the keyword, individuals cannot do this work in isolation. Through therapy, clients identify maladaptive thoughts, and with cognitive restructuring, professionals expose individuals to information that contradicts their biased beliefs (Ellis, 2008).

Skill building

Skill building targets and builds upon skill deficits. This type of intervention addresses skill gaps and may include social skills training (including life skills training), social cognitive training, cognitive remediation, and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Lyman et al., 2014).

The process involves modeling, behavior rehearsal or role-play, feedback, and reinforcement (Gardner, n.d.). Behavioral interventions in adaptive skill building, particularly early intensive behavioral intervention, are the most effective for children (Palmen, Didden, & Lang, 2012).

Culture restructuring

Culture restructuring involves a process of creating a positive culture in which prosocial behaviors are positively reinforced (Gardner, n.d.).

Cultures may include the family unit or school setting. In culture restructuring, there is a change in the messages exchanged within the culture, which is accomplished by persuading people to change how they think. Said another way, it is a paradigm shift.

Process comparison

Similar to cognitive restructuring, the operations are much the same in process comparison (Gardner, n.d.). A common six-step process to teach social skills includes (Gardner, n.d.; McDaniel, Bruhn, & Troughton, 2017):

  1. Education about prosocial behavior – Engaging cognition
  2. Stop and think – Activating awareness
  3. Good choice/bad choice – Evaluating options
  4. What are the steps? – Identifying steps of the “good choice” and potential consequences
  5. Action – Implementing the steps
  6. How did I do? – Reflecting on the action

Humans strive to understand and make sense of their environment through comparison. Consider the structure mapping theory. Comparison involves structured representation, a preference for connected relational structure, and mapping to find a semantic similarity between the relations of the domains (Markman & Gentner, 2000). Comparison can occur between processes or standards.

Develop a healthier network

If you want to lead a healthier lifestyle, surround yourself with like-minded individuals who share the same goals. Developing a network of people who strive for a healthier lifestyle and have the motivation to make health-conscious decisions can encourage us to be healthier and maintain the lifestyle changes necessary to improve our health.

Considering addiction treatment, a healthier network of peers may involve a social circle of people who abstain from drugs (, n.d.). Someone who has a goal to lose weight may want to seek peers with healthy eating and exercise habits.

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Teach positive coping skills

Positive coping skills are adaptive and constructive ways to deal with stressful situations (Kaplánová, 2020). Observing positive coping skills and surrounding yourself with people who practice positive coping skills can also help you choose to exercise these skills (, n.d.).

Positive coping skills may include mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and deep/slow breathing. Your Life, Your Voice from Boys Town provides 99 Coping Skills and is an excellent tool to find the right coping skill for you. Our own Coping Skills Worksheets for Adults and Youth article is also a top-notch resource to explore coping skills.

Refusal skills to combat peer pressure

Although establishing a healthier network is strongly encouraged, some people may have difficulty distancing themselves from peers who may present a negative influence (, n.d.).

In this situation, refusal skills are critical. A deficit in refusal skills could result in harmful behavior, including drug, tobacco, or alcohol use (Anuar, 2018). When you cannot avoid a particular situation or influential peer, refusal skills may consist of verbally declining, redirecting, or physically walking away.

How to Apply Social Learning Theory in Education

Social Learning in Education

Social learning in education is conducive to instructing numerous students in one classroom, as this learning can occur at multiple levels and through various situations.

Children are constantly observing others, making this type of learning both reciprocal and continuous.

Teachers can support students’ learning by framing personal experiences as meaningful content, facilitating community through peer assessment, using group work to develop shared practices, and extending the purpose of subject teaching to influence students’ identities (Restad, 2021).

Teachers can use the following methods in the classroom to help facilitate learning:

  • Encouraging connections and facilitating relationships in the classroom
  • Providing praise for students who are doing the desired behavior
  • Short, student-created skits
  • Peer assessments, peer teaching, peer coaching, peer tutoring
  • Debates
  • Flipped classroom model
  • Technology: Jamboard, Padlet, YouTube videos, monitored social media, PenPal Schools
  • Student-created videos or presentations

Bandura and social learning theory – The Curious Classroom

Understanding Motivation in the Classroom

Motivation is a critical element in the classroom. In fact, it is one of the four elements of the social learning theory, in which Bandura asserted that observation alone might not be enough to influence learning; motivation is also necessary (Bandura & Walters, 1977).

