Pioneers: Bandura and Bronfenbrenner explained

Sean MacBlain and Colette Gray
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Albert Bandura and Urie Bronfenbrenner are two celebrated and influential theorists whose ideas can help us to understand children's social learning and why some children succeed where others do not.

Key Points

  • Bandura came to believe that social factors were key to understanding learning and development in young children and, in the 1970s, developed his Social Learning theory
  • Bronfenbrenner was one of the co-founders of the Head Start programme and is perhaps best known for his Ecological Systems Model, now redefined as the Bioecological Model

Note: This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of eye

‘To begin to understand why so many children succeed while so many fail, despite years of education requires that we exercise our thinking in such a way that we do not simply rely on what we, or those around us, think might be the causes, we need to engage with the question in a critical and objective fashion’



A question that has exercised the thinking of many academics and practitioners over the years, is why, despite access to education from their first years, so many children succeed while so many do not. Only a few years ago, Laura Clark, the educational correspondent for the popular newspaper, the Daily Mail, offered the following rather worrying statistics:

‘Children as young as one are being labelled as having special educational needs by their nurseries … Figures released yesterday by the Department for Education showed that 19.8 percent of children across the school system – more than 1.6 million – have been given the label (2012, n.p.)

Some months earlier, the journalist Peter Stanford (2012), writing in another UK national paper, the Daily Telegraph, had also reported: ‘Many experts fear that funds earmarked to help children with learning difficulties are being redirected to cope with a new tide of social deprivation that is washing up in the classroom. Children from troubled homes, who turn up at schools with behavioural problems, are being routinely put on the SEN register alongside those with more specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.’

To begin to understand why so many children succeed while so many fail, despite years of education, requires that we exercise our thinking in such a way that we do not simply rely on what we, or those around us, think might be the causes, instead we need to engage with the question in a critical and objective fashion. To help us in doing so, we can look to what philosophers and theorists have told us over the generations.

Two celebrated and highly influential theorists whose ideas can help us in answering this question and increase our understanding of children's learning, and more particularly children's social learning, are Albert Bandura and Urie Bronfenbrenner. Anyone facing the task of engaging with philosophy and theory will, however, quickly appreciate that philosophers and theorists offer conflicting views and, all too often, leave us with more questions than answers (MacBlain, 2014). Notwithstanding this, philosophers and theorists do, however, offer practitioners a means by which they can critically reflect upon their own practice and, perhaps more importantly, the thinking that underpins their practice.

Turning uncertainty into knowledge
Theory, philosophy, or just common sense

Understanding what is meant by philosophy and theory is not straightforward. Indeed, much confusion and uncertainty remains in the minds of many practitioners and students as to what exactly philosophy and theory are and how they can be relevant to what they do every day with children.

Some years ago, Gutek (1997) defined philosophy as follows: ‘In its most general terms, philosophy is the human being's attempt to think speculatively, reflectively, and systematically about the universe and the human relationship to that universe.’

More recently, the contemporary philosopher, De Botton (2000), in confronting the task of explaining what philosophy was, cited in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, the celebrated German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proposed that, ‘… the majority of philosophers have always been “cabbage-heads”’. De Botton (ibid), however, went on to propose that: ‘… philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us.’

What De Botton is getting at here is that while all of us experience life and reflect upon our own behaviours and those of children, philosophers offer us the means by which we can engage more fully in understanding these experiences and how we can explain them. While previous generations drew heavily upon philosophy to understand and explain learning, more recent decades have seen a major shift away from philosophy towards a much more empirical or theoretical approach.

Gray and MacBlain (2015) have offered the following: ‘In common usage, the term [theory] can be used to denote a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena … A theor y is a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena.’

Newby (2010) has drawn an important distinction between Education Theory, which deals with such areas as learning and child development, schooling and curricula, and Research Theory, which he suggested: ‘… is a rule book whose legitimacy stems from principles accepted by the academic community.’

He went on to propose two types of Education Theory – Normative Theory, which explains, ‘… how things could or should be organised or what goals should be achieved’, and Explanatory Theory, which, ‘… explains how things work’. With the second, for example, the early Behaviourists sought to explain learning by generating a theory built upon their assertion that all behaviour is learned.

