How do children learn? A quick look back

How do children learn? This is a relatively new question. Until about 100 years ago, people assumed that children were just smaller versions of adults. But, since the industrial age, our view of children, as well as our expectations of ourselves has multiplied immensely.

My five year old, Joshua, was explaining to his grandmother that the remote control was a beam of light and that the beam of light went from the remote control to the VCR. His grandmother understood all that but just wanted CNN. Joshua gave up explaining the concept and just removed the pile of papers from in front of the VCR’s sensor. Of course, Josh’s grandmother thought he was a genius. I hope so— well, I am his father, and I also think he is a genius. One thing for sure, Josh is able to learn. You see, a few weeks prior, Ethan, age eight, had a similar but not as polite a conversation with his little brother about the infrared wonders of the remote control.

Ethan:  Give me it. Give me it now.

Josh:   No! I want to turn it up!

Ethan:  Josh, Josh, Hurry up then ... you’re so slow!

Josh:   I’m not slow, it’s broken. The thing don’t work!

Ethan:  Give it to me, I’ll do it!

At this point the channel changer was dropped purposefully at Ethan’s feet just as he tried to snatch it.

Ethan:  What’s wrong with this dumb thing. Josh, Josh ... move the papers from in front of the VCR ... Get out of the way ... Mom, Josh won’t let me watch TV!


Josh learned that the channel changer will not work if the VCR sensor is covered with papers. He stored this knowledge and was able to retrieve it from the depths of his memory when his grandmother had a similar problem.

This is a remarkable ability. Without trying we humans gather and store information in our minds, then retrieve it later when we need it. This is the most basic definition of learning. Our children are predisposed to learn. They are wired to be curious and to store information.

In this chapter we will look at the basic ways in which a child learns. By understanding this process we as parents can become better teachers of life’s lessons.

I’m Petrified of ...

Mrs. Rizzo was very embarrassed. She entered my office and sat in a chair taking up as little space as she could possibly shrink into. She made no eye contact. She spoke softly, fighting off tears. The weight of the world was resting on her shoulders.

“I’m depriving my daughter of what she deserves.” She testified, “I’m acting so selfish. But, I just can’t help myself. I feel stupid coming to you with my problem. I’m sure you have real problems to deal with.” Mrs. Rizzo was embarrassed to tell me that she was petrified of balloons. She had been fearful of them for many years. In fact, she can vividly recall the first time a balloon frightened her. She was six or seven years old.


I was at my aunt’s home helping to set up for my cousin’s birthday party. I was blowing up a balloon and I pushed my air into it as hard as I could. I wanted to see how big it could get. Just then, Boom! It exploded. I was so shocked, I froze. I couldn’t take the next breath. My aunt grabbed me and shook me. She thought I had swallowed part of the balloon. I finally took a deep breath and started to cry. My mother came running into the kitchen and yelled at my aunt for letting me blow up the balloon. My mother was positive that I could damage my eye with a piece of exploding balloon.


The Rizzo family was planning a huge birthday party for Mary who was turning eleven. Mary had asked for a clown theme party. Mrs. Rizzo had okayed the plan and found a clown to entertain. The clown was a happy go lucky senior citizen who had a local reputation for fussing over each child during a party. When Mrs. Rizzo went to meet the jolly Jumpin’ Judy she was treated to a small show of clown antics. One part of Jumpin’ Judy’s show included joke telling and balloon animal antics. Jumpin’ Judy would tell rapid fire jokes and blow up and tie balloon animals to illustrate the pun. In over forty years the jokes had barely changed. The kids loved them. Mrs. Rizzo explained:


She took a little green balloon off the table. She snapped it onto a hand held pump. In seconds it grew to a long thin curving tube. Pop! I couldn’t catch my breath. I felt lightheaded. The room started to spin. I felt a heavy weight on my chest and I started to perspire. Judy, said something like, “Oops, I made a balloon angel.” Then she noticed me. She asked if I was okay. I told her I had to go and practically ran to my car. That afternoon I went to work, I’m a waitress. There was a small kiddie party. The balloons scared me so much I told the manager that I had the flu and needed to go home. I must have looked like I had the flu. He wouldn’t let me drive home until I was feeling better. I’ve ruined Mary’s party! I told Jumpin’ Judy no balloons!


What Mrs. Rizzo was suffering from was an anxiety attack brought on by her unrealistic fear of balloons. In a few sessions Mrs. Rizzo’s fear was alleviated. Mary’s party was a complete success, balloons and all.

So, what happened? How did Mrs. Rizzo become fearful of balloons? It happened through a process called classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning was first defined by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). You have probably heard of the Pavlovian Response which is usually thought of as a dog salivating to the sound of a tuning fork or bell. Pavlov found, during an experiment to understand the way salivary glands work, that the dogs salivated well before the food was placed in front of them. He noticed that the dogs salivated when they heard footsteps coming down the hallway. At first this made no sense, until it was observed that the food dishes were also carried down the same hallway. The dogs had learned that sometimes the sound of footsteps coming down the hall resulted in food being placed in front of them. Pavlov’s observation and subsequent research was so revolutionary to the understanding of learning that he was honored with the Nobel Prize for his work.

People can be conditioned to positive or negative things. Mrs. Rizzo became conditioned to fear balloons. Let’s look at how this occurred.

