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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Motivation, Play, and Observation

As we have seen in the past few posts, one of the keys to motivation is the welling up inside us of a desire to achieve a certain goal. That was the point of the last post, in which I described my frustration with school. In a classroom, the goals can come from the teacher or from the student. It is the job of the teacher to use observation to discover the desires of the students and develop goals to achieve based on those desires.

This morning I have been doing a little more research into emergent curriculum – research that I have been wanting to do for a while but have not really found the time to do. Because this blog has taken the direction that it has – into the realm of creativity, motivation, and interest – concepts of emergent curriculum are highly relevant.

The concept that I want to address today is that of play. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, children really don’t need a lot of motivation to play. They do it automatically. When we observe children during their play, we find that they explore many different concepts and ideas during their play. They explore building, going to the doctor, having a birthday party, going to the movies, a restaurant, or any of the other experiences that have been memorable to them. Our job, as teachers, is to pick out the themes of their play and use those themes to develop activities and lessons that can extend their learning through this play into other areas.

A key point about using play to develop learning activities is to make sure that children have enough time to dive deep into their play. Remember that some key points about allowing children to be creative include time, tools, and tolerance. In the book Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice, Susan Stacey writes:

Emergent curriculum places extremely high value on play as a generator for curriculum. Play provides an opportunity for children’s exploration, problem solving, incubation and development of big ideas, and therefore, learning. It also provides the teacher, as researcher, a prime opportunity to watch and listen carefully in order to generate further understanding of the individual child. All of which means that for children to fully develop their ideas and for the teachers to watch, interact, and write notes, a generous amount of time must be allotted to play.

While children are playing, it is important to write notes about observations that are made and responses that are given as teachers interact to clarify the child’s understanding of what they are doing. This process is talked about more in-depth by Stacey, who gives a few examples of interactions between children and teachers and the way that teachers have used their observations. One key feature about using observations is communication between teachers in the classroom. Teachers should be in sync about the direction they want to take an interest of the children. An example that Stacey gives is of a girl creating a face with eyes made out of buttons. The girl explains that when the buttons are covered with tape, the eyes can’t see. There were several different directions that teachers could have taken this observation, including how the body works, how eyes work, etc. They decided to focus on perspective taking, not just visually, but socially and emotionally as well. The teachers then came up with environment modifications and activities that could be done to extend thinking about perspective taking.

Doing observations and using them to extend ideas such as this are motivating to the teacher and to the student. The teacher gets the opportunity to develop learning activities in the context of what the child is already showing an interest in, which means that the teacher gets the opportunity to think creatively about the direction that the classroom is going. The child is motivated because their own interests and ideas are being used to stimulate learning in the classroom – and they get to play. As teachers, we should all know how motivating it is for children when we become involved in their play. As teachers interact with students, children gather around and play seems to take on a life of its own. Asking children open-ended questions during these times of interaction gives the teacher an unending spring of information with which to plan learning experiences, and keeps the classroom alive.

 

Six Ways Observations Can Enhance Teaching

Observations can go a long way in the classroom. From watching a child explore a new concept to discovering how children interact with other socially, observation can be an indispensable tool when it comes to teaching skills in the classroom.

1. Observations Can Be Used To Plan New Classroom Activities

Through observing children, we can find out different concepts and ideas that they are interested in. Just as the boy inspired me to begin looking into pulley and pendulum activities, different activities and conversations around the classroom can be the basis for new activities and projects. I once had a couple of boys in my classroom who were obsessed with sliding trucks down the slide on the playground. This observation led to a long term project about ramps, roads, and bridges. Children obsessed with parties can wrap presents, bake a cake, and do other activities related to parties. The key is to find an interest and brainstorm ways to expand on that interest.

2. Observations Can Be Used To Teach Social Skills

Perhaps, through your observation, you witness one child take a toy from another child, who then retaliates by hitting the child. From this observation you can conclude several things. First, the child that took the toy needs to be made aware of how his action made the other child feel, and that this feeling prompted the child to hit. The child who took the toy also needs to be taught the words to use to ask another child if they can share or take turns. The child who hit needs to be taught the words that they should use to let a child know that they do not like it when they take their toy.

There are many different learning opportunities that present themselves when children interact socially, because children have not learned the necessary language needed to productively deal with others. Add to this the fact that most young children are egocentric in their thinking, and the atmosphere is ripe for the teaching of social skills.

3. Observations Can Be Used To Expand On the Use of Materials

I have a couple of boys in my class that like to put hollow blocks on their arms and pretend they are robots. I have another who stacks them end-to-end and pretends that it is a microphone. I have yet another who stacks a couple end-to-end and places a wide block on top as a TV. We have expanded on a few of these uses, including setting up a theater complete with a popcorn stand.

Children seem to have the creativity in them to use different materials in any number of ways. Observing the ways that they use the available materials can provide inspiration for other materials that may extend their play, or an activity that may expand their knowledge about the topic they are expressing interest in. Observations of the way children use materials can also help identify where they are developmentally.

4. Observations Can Highlight Children’s Thinking

There are several ways in which children’s thinking becomes obvious during observations. The first is the dialogue: What are the children saying while they play? Recording the dialogue (whether audio, video, or written) can help you determine their frame of reference in relation to the activity, and their misunderstandings or misconceptions about what they are thinking about. Recording these and reflecting back on them later can help you come up with activities or projects that will provide a new frame of reference or clear up any misunderstandings that are present.

Another way observations highlight children’s thinking is when abstract ideas are seen as themes during play. Children like to explore ideas that may be difficult for them to comprehend, like life and death, good vs. evil, caregiving, and other vague ideas. Sometimes they reenact a scenario that may have happened at home or at school that they either do not understand or did not like the outcome. By observing children and then reflecting on the observations, we can spot themes, misunderstandings, and the points of reference of children. This can allow us to help children explore these topics deeper.

5. Observations Can Explain Children’s Behavior

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “He did it for no reason!” to explain the behavior of a child? Children always have reasons for their behavior, but they may not have the language to articulate their reason, or they may not have the skills or knowledge necessary to do something differently. By observing the child we can gain clues that can help us figure out why the child is behaving as they are, which can help us figure out how to teach him more productive behavior.

6. Observations Can Tell Us About a Child’s Development

From language skills, motor skills, social skills, and others, observations help us understand not only where a child is developmentally, but help us determine how we can meet the child where they are in their development and provide appropriately challenging activities and projects.

Are there any other ways that you use observations? Tell us in the comments below! We love learning new things from other people!

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