Newby emphasized, however, that Education Theory plays a crucial role because it provides a framework through which we can develop our understanding and knowledge of particular things. Now, let us turn to the first of our two chosen theoretical approaches, that of Bandura.

Albert Bandura

Born in 1925, in Canada, Bandura came to believe that social factors were key to understanding learning and development in young children and, in the 1970s, developed his Social Learning theory (Bandura, 1977). In doing so, he moved away from the thinking of many of his contemporaries, most notably the ‘Behaviourists’ who saw learning, primarily, as resulting from links between stimuli and responses, which then brought about changes in behaviour.

Crucially, Bandura believed that learning did not always involve changes in behaviour and that children could, in fact, observe others without their observations (stimuli) necessarily leading to changes in their own behaviours (response). Bandura also believed that motivation was a major factor, which influenced children's observations of others' behaviours and the resulting changes in their own behaviours.

Bandura is also known for his Bobo doll experiment, carried out in the early 1960s. In this experiment, Bandura filmed a woman aggressively hitting a large toy doll, called a Bobo doll. Bandura asked a group of young children to view this film and then gave them the opportunity to play in a separate room, which contained a Bobo doll. The children began to strike the doll as they had seen the woman doing in the film. They were, in effect, imitating the behaviours of the woman.

Of particular note was the fact that the children were striking the doll even though they were not, in any way, being rewarded for doing so. In essence, they were engaging in behaviours that they had observed but that had not, in any way, been reinforced. Learning, therefore, was occurring, not as a result of reinforcement, as Behaviourists at the time would have suggested through their proposed views on Classical and Operant conditioning, but as a result of observation (see Gray and MacBlain, 2015, Chapter 4 for a comprehensive explanation of these two constructs).

Bandura believed that the stimulus-response explanation of learning proposed by the early behaviourists was overly simplistic and did not go far enough in explaining human behaviour and emotions. This represented a major shift in how we came to view the learning of very young children and offered research evidence that Bandura then employed when building his theory of social learning.

While Bandura acknowledged that classical and operant conditioning could go a long way in explaining social learning, he also proposed two other factors of key importance in children's learning, namely imitation and identification, and he even suggested that these could contribute to accelerated social learning in children. With the former, children imitate the actions and behaviours of those around them. With the latter, new learning becomes assimilated into existing concepts that the child has previously internalized.

Bandura suggested that, in this way, new patterns of behaving come to be internalized by the child with the result that they then act upon novel situations in a way they think adults from whom they have modelled their own behaviours would act. He took care to emphasise that for positive and meaningful learning to take place, the behaviours of those being imitated by children should be appropriate.

In doing so, he drew particular attention to that type of symbolic modelling where children imitate and identify with fictional characters, such as those found in fairytales and children's stories. The growing number of visual stories and cartoons on television, as well as computer games, must also be included within this concept of symbolic modelling.

A further key factor in Bandura's theory, which is particularly relevant to practice in the early years, is the concept of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), which Bandura saw as children's belief in their own abilities to do well and to succeed in different situations, and, importantly, their capacity to exercise control over their own actions in order to achieve success. Bandura took care to emphasise how self-efficacy is related directly to children's thinking and how they act, and crucially, their emotional state.

Children with poor self-efficacy have a tendency to avert themselves from tasks that present them with a challenge, preferring to focus on the negative and frame their thinking within internalised patterns, constructs by which they convince themselves that they will fail to be successful. Children with poor self-efficacy also typically present themselves in social situations as having poor self-confidence and low self-esteem.

Linked to children's capacity to gain success are their feelings about themselves and others, as well as the world around them. Children with poor self-efficacy typically do less well than those with strong self-efficacy and may, for example, show little interest in attempting and seeing tasks through to completion. They may also present as being less committed to working other children and may demonstrate greater signs of anxiety than their peers when expected to work on problem-based tasks.

Colverd and Hodgkin (2011) have stressed how children in learning situations may: ‘… place limits on what they think is possible, believing a task is beyond their capability. Lack of self-belief affects their motivation and their commitment to learning. “I can't do this, it's boring” signals “I don't believe I can be successful with this and therefore I don't want to take the risk – it may or may not be boring”.’