Mrs. Rizzo was born with the ability to feel fear. She has a naturally occurring response to fearful situations. This feeling of anxiety is a normal part of a person’s neurological makeup. This fear is an unconditioned response. In short hand this is written “UCR.” By definition a UCR is a naturally occurring response (behavior or feeling) to an unconditioned stimulus (UCS). A stimulus is something in the world that causes a behavior. If Mrs. Rizzo was walking in the woods and heard a loud growl she would naturally feel fear. The loud growl would be the unconditioned stimulus and the fear would be the unconditioned response. Mrs. Rizzo did not have to learn to be fearful, that has been part of her since birth. The growl elicited, caused, her fearful behavior.

As a diagram this looks like:

Prior to age seven, let’s say, Mrs. Rizzo was not fearful of balloons. But, when the balloon and the fear provoking loud pop (unconditioned stimulus) were connected in her mind, Mrs. Rizzo became fearful of balloons. The balloon is now said to be a conditioned stimuli (CS). By definition a conditioned stimuli  is a stimulus that acquired its power to cause a behavior. It initially lacked such power. The learned response is called a conditioned response (CR). By definition a conditioned response is a learned response of the autonomic nervous system caused by a conditioned stimulus. This connection is the process of classical conditioning, one of the ways we all learn. With repeated exposure, Mrs. Rizzo became so fearful of balloons she didn’t want to be in the same room with them.

By unintentionally connecting the balloon popping with her fear, Mrs. Rizzo’s brain connected the two as being about the same stimuli. She learned to be fearful of balloons.

As a diagram this looks like:


At fist-



Over time this changes to look like:

Repeated pairings of the balloon (CS) with the loud noise (UCS) taught Mrs. Rizzo to experience fear when she was in close proximity to a balloon. Please note, this was not a choice that Mrs. Rizzo had. She would have loved not to feel the fear. In fact, she believed the fear to be unrealistic. But her fears were very real, even overpowering. She was unable to override her conditioned response by thought. Mrs. Rizzo needed to be unconditioned. In eight hours, over a two week period, she unlearned her fear of balloons. (We will discuss how we “unlearn” later in this chapter.)

Amy and the Chow Chow

Amy was a tall thin girl of nine when I first met her. She was social, outgoing, and quick witted. Her mother was very concerned that, as she put it, “Amy has screaming fits whenever she sees a dog.” As it turned out, Amy was well known for her uncontrollable screaming whenever she saw a dog, even a puppy. Dogs were so fear provoking for Amy, that when she was in the school library a poster of a chow chow and a kitten set her off into a siren of tortured fear. Amy’s mother explained, “The principal suggested I bring her to a therapist before it got out of hand. Out of hand! She would have to explode to get more out of hand.”

Amy’s mother had no idea why her daughter was so fearful of dogs. Amy was well adjusted, she had never been attacked by a dog, and she seemed to love all other animals.

How did Amy learn to be fearful of dogs?

Below you will find a diagram for classical conditioning. Fill in the blanks and see if you can explain how Amy learned to be petrified of pooches.

Make up your own scenario as a starting off point. Try to imagine the process it would take to become fearful of a dog. I advise you to only take a few minutes on each question. This is just for fun. I will go over my theory on the next page. Enjoy figuring out the puzzle.

A few questions to ponder: (You may want to take the time to write down your answers, to see if your really understand this concept.)


  • What caused Amy’s initial fear?
  • How did Amy learn to be afraid of dogs? (Your best guess)
  • What got paired in Amy’s mind?


How would you diagram the classical conditioning?

What caused Amy’s initial fear?

Amy’s initial fear was an unconditioned response. Amy was born with a full package of feelings. One of these feelings is her ability to be fearful.  For the most part this ability is very helpful. It helps her to react to danger, to protect herself. This fear is a response of the autonomic nervous system, a reaction. If we had to think about pulling our fingers away from a hot stove, versus having that response controlled by the autonomic nervous system, we would all possess burn scarred fingers. The autonomic nervous system (not under our direct thought control) is substantially faster than cognition (controlled by thought). We will never know exactly what happened. However, we can come up with a likely scenario.

One weekend at the lake, I observed a young couple and their toddler playing in the sand. At one point, the curious toddler wandered twenty feet astray and went to visit a lonely puppy staked out next to a blanket and a large ice chest. The toddler showed no fear of the puppy. The puppy showed no fear of the toddler. In a few minutes the two of them became close friends. So close that the puppy wound his leash around the toddler’s feet, pulling him to the ground. At this moment, mom observed the new friendship. She ran over and picked up her small child. He began to cry. Mom became upset and yelled at the bouncing puppy for scratching her leg. As she carried her child back to her blanket she told him in a stern voice, “You stay with mommy, that doggy could bite you.”

The toddler, who was not interested in sunbathing, escaped from his mother and ran towards the puppy. At this point mom screamed, frightening her child and all others in ear shot. The baby plopped down on his bottom and cried heavily.

I would think that this kind of pairing would cause the average child to learn to fear dogs.

What got paired in Amy’s mind?

Somehow Amy experienced the pairing of a fear provoking stimulus, such as mom’s screaming (UCS), with the presence of a dog (CS), causing fear to be a conditioned response (CR).

How would you diagram the classical conditioning?
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How Children Learn