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CYC-Online 16 MAY 2000
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Modelling – what we do

Take-away skills for those who work with troubled children and youth at risk

Brian Gannon

So far in this series by Brian Gannon we have discussed many of the tools available to the child care worker to help in our work with children. The fact that our job involves spending a lot of time with children – and for many of us, even living with them – highlights one of the more complex tools of our trade: modelling.

There are two levels of modelling: The first – in this month’s toolbox – might be called modelling what we do, and the second (rather more complex, next month) is modelling who we are.

We are familiar with the saying that children will do as we do, rather than do as we say. We have all learned that it is never enough to say “Stop that" or “Do this" or “Behave yourself!" These verbal commands may check children's impulses for a moment, but their more enduring learning will come from what we call modelling: observing others and imitating effective behaviour.

Informal modelling
Children growing up need illustrated road maps for life. They get these to the extent that they can observe others doing things – initially their parents, then other members of the family, and finally a wide range of people at home, at school and in the neighbourhood.

The more sparse the observable behaviour, the less their road map gets filled in, the less confidently they embark on their daily lives. Deprived and abused children characteristically have limited helpful behaviour on which to model their own behaviour – or they see more negative and destructive behaviour.

Mia Kellmer Pringle, writing twenty-five years ago, made the interesting observation that “one reason why boys show a higher incidence of emotional difficulties ... may be because it is less easy for them to observe, identify with and practise role-appropriate behaviour. The mother's home-making work is much more 'visible' to the young child than the father's job." And as the occupational status of women has changed in the intervening years, so we have seen growing parity between girls and boys requiring care and treatment services.

Many children coming into our programs observed parental behaviour with a high degree of anxiety: on the one hand the behaviour was erratic and inconsistent, and they found it hard to make sense of it and discern predictable patterns; on the other hand they were often acutely on the lookout for clues as to coming violent and punitive attacks. Our first task with informal modelling is to create the environment in which youngsters can lower their vigilance, and thus learn from the rich verbal and non-verbal interaction which we promote in our living unit. In this way we try to fill in the gaps in their lives.

And we don't model only perfect behaviour: if we are going (as Chris Beedell put it) to “admit the whole child to the unit" then our modelling must be of use to all of the child's experience. Just as we may model normal positive skills, the children also need to see how others handle hurt, disappointment, frustration, failure and anger. It is probable that these difficult experiences were poorly handled by others in their homes, and from which they observed such responses as violent outbursts, spitefulness, denial, rejection and flight. If we provide too ordered and 'hygienic' a social environment, troubled children don't get to learn too much from it that is relevant for them.

So next time you move in to break up a squabble or persuade a reluctant teenager to clean up her room or deal with a hostile child who spilled milk across the breakfast table – ask yourself “What did the kids learn from the way I dealt with my own feelings and frustrations?" If you can come up with a positive answer, you're doing OK as a model.

Formal modelling
We use formal modelling techniques when we apply specific approaches such as behaviour modification or social skills training. Children learn a great deal from simply watching others in the family. However parents begin to use formal modelling when they teach specific skills and say “Watch how I do it" or “Do it like this". Peine and Howarth say: “Parents automatically model new actions to show their children how to do things, or point to the behaviour of others as an example of how to carry out some task. Leading a child through the steps of a new activity is also a form of modelling."

When working with deprived youngsters who have experienced inadequate role models or interrupted learning opportunities, we often have to teach them more effective ways of managing their daily life tasks. For example, many children from disrupted backgrounds have not learned how to express their feelings or how to make their needs known; they may never have learned how to ask a favour or how to apologise. Instead they are often seen to be clumsy and awkward. The newly-arrived youngster may believe that the only way to get a toy or a game is to say “Gimme that!" or “Hand over!" This confirms his image in the world as a “bully" or as “aggressive". We have to teach appropriate ways of asking.

It is crucial for child care workers to recognise their teaching role. Too many of us assume that children have learned the skills we expect of them, so we say to them “Ask politely!" without showing them how to ask politely. A mathematics teacher would never say “Solve that problem correctly!" to a pupil who had not yet been shown how. So child care workers cannot say “Behave yourself!" to children who still need to be taught how to do this.

Richard Fox (1990) explains the function of modelling (or what he calls observational learning): This usually involves the presentation to the youngster of an example of the skill to be learned. This example could be modelled by the adult alone, in a group setting by other youngsters who have mastered the skill, or even on film or videotape, but the common theme of these approaches is that the learner must see the skill and its constituent behaviours in use for it to be learned efficiently.

There are two important considerations to bear in mind in modelling:

1. The behaviour we model must be seen to be effective and successful.
It is not enough to say to youngsters “Do it like this" unless they can see for themselves the benefits of the specific activity or behaviour. Hoghughi (1988) reminds us: “Depending on the conditions associated with the outcome of the activity and the child's perception of it, he is likely to learn either to imitate or to avoid that behaviour."

From this we understand that we must demonstrate or model behaviour and skills in order to empower children in their own lives, not to make them more 'acceptable' to ours. We want them to have a sense of mastery over their life skills, not just to meet our social expectations.

Our best formal modelling takes place when a youngster asks “Show me how." This could be as basic as “Show me how to tie my own shoelaces" or as complex as “I have to see the Principal tomorrow about something I did wrong, and I'm not sure as to the best way to do this."

2. Youngsters need an opportunity to practise the skills and behaviours we model.
The small child will not learn to tie his shoelaces through a verbal lecture. He will learn rather more by your showing him. But he will really learn by doing it, through trial and error, by himself.

For more complex modelling, a useful tool is role-play. We help a lot when we say to a youngster “Do you want to run through that?" or “Okay, you be the Principal and I' ll be you ... “ and then “Now I'll be the Principal, and you give that a try ..."

Fox and Krueger (1987, 4) tell us that modelling and role-playing go hand-in-hand. It is a truism, they say, that learning new behaviours, “as in music, athletics, arithmetic, language fluency, and so on, that opportunities to practise are linked to proficiency. The same is no less true in learning personal and social skills."

The following suggests the progression from modelling to practising when we model behaviours and skills for young people:

"See the person doing something;
Be the person doing something."

This leads us conveniently into the next aspect of modelling to be discussed in the next toolbox, which is modelling who or what we are.


Beedell, C. (1970) Residential life with children. London: Routledge

Pringle, Mia Kellmer (1975) The Needs of Children. London: Hutchinson

Fox, R. and Krueger, M. (1987) Social skills training: implications for Child and Youth Care practice. Journal of Child Care, 3.1. 1-7

Hoghughi, M. (1988) Treating problem children: issues, methods and practice. London: Sage Publications.

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