Bandura proposed that a key factor in children developing strong self-efficacy was their development of ‘mastery’ through such experiences as observing others who succeed, receiving positive and affirming comments from others, and understanding their own emotions and feelings. Self-efficacy as an integral part of a child's early learning experiences, then, has significant implications for early years practitioners.

While Bandura's work tended to focus on the individual, Bronfenbrenner's work offers a further dimension to that of Bandura and provides a means for greater reflection on both how young children learn and the cultural contexts and factors that influence the course of their learning and development.

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Bronfenbrenner was born in Moscow in 1917 and when six years of age moved to the USA. In 1979, he published a seminal text, The Ecology of Human Development, in which he set out his views on child development. Bronfenbrenner was one of the co-founders of the Head Start programme and is perhaps best known for his Ecological Systems Model, now redefined as the Bioecological Model.

Bronfenbrenner's, theory differs from that of Bandura's in that he viewed factors in the child's wider social, political and economic environment as being of much greater importance. Unlike Bandura, he proposed that a child's own biology is a key factor that influences their development. His theory, therefore, can be best understood as the interrelationship of children with the environments in which they live. Both viewed culture as playing a significant part in the education of children and did not see children's development or learning in terms of stages, as was the case with, for example, the celebrated French theorist, Jean Piaget (Gray and MacBlain, 2015, MacBlain, 2014).

Bronfenbrenner emphasized how children grow up in continuously changing and evolving dynamic cultures where they must interact with those around them (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner and Ceci, 1994).

As children grow, the nature and quality of their interactions changes; this process occurs not only within their families and communities but, also, through the wider cultures and societies, all of which have their own definable and recognizable characteristics (Johnston and Nahmad-Williams, 2009).

He emphasized the importance of studying ‘development-in-context’, or the ‘ecology of development’ (Smith et al, 2003), which was something the early behaviourists had not done. Crucially, he also emphasized how early years practitioners need to think ahead and view the children they work with not only simply as ‘early years’ children but as growing individuals who are unique and who are only at the beginning stages of the rest of their lives.

While Bronfenbrenner placed significant emphasis upon the wider environment when attempting to explore children's development, he also argued that it was important to think of children's development and learning through the concept of layers that encompass them as they develop (see Figure 1).

‘Bandura took care to emphasise how self-efficacy is related directly to children's thinking and how they act, and crucially, their emotional state’

These layers, he proposed, directly and indirectly impact upon the biological maturation of all children. His theory, therefore, requires that to fully explore children's development, we also need to examine wider environmental influences upon the child.

The layers that characterise Bronfenbrenner's theory are sometimes likened to Russian dolls, where smaller dolls are placed within much bigger ones (Linden, 2005). Bronfenbrenner gave names to each of these layers surrounding children, with the closest and most immediate layer to the child being the ‘Microsystem’.

It is within the Microsystem that children have their most immediate contact with their family, playgroup, neighbours, local community, and so on. Bronfenbrenner proposed a two-way process within this layer that influenced the child, which he referred to as ‘bi-directional influences’. What he means by this is the notion that while children are influenced by the behaviours, actions and beliefs of others, they also influence the actions and behaviours they interact with.

Take the example of a baby girl lying in her cot. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, she makes a loud and very pleasing cooing sound. When her mother hears the sound, she comes running in from the kitchen and picks the baby up and hugs the baby and gives her a great deal of attention. Here, while the baby initiated the interaction by making a pleasant sound, the mother has responded. In this way, the baby is influencing, and in a sense, directing her mother's behaviours; Bronfenbrenner would suggest that the pattern of behaviours is bi-directional. He argued that such bi-directional influences are very strong.

Outside of the ‘Microsystem’ is the ‘Meosystem’, which relates to the construction of connections between, for example, children's parents and their first teacher. Here, children compare experiences at school with those at home. Children also make comparisons between their friends at school and their friends close to home, and between brothers and sisters.

