Observing & Recording Children’s Behavior
How do we know what children can do? How do we know what they need to do next?
Observing, keeping track, and planning for the next steps are important parts of an early childhood professional's day. In this unit we'll consider ways to monitor children's development and assess progress, so we can better guide children's growth.
No two children are exactly the same. Celebrating child growth means noticing each child's progress and ensuring things stay on track.
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Growth Is Individual & Predictable
People who are not early childhood professionals may have an inaccurate idea of what your job entails. They may think you just play all day, once in a while stopping to feed a child or change a diaper. What's so hard about the work you do? these people think. There's nothing to it!
Of course, you know these people are wrong. You are responsible for guiding the physical, intellectual, social and emotional development of children. The question is, how do you do that? If your work isn't just play, then what is it?
Your work is the work of observation. While you play with children, while you feed them and talk with them and teach them, you are watching. You notice what a child finds easy to do and what he finds hard. You notice what he is working on, developmentally. You figure out if what you're trying to accomplish with a particular child is actually having an effect.
Observation is the main part of your work. It's how you know what to do every day. It's how you know what to do next. And it's how you know if learning and development are happening.
After observing, your next task is to think. What does a child's behavior mean? Why did she do as she did and not something else? Where is her mind going when she does things the way she does?
The key thing here to keep in mind is that children do not do things badly or act out in order to be mean to you. All behavior has purpose that serves the child himself. If a lesson didn't go over well, it's not the children's fault. It's the fault of the lesson. But also, if a lesson didn't go over well, this is great information for you. You have a clue where the disconnect lies between what you think children are ready for and what they're really ready for. Reflection on children's behavior gives you the clues you need to plan your next step.
Planning is the result of your thinking about what you've observed. Now that you've seen how children did as they did, what will you do to adjust the lesson or to add more tomorrow? How can you keep children's learning and development moving ahead? Naturally, the answer might be "Children need more time, doing the same thing as today." There's no need to hurry. But it's important to see when learning is no longer happening and when children are getting bored.
It's your job, as the early childhood leader, to watch, think and plan. Even as you play with the children, you are watching, thinking and planning for them.
This is Where the Fun Is
If you are watching and thinking and planning, you will find that your work in early childhood education is just plain fascinating. It's like a real-life puzzle. You cannot peer inside children's brains to see what's going on. You have to make guesses based on what you see. Based on these guesses, you make some tweaks to the environment, reading this book instead of that one today, arranging the blocks in an intriguing formation and seeing what happens, adding new hats to the dress-up corner. You see what happens.
In the back of your mind are those developmental milestones. You're paying attention to what physical and intellectual steps a child might be working on and you're setting up experiences that might provide opportunities for learning exactly that. You're also watching, to see what milestones are easily achieved by some children and what children need more time and more practice.
You are a scientist in the classroom. Think of your role as one of developmental scientist, doing observation-based study of the children you serve. Take your work seriously. There's a lot going on!
Your Scientist Mind
In your role of developmental researcher, it's important to stay objective. Children's behavior isn't bad or good, it's not even on-track or late. It just is. Observe without making judgments. Observe without making comparisons. Children's behavior provides you with information on which to make decisions about what you will do next. But children's behavior doesn't tell you a child needs fixing. It only tells you where she is, right now.
Remember your role: you're an observer but not a judge.
As a good scientist, you will not base all your thinking on just one observation. Your notions of what children are learning and what they need to learn should be based on many small observations made over time and in different situations. Everyone has a bad day once in a while. Children have different temperaments and different preferences. Your observations accumulate over time, gradually creating a picture of how a child thinks, what he's working on, and what he needs next to know.
In addition, keep in mind that your observations are not assessments. You are not conducting tests that will determine which children are "best" and which children are "worst." Your observations deliver information that helps you shape your work. Observation is what scientists do.
Keeping Track Of Growth
Now that we know the key role observation of children plays in our work and our success, the question arises: How do we make observations in ways that will be helpful later?
Observations by themselves are useful and helpful, of course. But memory is fleeting and we have a lot of children and a lot of domains to keep in mind. It makes sense to record our observations in some way.
Records of our observations are useful in other ways, too. Our records provide detail that makes parent-teacher conferences come alive. These conversations can be about specific behaviors, observed over time and with specific records to back them up, instead of just vague generalities.
In addition, our records provide evidence should it be necessary to demonstrate a pattern that might indicate a developmental delay, a pattern of abuse or neglect to support a report to child protective services, or the history of your efforts to help a child if anyone should ever doubt your work.
Keeping clear records is important. So how do you do that? Let's talk about different ways to keep track of your observations. You likely will use all of these, at one time or another, since each serves a different purpose.
