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How Does the Behaviorist Theory View the Child?

by Leyla Norman, studioD

Behaviorist theory is the result of the work of psychological theorists such as B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. It is one of many learning theories, such as constructivist, cognitive and social-cognitive, that educators of children use to inform how they teach them. It is built on the idea of learning through a system of rewards and punishments, or conditioning. Behaviorists view the child as being best able to learn when parents and educators institute conditioning and rather strictly control the learning environment.


John B. Watson held that psychology should deal with variables it could identify empirically instead of elements that a person cannot observe, such as the sub-conscious, which was popular in psychology in the early 20th century in Freud’s psychoanalysis theories. Behaviorist theory focuses only on behaviors, not on underlying mental processes, according to Terri Jo Swim, Ph.D., an assistant professor of early childhood education and development at Indiana University Purdue University. Behaviorism does not look at the whys of abnormal behavior. It simply assumes that behaviors are habits and looks at how they are learned through displayed behaviors.

Changing Behaviors

Behaviorism views the child as basically going along with the flow of her natural development. Development occurs in a continuous way, and children will develop and change their behaviors according to their external environment. This theory holds that kids can unlearn old behaviors and learn new ones if they are rewarded for them. If, for example, a child throws a fit, a reward for displaying alternate behaviors and punishing the tantrums will help change how the child behaves in the future.


Behaviorist theory holds that children develop and learn in certain ways based mostly on their environments. Their nature or genes have little to do with how they act in this theory, according to Swim. A child’s talents, personality, intelligence and other aspects of his mental being are not that important. With external guidance, Watson believed that he could train a child to become whatever he wanted her to be, despite any supposed genetic predisposition in another direction, says professor Richard Hall of Missouri University of Science and Technology.


Behaviorist theory has many critics, which may be due in part to its age and the influence it has had in psychology. Some say it is too simple to explain the ins and outs of behavior, while others point out that if you reward a child for something he likes to do anyway, you turn the play into work, and the intrinsic motivation to do certain tasks disappears. Lessons at school in which the teacher uses a behaviorist approach can be difficult to sit through for children who need variety and different activities to keep them engaged. Behaviorism allows few opportunities for self-exploration and discovery through discussion or experimentation in a learning environment, according to educator Rebecca Stone McNeeley at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

About the Author

Leyla Norman has been a writer since 2008 and is a certified English as a second language teacher. She also has a master's degree in development studies and a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology.

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