Next to the ‘Meosystem’ lies the ‘Exosystem’ or the child's wider social system. Here, for example, the work commitments of parents, or their levels of income, impact upon the child's Microsystem. Within the Exosystem the wider social experiences of children will also impact indirectly upon them. An example of this system can be seen in the increased range of early years provision brought about by the current government, which now offers parents, much greater choice. Such external factors impact significantly on the lives of many children across the UK.

Outside of the Exosystem lies the ‘Macrosystem’, which comprises the child's culture, societal values, legal structures, and so on, and which impact upon the inner layers. Children, growing up in very traditional societies, for example, where parents divorce, may receive far less practical support than children living in a society that is more accepting of divorce. Within the Macrosystem, the ideological views that are historically dominant in the culture of children are seen as being of huge importance.

Bronfenbrenner identified a further layer, which he called the ‘Chronosystem’. This system relates to time and how time interfaces with those environments where children grow up. As children grow, they interact differently with their surrounding environments and typically become more engaged in managing parts of their environment as well as having to negotiate change in these environments with others.

Here, we see the importance of transitions in children's lives, for example, moving from playgroup to primary school. As transitions and chronological events take place, children are also developing, not just physically, but also emotionally.

Theory into practice
A case study

Lee is three-years-old and attends a local playgroup. The head of the playgroup has referred Lee to the educational psychologist (EP) because of growing concerns about his behaviour. In her referral to the EP she described Lee as, ‘always trying to please but very quick to become tearful, lately he has been showing signs of aggression towards the other children, accompanied by swearing … very poor at forming friendships’ and ‘always seeking attention’.

Lee lives with his mother who has been unemployed for over five years, and his younger step-brother Matthew who attends a local nursery group. Lee's mother is in a dysfunctional relationship with Jason whom she met over a year ago. Jason is very aggressive towards Lee's mum, especially when he has been drinking and Lee and his sister often see Jason hitting their mother. He is also, verbally, extremely abusive. Lee and his sister get very frightened when Jason visits their home and especially when he starts drinking.

Lee is beginning to imitate the aggressive behaviours of his mother's partner, which are acted out in school. When assessed by the EP, Lee recorded low scores of vocabulary and verbal comprehension. Of note, however, were his very strong abilities in the area of non-verbal reasoning, which were in the superior range. The EP concluded that Lee was intellectually very able but with learning difficulties of a specific nature compounded by delayed language development, especially in the area of verbal comprehension, impoverished vocabulary and poorly developed social strategies.

Thomas is also three-years-old. He is described by the head of the playgroup as, ‘a very able child who is articulate, delightful to work with, good at making friends and sharing, and socially very skilled for his age’. Thomas lives at home with his parents, an older brother who is at primary school and a younger sister, Zara, aged two. Both his parents have been through university and hold good jobs; they earn well, have a wide circle of friends and interests outside of the home, and actively work to involve their children in family activities and activities with friends and the wider family, all of whom are good role-models.

Thomas' parents take time to explain to him why they might have been upset if he has behaved in ways they disapprove of. Thomas is very at ease in the company of articulate adults and has been introduced to simple picture/story books since he was an infant. His ability to recognise a wide range of words and to sustain interest in stories is very good. This is now reflected in his enthusiasm to read. Thomas's vocabulary is considered by the adults who work with him to be ‘very advanced’. He has many friendship groups.

Lee and Thomas have internalized very different patterns of behaviour that have been modelled by the adults in their families – their microsystem. Matthew's social learning has been dominated by fear, anxiety and anger, and he will have observed these in his older brother. Zara, on the other hand, will have observed her brother being confident and enthusiastic, and socially skilled. She will also have gained from listening to Thomas' more sophisticated use of language and from observing his non-verbal communication, for example, his mannerisms and how he listens to others when they speak to him. In this way, her social learning is quite different to that of Matthew.

Bandura emphasised how for positive and meaningful learning to take place in children, the behaviours of those adults that they copy should be appropriate. In the case of Lee's younger brother, Matthew, he regularly observes his mother's partner being physically and verbally aggressive towards her and internalises feelings of blame and even guilt for he believes on occasions that he is to blame for their arguing. Matthew may even come to see himself as being a ‘bad’ person.

