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The Power of Observation

We spend much of our day consciously and unconsciously observing people, activities, elements of the environment and countless other things. Early childhood educators utilize their skills of observation on a continual basis. Within a matter of seconds an educator can assess the safety of an environment whether it is a playroom or playground, do a head count of children, observe children in play and determine what routine or transition is about to occur according to the daily schedule.

This may appear effortless to some, however it usually takes time and practice to develop these important skills and to find a method of observation that is tailor made for your teaching style. A good educator will recognize that regular observations can enhance their own teaching abilities and ultimately will have a positive impact on the children they support. Don’t wait until there is a concern or problem in your program to begin the process of observation. Rather, consider it a foundation block that is as much part of your program as your daily schedule.

Regular observations allow you to develop insight into all aspects of the program from the playroom environment to interactions between the children and adults. With knowledge gained through observations you’ll be better equipped to answer questions about the children in your program and share information with parents and professionals. You can often begin conversations with parents by discussing observations you have made of their son or daughter to discover their likes / dislikes etc. It also may aid you in identifying very specific triggers or events that may be causing a child to engage in problem behaviours. This type of information collection is a critical component of developing formal plans to assist children during times of difficulty and to customize specialized programming.

Learning environments that promote healthy child development are based upon the successful integration of techniques/ adaptations that are implemented by the teacher through the process of regular observation. We know each child is a unique learner and will absorb learning experiences and process information at their own pace. As educators we have developed many teaching strategies and adaptations to address individual learning styles with the goal of helping young children to succeed.
While one child may be comfortable with simple verbal instructions to complete a particular task, another child may benefit from a more direct approach such as watching another child or adult complete the requested task. Teachers who devote time for observation are motivated to provide learning experiences that children enjoy and are challenged by. The classroom is not a stagnate environment. It is ever-changing and in order to maintain this level of growth it is essential to utilize your daily observations of children and environment.

Why Observe?

Systematic observations made by sensitive and knowledgeable educators are more powerful than any other technique in determining a child’s strengths and needs; knowing what to observe and recording the information for later reference is critical to good observation. Often, observations can be done unobtrusively in the child’s classroom setting as she interacts with teachers, plays, and participates in regular transitions such as meal times. At other times, situations may have to be contrived to provide the information about specific behaviours. Deciding what to observe determines whether the observation can be natural or contrived. We observe children to determine their level of interest in and response to the environment, their ability to solve problems, communication skills, motor functioning, and social skills.

Children, even when participating in a quiet learning experience/ activity are in a constant state of learning through the process of independent play or by interacting with others, their play materials, and the environment. The educator, when time permits, is able to remove herself from direct teaching to that of the role of the observer. This unique opportunity allows the educator to observe relations between the children, developmental levels of the children, the classroom set-up, popular and unpopular activities and so on. The list or purpose of observing can be endless and it is best to have a focus or goal in mind when you want to observe the children. You should also consider scheduling a set time each week that you or a team member can devote to classroom observations. Try to select a day and rotate the times from the morning to the afternoon so you’re able to capture all aspects of the program.

Key to all observation techniques is a clear set of definitions of what is being observed. For example, if tantrums are to be observed, what constitutes a tantrum must be specified. What does a tantrum look like? How will you know it is occurring? Does a tantrum involve whining, turning away, crying, hitting, throwing things, refusing attempts to comfort, or some combination of all these things? Prior to the observation these categories and their definitions must be developed, and all those using the observational instrument must be trained and skilled in its use.

You may want to explore several observation techniques to select one that you are comfortable with. Remember that you’re not limited to only one technique and you’ll find that you need a few techniques in order to successfully observe children in your program and to record your findings.

Types of Observation:

Several strategies are used to structure information gathered during observations. These may include event recording, time sampling, checklists and rating scales, and coded observations. Observations are best performed in a child’s natural setting such as their home or classroom and if possible, by a person who is familiar with the child.

More than a few issues and cautions have been delineated that should be considered when using observational techniques:

  • select target behaviours
  • define target behaviours in observable terms
  • define the criteria to be used in judging occurrence or nonoccurrence
  • select no more than two targets to observe at one time
  • keep coding on data sheet simple and efficient (refer to linked documents for data collection)
  • know specifically what the observation is to reveal (for example, you may have a special purpose in mind, such as trying to discover how a certain child approaches other children)

With the advancement in technology in the classroom setting, specialized equipment such as audio/video recorders may assist you in this process (it is important to be aware of your centre policies/procedures regarding consent of taping/recording within the classroom setting).

Event Recordings: may be continuous, narrative records of the child’s behaviours and responses or a detailed recording of a single event. For example, behaviours of concern such as temper tantrums may occur regularly; it is important to capture the details of the antecedent condition (what happens right before the tantrum occurs), the behaviour during the tantrum, and the consequent events (what happens immediately after the tantrum) in order to develop appropriate management and treatment plans.

Time Sampling: often called interval recording, is used when behaviours occur more frequently and the observer is interested in the frequency of occurrence. To develop a more complete picture of a child’s behaviour you may decide to observe the child using a time sampling approach. Prior to the observation, you need to develop a form for recording observations and select the times you want to observe. Forms are usually quite simple; typically divided into smaller intervals of 15 seconds to 1 minute, and behaviours may be preprinted on the form so that the observer can record what is occurring during each interval. The observation period may last from several minutes at different times throughout the day to an hour or more every day for several weeks. At the end of the observation period, the percentage of time that the child has spent in the behaviours of interest can be determined.

Checklists and Rating Scales: can be used to determine the presence or absence of a particular skill or behaviour or to rate the quality of the behaviour or setting. Checklists of developmental milestones can be used; children are observed at play to determine which skills they have mastered, which are emerging, and which remained to be learned.

Coded Observations: are often used to study multiple interactions or behaviours occurring within a specified period of time. In observations of this kind, the behaviours of interest are specified prior to the observations. The number and types of behaviours can range from very few, simple behaviours to many complex interactional patterns.

All teachers need to develop skill as observers. They need to see and record as accurately and as objectively as possible what is happening in situations. Teachers learn most about children by studying their behaviour directly. By learning to observe with objectivity, to make careflul notes, and to og over these thoughtfully, a teacher increases her understanding of a child’s behaviour.

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