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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The Power of “Why”

I am putting the finishing touches on my Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom local workshop. The online version won’t be available for some time yet, as I am still learning the ins-and-outs of putting together an online course.

The information that I am focusing on right now deals with classroom management and how it relates to the expression of creativity in the classroom. I wrote a note to myself in the initial outline draft about the power of “why” in the classroom. This is not a new idea on this blog. I believe that children, like adults, have the power to reason. Their ability to reason is not as mature as adults – they may come up with some off-the-wall reasons for some things. But they come up with reasons – they understand that behaviors and outcomes have reasons behind them – especially when we ask the word “why”. Why do we not run around the classroom? Why do we not jump on the bed? Why do we not write on the walls or the furniture? Why do we not throw toys?

“Why” is an important word to give reason to children, but it is also important for teachers as well. I have had many instances where I have been telling the children to do something (or, in most cases, not to do something) and my brain all the sudden stops me and asks me “Why are you asking them to stop? Is there a safety issue involved? Is someone going to get hurt? No – really – is someone going to get hurt?” Although this is not going to become a post about risk-taking, the question is very important for that reason. How much risk am I comfortable with them taking, as the one who is responsible for their safety? But most importantly, why am I asking them to stop? Control? Power? And if I am asking them to stop, what is the reason that I am going to give them? Trust me, children will be more liable to stop if they have a logical reason – a because that makes sense to them. Simply asking or telling a child to stop is an arbitrary command to them. You may have a perfectly valid reason for asking them to stop doing what they are doing, but they will not know that if you don’t tell them.

The “Because” is just as important as the “Why”

“Because I said so” is not a reason. It may be perfectly valid to you, as the teacher, because the child is supposed to listen to you and follow your direction. But the reason why they are supposed to follow your direction is because it is your job to keep them safe and teach them how to live safely and productively in this world. Simply giving them “Because I said so” as a reason for not doing something does not teach them anything about how you are trying to keep them safe or productive. It becomes an arbitrary command from you to them. How often do you want to follow a command that someone else gives you, without being given the reason for why you are being commanded? If someone continuously commands you without reason, you begin to feel disrespected – and even unsafe. If you feel like your life or work becomes subject to the arbitrary whims of someone else, it isn’t a place that you really want to be in any more, is it? You never know what is coming next, or why you are being picked on in this way. Because that is what it ends up feeling like – like you are being picked on.

Giving a valid reason for asking a child to do something is giving the child the same respect that you deserve. And all children deserve that respect as much as we do. Not only is it respectful, but it continues the lessons about actions having reasons – an important lesson to learn. People become goal-driven as they get older (and this starts at a young age), and teaching children the power of “why” and “because” helps them to realize that every action has a purpose and every purpose brings us closer to a goal. And in our quest to bring creativity to the classroom, it helps us put children and ourselves on the path toward realizing just how creative our classroom can be.

The Key to Respect

respectIn one of the classes that I am taking this semester, the question was asked: “What do you think are necessary attitudes for being an effective teacher?” I wrote that the biggest, most important attitude a teacher should have in the classroom is one of respect, followed by patience and flexibility. I received this response:

“I also think that respect is important but I also think that you need to be in control and not be ran over. I have seen an incident where an aide asked a child to sit down and stop playing and the child said, ‘What about my rights as a kid? Adults think they are so much better.’ There are children the respect can be given because it is earned. I wish they were all that way.”

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that response is going to rub me the wrong way. But it brings up an important distinction that I believe needs to be made, especially in the world of discipline.

Respect, as defined by dictionary.com, is “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability.” This is not to be confused with assertiveness, which dictionary.com defines as “being confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive.”

Respect is showing someone that you value them as a person. It means valuing them enough to try to make an emotional connection with them. It means valuing their emotions enough to try to find the root cause of any altercation so that the issue can be completely resolved in the minds of both children, whether they were the initial aggressor or not. It means valuing their intelligence enough to know that any request that has as its reason: “because I said so” or “because I am the teacher” is going to rub children the wrong way because it means that their actions are determined solely by your whims. It puts children in the position of being beneath the teacher, rather than working with the teacher. Children are below teachers in stature and development, but that doesn’t  mean that they should be put in the position where they feel they are being subjected to our arbitrary whims. When we respect and value children, we give them real meaning for what we are asking them to do:

“It’s time to clean up because it is time to go outside (or lunch time, or time for mommy to come).”

“Use your walking feet in the classroom because running inside is not safe. You will trip and fall and bump your head.”

It is not hard to find real meaning for the things we ask children not to do (or to do). When we find the reason, we need to use it – especially in those cases where reason becomes reality: someone ran in the classroom, tripped, and bumped their head. Then we can refer back to our reason: “This is why we don’t run in the classroom – because we will trip and fall and bump our heads. It hurts, doesn’t it?” Pointing out that it hurts when we don’t follow directions will highlight that aspect of it, but even highlighting it needs to be done in a respectful manner. Anyone would be turned off by an “I told you so” tone. When we point out the infraction in a matter-of-fact way, we are showing the child respect and bringing their attention to the fact that they would have been safer had they followed directions. But most people are stubborn in that they tend to learn more from experience than from advice.

Our classrooms should be based on reason, if for no other reason than we are teaching children to think. Using sound reasons for why children should behave a certain way shows them that we uphold them as thinking human beings. It does not insult their intelligence, but gives them a foundation on which to make connections and see a bigger picture for themselves.

For more information about classroom management tips and a new way of looking at discipline, click here and here.