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How do I use modelling behavior to teach my child?

Raising children in our fast-paced world, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of authoritarian parenting.

We can end up taking on all of the responsibilities of holding, sharing, and enforcing all the lessons.

But research in education and developmental behavioral science, tells us that modelling behaviors and emotions are the most effective way to pass on learning to our kids.

 It’s no surprise that Maria observed and wrote extensively about this tendency to imitate.

“Imitation is the tool given by nature to children to help them adapt to the particular place where they were born and that enables them to adapt to the customs of their specific environment…The child that has to adapt himself to the environment can only adapt to it by copying others.” - Maria Montessori.


In this article:

What is behavioural modelling?

What is unique about behavioral modelling in the parent-child dyad?

What does it mean to model good behavior?

What are examples of modelling good behavior?

How do I teach my child through modelling?

How can I change the way I model behavior based on my child’s age?


What is behavioural modelling?

Behavioural modelling is part of systems theory in Psychology. Developed in the 1970’s by J. C. Willems, it tells us that challenges in human behaviour and mental health aren't isolated to an individual, but rather due to the complex relationships and environments that shape our behaviour. 

In a general context, behavior modeling refers to the broader concept of individuals learning behaviors by observing others. This happens in various settings and involves different types of relationships, such as between peers, coworkers, or even strangers. 

By knowing the key aspects of behavior modeling in a general context we can better understand how our behaviours are shaped:

A Variety of Role Models: Individuals can model their behavior after a wide range of people, not limited to specific dyads or relationships. This includes peers, authority figures, public figures, and others in their environment.

Diverse Settings: Behavior modeling can occur in many different environments, such as schools, workplaces, social settings, and through media. It is not confined to the home or specific relational contexts.

Influence Mechanisms: The mechanisms of influence can vary widely. For instance, social norms, cultural expectations, and media portrayals can all play significant roles in shaping behavior.


What is unique about behavioural modelling within the parent-child dyad?

In the context of the parent-child dyad, behaviour modeling refers to the process where parents serve as role models for their children by demonstrating behaviors that they want their children to learn and adopt. This can include a wide range of actions, such as social interactions, emotional responses, problem-solving techniques, and daily habits. Through observation and imitation, children learn these behaviors, internalizing them as part of their own repertoire. 

The kind of modelling between you and your child is more specific and nuanced due to the unique and intimate nature of your parent-child relationship:

Primary Role Models: Parents are typically the primary and most influential role models for their children, especially in early developmental stages.

Emotional Bond: The emotional bond between parents and children adds a significant layer of influence, as children often have a natural inclination to emulate their parents' behaviors due to attachment and trust.

Focused Environment: The home environment is a key setting for this type of modeling, where daily interactions and routines provide continuous opportunities for learning.

Intentionality: Parents often consciously model behaviors they wish their children to adopt, such as manners, coping strategies, and moral values, with the explicit goal of teaching and guiding their development.


What does it mean to model good behavior?

Modeling good behavior means demonstrating positive actions, attitudes, and responses that our children, can observe and imitate. It involves consciously acting in ways that reflect the values and behaviors one wish to see in our children. 

This concept is crucial in parenting, education, and leadership, where role models significantly influence the development and behavior of those they guide. 


What are examples of modelling behavior?

Have you ever found your child spontaneously acting like you, another adult you know, or even another child? This is an example of behavioural modelling at work. 

Parent can model good behavior in these 8 key ways:

  1. Consistency: Regularly exhibiting the desired behavior in various situations, providing a reliable example for others to follow.

  2. Positive Attitude: Demonstrating optimism, kindness, empathy, and patience in interactions with others.

  3. Healthy Habits: Engaging in and promoting healthy lifestyle choices, such as good nutrition, regular exercise, and proper hygiene.

  4. Emotional Regulation: Managing and expressing emotions appropriately, showing how to handle stress, anger, and frustration constructively.

  5. Responsibility: Taking ownership of one's actions, fulfilling commitments, and demonstrating accountability.

  6. Respect and Empathy: Treating others with respect, understanding different perspectives, and showing compassion and empathy.

  7. Effective Communication: Using clear, respectful, and assertive communication, listening actively, and expressing thoughts and feelings constructively.

  8. Problem-Solving: Approaching challenges with a positive mindset, using critical thinking and collaboration to find solutions.


How do I teach my child through modelling? 

No matter your child’s age:

Be a Consistent Role Model: Regardless of age, consistency in your behavior provides a stable reference for your child.

Adapt to Individual Needs: Every child is unique. Tailor your approach to suit your child's personality, strengths, and challenges.

Lead by Example: Your actions speak louder than words. Consistently exhibit the behaviors you want your child to learn.

Encourage Reflection: As children grow older, encourage them to reflect on their actions and the consequences. This helps them develop self-awareness and critical thinking skills.


How can I change the way I model behaviour based on my child’s age?

Yes, but modifying the way you model behaviour based on your child's developmental stage will make it most effective.