In comparison, Zara will almost certainly internalize a view of herself as being lovable, well liked, capable and successful. Unlike Matthew, Zara receives regular positive and appropriate feedback from her parents, which serves to reinforce those behaviours that her parents desire in her. Her social learning, in other words, is of a much better quality.

Unlike Thomas and Zara, Lee and Matthew fail to have the security of rhythm and repetition in their home life; much of their everyday living at home is characterized by inconsistency and chaos with, for example, meals and bedtimes being irregular. They can, however, benefit from the rhythm and consistency at playgroup and school – their meosystem.

‘Bronfenbrenner's theory requires that to fully explore children's development, we also need to examine wider environmental influences upon the child’

Bandura's social learning theory would suggest that Matthew may learn to imitate the aggressive behaviours of Jason, his mother's partner, and may, in turn, act out such behaviours when he is with other children. It is even possible that Matthew might identify with his mother's partner and come to be labelled by parents of other children at his playgroup as an aggressive child and come to live up to this perception of him.

Bandura's social learning theory would suggest that Matthew is beginning to adopt a type of exterior, which he has learned by observing and then copying the behaviours of Jason. Bandura suggested that children not only observe physical behaviours but also verbal behaviours, including expectations made of them by others. He suggested, for example, that young children observe adults offering verbal narratives and descriptions of events and the type of language and gesture they use when communicating these.

Given that Thomas is frequently in the company of articulate and successful adults, it is likely that he will learn more positive ways of interacting with others. Bandura also proposed a type of symbolic modelling where children engage in imitation and identification with characters who are fictional, such as those found in fairytales and children's stories, and more recently, on television and computer games.


Both Bandura and Bronfenbrenner acknowledge the part played by wider influences in society and both have viewed children's social interactions as central to their learning and development.

Bronfenbrenner, however, placed much greater emphasis upon indirect influences, such as the family environment and the community. He also viewed wider factors in society, such as the economic and political climate, as having a major influence upon children's learning and development, while Bandura placed greater emphasis upon children's cognitive development, especially in terms of them acting individually and with purpose on information received from their environments.

Bronfenbrenner has been criticized on the grounds that his theory did not pay adequate attention to the individual psychological needs of children, as was the case with the work of Bandura. Bronfenbrenner saw societies and communities across the globe as undergoing radical change.

He argued that world economies have changed radically and we now have much greater emphasis upon the technological factors that drive our economies, but much of our working practice has not changed in tandem leading to enormous stress being experienced by many parents. Bronfenbrenner proposed that research into child development should take account of wider economic, social and political factors.

Unlike Bronfenbrenner, Bandura emphasized the importance of children imitating and identifying with others around them and placed greater emphasis upon self-efficacy than Bronfenbrenner.



  • Bandura A (1977) Social Learning Theory. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA
  • Bandura A (1997) Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Freeman: New York, USA
  • Bronfenbrenner U (1979) The Ecology of Human Development. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  • Bronfenbrenner U, Ceci SJ (1994) ‘Nature-nurture reconceptualized in the developmental perspective: a bioecological model’; in Psychological Review 101 pp 56886 Crossref
  • Clark L (2012) ‘Nurseries label one-year-olds special needs’; in Daily Mail, 13 July, 2012
  • Colverd S, Hodgkin B (2011) Developing Emotional Intelligence in the Primary School. Routledge: London
  • DeBotton A (2000) The Consolations of Philosophy. Hamish Hamilton: London
  • Gray C, MacBlain SF (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood (2nd Ed). SAGE Publications: London
  • Johnston J, Nahmad-Williams L (2009) Early Childhood Studies. Pearson Education: London
  • Linden J (2005) Understanding Child Development: Linking Theory to Practice. Hodder Education: London
  • MacBlain SF (2014) How Children Learn. SAGE Publications: London
  • Newby P (2010) Research Methods for Education. Pearson Education: Harlow
  • Smith K, Cowie H, Blades M (2003) Understanding Children's Development (4th Ed). Blackwell: Oxford
  • Stanford P (2012) ‘Can 20% of school children really have special needs?’ in Daily Telegraph, 12 May 2012


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