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Early Identification - Observation of an Individual Child

Observing and keeping records of children’s behavior is one way of gaining insight into what they do, why they do it, and how they change over a period of time. By knowing more about a child, you can better provide experiences that will meet the needs of that particular child and that will help you to expand on the child’s interests. The following information is designed to help you develop some of your skills for observing and learning more about children.

Preparing for observation

It is helpful to learn to observe and record behavior in a descriptive and objective manner rather than according to one’s own feelings about the behavior. Information from observation is useful in a number of ways:

  • for identifying the source of a problem (not just the individual child but also his/her environment and the children associated with him/her.
  • to gain a better understanding of the child’s purposes, feelings, and behavior.
  • for providing information about the kinds of activities children do and how they go about doing them.
  • repeated observations over a period of time can show how a child’s development is progressing.
  • observations can be used as examples when discussing a child’s progress with his parents or professionals.

When observing a child, it is important to be willing to just sit and look and listen. Children show how they feel by the way they do things as well as by what they do. They communicate through their voices, postures, gestures, mannerisms, and facial expressions. When observing children, it is necessary to record everything possible, to be unobtrusive, and not to interact with the child any more than usual so that the situation is as “normal” as possible.

Perhaps the most difficult skill to learn, but probably the most important in observing children, is the skill of objectivity. We all have a tendency to see what we expect to see. The more preconceived ideas we have about people, the less able we are to see them objectively.

In order to see beyond the dirty face with the runny nose, the skin color different form ours, or the clean pretty face, we must make a serious effort to be honest about personal prejudices and ware that personal values do not automatically apply to other people. It is especially important in family day care or foster care,where children form a variety of homes spend many hours in your home, to see the children in relation to their own family life styles and not in terms of your own.

Observation questions

Because it is impossible to observe everything a child does, you will want to think about what specific information you want to know about the child, while trying to keep you mind open to the unexpected or other information. The following are some general questions to keep in mind when observing children. Reading over these questions several times before you begin your observation will help you remember what to look for .

  • What is the specific situation in which the child is operating? What other activities are going on? What are the general expectations of the group at the moment and what is the general atmosphere of the room—noisy, calm, boisterous, quiet?
  • What is the child’s approach to material and activities? Is the child slow in getting started or does he plunge right in? Does the child use materials in the usual way or does he/she use them in different ways, exploring them for the possibililites they offer?
  • How interested is the child in what he/she is doing? Does he/she seem intent on what he/she is doing or does the child seem more interested in what others are doing? How long is his ability to concentrate? How often does he/she shift activities?
  • How much energy does the child use? Does he/she work at a fairly even pace or does he/she work in “spurts” of activity? Does he/she use a great deal of energy in manipulating the materials, in body movements, or in talking?
  • What are the child’s body movements like? Does the child’s body seem tense or relaxed? Are his movements jerky, uncertain, or poorly coordinated?
  • What does the child say? Does the child talk, sing, hum, or use nonsense words while he/she works? Does he/she use sentences or single words? How does the child communicate with others—in words or gestures?
  • How does the child feel about what he/she is doing? Does the child seem happy? Upset? Satisfied? Does he/she ask for help or seem to need encouragement? Does he/she try new things on his/her own or wait for coaxing?
  • How does the child get along with other children? Does he/she play alone, with only certain children, or with a variety of children? Is he/she willing or unwilling to share toys? Does he/she initiate or follow along with group ideas?
  • What kinds of changes are there between the beginning and the end of an activity? Does the child’s mood change as he/she works?
  • What is the child’s relationship to you? Is the child eager to see you? Is he/she eager to tell you about what he/she is doing?
  • What is the child’s relationship with his parents? Is the child eager to see them at the end of the day? Does the child share with them the things he/she has been doing?

Use this Teacher Report Form to record your observation of a child.

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