Here are some strategies tailored to the different stages of childhood development:

Infancy and Early Childhood, 0 - 6 years old 

From 0-6 years old children are not only wired to mimic our behaviour, but their brain is particularly set to absorb these behaviours as a matter of survival. Infants need to learn what matters and how to be in this world if they are to survive. how to be from their .

We can help them understand what and why we are doing it by narrating. “My belly feels heavy. My body says it’s time to go pee. There’s the bathroom. I made it in time!”. Throughout this stage they build the capacity to absorb increasingly complex behaviours they are shown subconsciously.

Infancy (0-2 years)

Demonstrate Basic Interactions: Show gentle touch, smiling, and making eye contact. Infants learn trust and emotional connection through these simple interactions.

Routine and Consistency: Establish routines for feeding, sleeping, and play. Consistent patterns help infants feel secure and understand daily rhythms.

Non-Verbal Cues: Use facial expressions and tone of voice to convey emotions. Babies are highly attuned to non-verbal communication.

Early Childhood (2-6 years)

Simple Explanations: Explain your actions and behaviors in simple terms. For example, “I’m washing my hands to get rid of germs.”

Role-Playing: Engage in role-playing games to teach social skills and appropriate behaviors in a fun and interactive way.

Positive Reinforcement: Praise and reward positive behavior to reinforce good habits. Children in this age group respond well to encouragement.

Middle Childhood, 6-12 years old

Our children’s brains are primed for deepening relationships and to understand our world and universe through big stories, building the ability to distinguish reality from imaginary. 

Inviting play while modelling behaviour can help them open up to new ideas,. Throughout this stage, they develop the ability to consciously choose about what behaviours they want to change or keep. 

Try this with your 6-12 year old:

Model Problem-Solving: Demonstrate how to handle conflicts and solve problems. Talk through your thought process and involve your child in finding solutions.

Encourage Independence: Allow your child to take on more responsibilities, such as chores or homework. Show how to approach tasks methodically and responsibly.

Discuss Values and Ethics: Have conversations about honesty, respect, and empathy. Use real-life situations to illustrate these concepts.


Adolesence, 12-18 years

From 12 years onwards, the adolescent’s brain is changing rapidly to build a unique identity, independence, and to understand personal beliefs and values. 

Modelling honest conversations about the results of your own beliefs and values, and those of others can help them reflect on the way they want to show up in the world and what matters most to them. 

Throughout this stage they build the capacity for increasingly complex understanding of personal attributes within a broader social and societal context. 

Try this with your 12-18 year old:

Open Communication: Foster open and honest communication. Discuss more complex topics like peer pressure, relationships, and personal values.

Respect Autonomy: Respect your teen’s growing need for independence while setting clear expectations and boundaries. Show how to make responsible choices.

Model Self-Care and Balance: Demonstrate the importance of balancing work, leisure, and self-care. Show how to manage stress and prioritize mental health.


Young adulthood, 18-24+

Young adults are developing their sense of moral independence and judgement. Modelling thoughtful questions, debating both sides, and expanding on negotiations inspires young adults to approach their big questions and decisions with the same thoughtfulness.

Above all else, modelling a belief that your child is coming from place of good, even in their struggles, no matter how small or increasingly complex it might be, will protect your relationship and hold space for them to grow into the capable and kind adult they are meant to be.

Try these tips with your young adult:

Support Independence: Encourage your young adult to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their actions. Model independence by managing your own responsibilities effectively and showing how to balance work, life, and personal interests.

Offer Guidance, Not Control: Provide advice and guidance when asked, but avoid trying to control their choices. Respect their autonomy and support their ability to make informed decisions.

Model Financial Responsibility: Demonstrate good financial habits such as budgeting, saving, and investing. Share your experiences and strategies for managing money wisely.

Promote Healthy Relationships: Show how to maintain healthy relationships through effective communication, mutual respect, and conflict resolution. Be an example of how to build and sustain strong, supportive connections with others.

Encourage Lifelong Learning: Continue to show enthusiasm for learning and personal growth. Encourage your young adult to pursue their interests, further their education, and develop new skills.

Model Work-Life Balance: Demonstrate how to balance professional responsibilities with personal well-being. Show the importance of setting boundaries, taking breaks, and prioritizing mental and physical health.

Discuss Real-World Issues: Engage in discussions about broader societal issues, ethics, and values. Encourage critical thinking and open dialogue about diverse perspectives and global challenges.

Be Transparent About Challenges: Share your experiences with overcoming obstacles and dealing with failures. Show resilience and the ability to learn from setbacks, reinforcing that challenges are a part of growth.

Encourage Community Involvement: Model the importance of giving back to the community through volunteer work, civic engagement, or advocacy. Show how contributing to society can be fulfilling and impactful.

Foster Emotional Intelligence: Demonstrate self-awareness, empathy, and emotional regulation. Show how to navigate complex emotions and maintain mental health.


Related Questions

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How do I nurture independence?


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