To attain long-term assimilation, a student needs to see the benefit of the new behavior. Motivation can be intrinsic (a feeling of accomplishment when finishing a task) or extrinsic (earning a prize from the treasure chest upon completion of a task).

A student can become motivated upon seeing another student rewarded for a behavior. Likewise, a student may also become motivated to refrain from an undesired behavior when observing a student receiving punishment for that behavior. Often, verbal praise can be an effective tool for motivating students.

4 Best Books on the Topic

Besides our selection of social work books every practitioner should read, we selected these four focused on social learning theory.

1. Teach Boldly: Using EdTech for Social Good – Jennifer Williams

Teach Boldly

While we may assume that students who stare at a computer screen or have their eyes glued to their phone are being antisocial, they may be socializing extensively and actively engaging in social learning.

For encouraging innovative practices and global collaboration through technology, this book delivers a human-centered approach to teaching.

Teach Boldly covers constructing agile classrooms, digital storytelling, communicating across differences, and prioritizing feedback and active listening. This book offers readers the skills to create a quality action plan for encouraging social learning through technology.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom – Louis Cozolino

Social Neuroscience of Education

Stimulating the mind and brain to learn is the name of this game.

Holding the brain as discernibly social, Cozolino describes the steps a teacher can take to encourage healthy attachment patterns and resilient psyches. He explores what effective teachers do to motivate the difficult-to-motivate student.

Using social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology, Cozolino uncovers methods to maximize student learning and stimulate the brain to grow.

The section on How to Turn Brains Off explores stress, bullying, and “unteachable” students, while How to Turn Brains On probes why emotional attunement, exploration, play, and stories are crucial to learning.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Critical Service Learning Toolkit: Social Work Strategies for Promoting Healthy Youth Development – Annette Johnson, Cassandra McKay-Jackson, and Giesela Grumbach

Critical Service Learning Toolkit

This comprehensive toolkit encourages interconnectedness and participation in the community while enhancing skill building, self-reflection, and civic engagement.

This user-friendly, step-by-step guide enables readers to plan, carry out, and evaluate critical service learning. This book is an ideal resource for educators and social workers who promote civic responsibility and social agency.

Find the book on Amazon.

4. Model-Directed Learning: Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Learning Theory and Its Social-Psychological Significance for School and Instruction – Liwia Kolodziej

Model-directed LearningEducators and social workers can maximize learning potential by employing a foundation of socio-psychological practices in the classroom.

Using the cognitive learning theory and model-based learning, Kolodziej explains how schools can characterize the relationships between social interactions, social learning, and learning through imitation.

Further, the teacher–student relationship and the teacher’s role as the model are explicitly described. The book concludes with implications of school instruction using the social learning theory.

Find the book on Amazon.

Resources From

To gain a clearer understanding of the social learning theory, you may want to review What Is Bandura’s Social Learning Theory? 3 Examples. In this piece, we describe the theory’s stages, provide real-life examples, present fascinating experiments and studies, and establish the strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

The Promoting Positive Behavior worksheet may help a student identify peers’ positive behaviors that should be mirrored. A teacher or counselor may wish to begin a social skills conversation with this worksheet and prompt the student to think of examples of classmates’ positive behaviors that they have witnessed.

Perhaps this Behavior Contract may encourage individuals in a client’s social circle to help them make the lifestyle changes they desire.

As we know, students learn best in an environment where they feel safe. Therefore, social learning may be most likely to occur in an environment where students exhibit trust. Here are a few icebreakers and team-building exercises that may foster a safe environment:

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A Take-Home Message

Just as the children learned to act violently toward the Bobo doll in Bandura et al.’s (1961) landmark study, children and adults generally learn by observing.

Furthermore, kids simply “don’t learn from teachers they don’t like” (Pierson, 2013). If this is the case, the classroom teacher can employ the other students as “the teacher” to help facilitate learning.

Cultivating social learning in your classroom and engaging the social learning theory in your practice as a social worker can benefit students and clients. It can be an effective and efficient method to promote cognitive change.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


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