Observations for Behavior: Step by Step

In my last post I talked about observing children to discover patterns in behavior. While I outlined why we should observe children and touched on the how. I really didn’t take a lot of time to discuss how important observation is. And for a teacher in early childhood education, observation is extremely important because it allows us to learn more about the children we are trying to teach. We can’t know what interests to base class projects on if we don’t observe children to discover what they are interested in. We don’t have an understanding of what a child can really do until we observe them using a skill in the process of play. And we will have a very limited idea of why a child behaves a certain way until we observe to discover the “why”. Observation is one of the most important tools that educators have in their tool box, but it is one that some educators seem unsure about using. There are several different methods that can be used to observe, and one of the keys is to find a method that works best for you. While my method of observing problem behaviors works well for me, you may have to change or tweak the method a little in order for it to work better for you.

The first thing I do when I am preparing to observe a child for behavioral reasons is to make sure that my classroom is adequately staffed. When observing a child in this context your attention will be completely on him or her, so it is important that there is another teacher available to watch the other children who are present. Sometimes this may not be possible depending on the circumstances; if you work in a daycare home and are the only teacher, just know that while you are observing the child in question, you also have to be very aware of what is going on in the rest of the room.

Next, I ready the materials that I need: a notebook, pen, and watch. Whenever I do an observation for behavior I like to write down the times that everything happens. This way I can see if there are any patterns in time-of-day for the behavior if I have to do multiple observations in order to determine a cause.

After that I take my materials to a spot close too where the child is playing – but not too close! I want to be within earshot, but not close enough that I become a distraction to the play that is going on. While I am watching the child play, I write down anything notable that happens along with the time. I am usually constantly writing, because when I am doing this type of observation I never know what might be important. Something may happen early on in the observation that might set off a chain reaction – it may not be noticeable that the child is upset until much later, but when I backtrack through the observation I can find the original cause of the upset. So my observations look a lot like this:

10:00 – L picks up a block and places it on top of the tower. J asks L if he can play and L tells him “no”. L knocks over the tower.

10:01 – L walks to the science area and picks up a magnifying glass. He takes it to the block center and begins looking at a tree block with the magnifying class.

10:02 – S attempts to take the magnifying glass from L. L says “no” and pushes S away. L then looks at (teacher) and waits.

This scenario may actually happen during the observation. If a child looks to you for guidance, it is important to not get involved in altercations unless the children’s safety is at risk. The reason for this is because you will want to see how the situation plays out until the behavior that you are looking for happens. If L is a biter, it is quite possible that L may try to bite S, but you won’t know that unless you see L moving to bite. In order to figure out what the cause is for any behavior the observer must be that – simply an observer. This can be hard to do when we are so used to reacting to what is going on around us, and if the safety of the children is at risk it is very important to react. In order to find out why L is biting, it may be important for us to see how S reacts to being pushed because that may be what causes the escalation to biting. If L does go for the bite we should stop L before the bite happens, but not until we know it is coming.

These types of observations can be very eye-opening as you discover just what is going on with children. I have found myself surprised by the reasons why some children do things, but at the same time it has caused me to slow down and do a lot more observing overall rather than jumping into a situation without knowing what is going on.



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