Building Positive Relationships: How Observing Children Strengthens Relationships

My post yesterday about Six Uses for Observation really got me thinking about how I use observation in the classroom. Observation seriously is one of the foundations of my teaching practice. There are several reasons for this, most of which are outlined in yesterday’s post. But one of the most important reasons is that it can change the way you look at children. Sometimes it isn’t even the way you look at children in general. Sometimes it is the way you look at one specific child.

I recently wrote a post about how we as adults are slow to change our views about something. We think we know it all because we have been around a while and we take that knowledge for granted. We forget that sometimes it is important to slow down and try to see things from a different perspective. This is where observation comes in. If we just take a moment to slow down and observe a child in action, we may see something that is contrary to our previous view of the child. We may begin to attribute positive intent to the child’s actions rather than negative intent. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that there may be more going on with the child than we are presently aware of, we may find that to be the case. And if we find that to be the case, our view of that child can change dramatically.

I know a lot of teachers out there shake their heads and roll their eyes when I say that children don’t do things without a reason. But the reason why I say this frequently and with authority is that I have done enough observing of children to know it to be true. The only way that we will be able to know or try to understand the intent of a young child is to observe for ourselves. And even older children may not tell us their intent because they are more worried about getting in trouble because of their actions related to their intent. Observation has allowed me to truly be able to decipher the intent of children and come up with productive ways to deal with behavior in a non-punitive way.

Let’s put this in context: Let’s pretend that you decided to try a different format for circle time because you felt that it would hold the children’s interest better than your current format. Your administrator walks in and wonders what the heck is going on and tells you in no uncertain terms that she does not like the new format and she doesn’t want to see it again. And doesn’t listen to your explanation of why you did it. How would that make you feel? The administrator paid absolutely no attention to your intent, only to your actions. That is what we do with children when we do not try to figure out their intent.

I have had children display physical behavior simply because they want to play with other children but do not know how to approach them. I have had children hit or even bite others because they have issues with personal space. There are a myriad of reasons why children behave the way they do. And this isn’t just about children’s behavior related to other children. It can be related to the way children use materials, as well. I have had children drag chairs into the block area because they have built a television and want to “watch” it. I have had children bossing other children around, only to find out that one is pretending to be a baby and one is pretending to be a mommy, or – even more amusing – one is pretending to be a dog and the other is pretending to be the owner. I have had a house that the class built in the middle of the floor turn into a swimming pool in an instant, and everyone’s shoes and socks become strewn about in order to wade in the pool. I have had countless scenarios happen in the classroom, and the only way to sort it all out without hurting many feelings and tapping into my punitive side is to slow down and observe what is going on.

So how does this strengthen relationships? Well, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, it changes the way you look at children. You begin to see what they are thinking about, what they are interested in, what they need to learn on an individual basis (as opposed to what the class is learning as dictated by the lesson plan), and you simply get to know the children in your class on a more personal level. If observation happens frequently enough, it helps to form a direction that the class can take in order to achieve the maximum amount of learning possible, because the ideas of the children are present – because you know what they are. In short, it helps you to get to know the children in your classroom better. And that helps you to deal with the children in your class positively, which strengthens and enhances your relationship with them, and their relationships with each other.

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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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In A Reframing State of Mind: Using Observations to Assign Intent

Sometimes in my classroom I feel guilty. I feel guilty because, while the majority of my colleagues plan circle time activities and implement them, or do small group activities with the children in their class, I simply watch children. In fact, I have been known to introduce a small group activity, model how it should be done, stick around for moral support, and then walk away – to watch. This technique has served me well for many years, actually, because it allows me a chance to see a child’s thinking without my interference or manipulation. I have watched children use materials in unique, surprising ways. I have listened to conversations that have opened my eyes about where a child is coming from. But most importantly, I have observed children in the throes of social situations to see how they handle them.

This last example has driven co-teachers of mine bonkers. They can see that I see that there is a dispute, but I am doing nothing to stop it. I am simply watching and listening to a couple of very young children attempt to work out their differences. Of course, if things start getting physical, then I step in to help resolve the issue. But until then, I usually just sit back, watch, and listen. The reason for this is that I can learn a lot about how the children settle social disputes and what I need to teach them in order to make it easier for them to handle disputes on their own.

A lot of times, I watch to understand why a child behaves a certain way. Especially with young children, physical actions against other children can be a sign that a child does not have the language necessary to deal with social situations, be they positive or negative. I have had a few children who have gone through my classroom who have not known the language to use to invite themselves to play with another child, or have lacked the self-confidence to approach other children. In most cases, this has manifest as physical aggression against the other child. There has been more than one case where I have had to shadow and watch a child, simply to discover intent.

The important thing to realize is that children have intent. They do not do something just to do it. They act on their environment in order to figure out how it works, but they do not come into this world already knowing how to deal with other people. And as adults, we all know how complicated it is to deal with other people sometimes. We have had years of practice to hone our skills of language and social maneuvering. Young children have not had time to develop the language or the knowledge needed to handle social situations. It is our job, as teachers, to observe them as they interact with their peers so that we can learn what skills and language need to be taught.

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