An anecdotal record is like a diary entry. It tells what happened in an incident you want to remember. So it might be a record of a child's first efforts to feed himself with a spoon. It might be a record of an incident of block-throwing involving several children. It might be an explanation of how a child fell and scraped her knee.
In making an anecdotal record, it's important to note the date and time, who is around, and what happened. In telling what happened, strive to stick to the facts and avoid using words that imply judgement. So instead of writing, "Sally smashed Valerie with her playdoh and was very happy about it," say, "Sally moved so her playdoh hit Valerie hard on the head and she smiled when this happened."
Anecdotal records are the method used most often, since usually we want to remember events that happened in the classroom.
Another method of recording observation is the running record. This is a transcript of what is happening over a period of time, without focusing on any particular child. The purpose of a running record is to notice what is happening at a time during the day that might be particularly difficult, day in and day out. Imagine that outdoor play has become wild and dangerous. You might consider doing a running record, from the time children start to get their jackets on to the time they come back in. What happens, who says what in what tone of voice, what sort of behavior guidance seems to be working and what seems to not be working? A running record usually is made by someone else, not the classroom teacher, since she will be busy with the children.
A checklist is useful when it's important to know which skills each child has mastered and what skills children have yet to master. Many childcare programs include a checklist as part of the parent-teacher conferences. One thing to keep in mind is that a checklist should represent not a one-time observation. It shouldn't be a test. Remember that children develop in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of uneven way, so more than one observation should be the basis of a checklist that is shared with parents.
A tally record is very helpful in tracking a behavior that you are trying to change. It helps to know how often the behavior is happening at the start, and how often it happens after a program to adjust the behavior is put into place. Imagine you are trying to reduce biting among a class of toddlers. Start first by tallying how frequently biting happens. This will help you to decide if this is really a consistent problem or just a once-in-a-while sort of problem. Then, if you implement a strategy to redirect children before they bite, continue to keep track of how frequently biting happens, so you can see if your strategy is working.
Keeping examples of children's work is an important addition to your records of a child's progress, particularly in the preschool years. Start at the beginning of the year with an example of children's work, then gather work at regular intervals throughout the year.
Audio, Videotape, and Photographs
Most childcare centers use photographs to show parents what goes on every day. These can also be used as evidence of an injury or destructive acts, as an example of a pattern of bad language or other speech problem, or to demonstrate problems with interactions a child typically has. Keep in mind that even if parents have signed a media agreement, giving you permission to photograph or tape their children, you should not use media in advertising your center, on your website or in communication with unauthorized people without parents' written consent. The only exception to this is that you should share with child protective services any media evidence you gather that shows child abuse or neglect.
Every record you collect should include these elements:
- The date the record was made
- The time of day
- The activity that was going on
- Who was around or involved
- Any other incident that you think might have triggered a behavior you observe
Make records as soon as possible following the event. Time alters memories and you do want to be accurate.
In addition, keep records well-organized. Depending on the type of record, you might file these in children's individual folders or you might keep your diary or log in a notebook or computer file. Make certain that confidential information is kept confidential. Do not leave your notebook lying around or keep your computer file open on-screen.
In addition, keeping photos and video of your classroom, even with children absent, provides records you can share with your licensor to demonstrate the fitness of the environment you provide. It also helps you to remember next year what you did and how you did things.
Using Records to Help Children
One of the fun outcomes of keeping good records is that the variation and uniqueness of the children you teach will come through. You will notice that not every child reacts the same way to different occurrences or follows the same pattern of development. The influence of temperament and individual differences will be clear to you.
This is as it should be. Remember that if your records all look the same, with every child doing the same thing and at the same level of mastery of a task, then you're doing something wrong. Your records should be a window into your real classroom, filled with real children and real teachers. Real people are not all alike.
Your records will likely demonstrate these facts:
- The developmental range among children of the same age group may vary by two years or more;
- You may have children with other interests or skills outside the age-range of the group;
- You may have children with special needs who require modifications in order to do certain activities
Your records will help you to differentiate instruction for each of the children in your care. As we shall see in future units, differentiating instruction so that each child gets what she needs at the right time and in the right way, is a big part of your job.
Record keeping helps you do that job.
The Ethics Of Tracking Growth
Once in a while you may suspect a "red flag" issue for one of your children. You have evidence, in a series of anecdotal records or in tallies recorded over a period of time. It's not just a one time thing or a lag you can believe will be made up in time. There appears to be a real problem. What do you do now?
Washington State law requires you to advise a family of their children's progress and about any suspected developmental needs. Naturally, you want to comply with the law but you also understand that early intervention is the key to turning around almost all delays. You know you don't want to wait to bring this up.
But most parents don't want to hear what you have to say. Most parents want to believe a child will "grow out of" her issues or that what you're seeing at the center never, ever happens at home. Even if parents believe you, hearing that their child may have problems makes them sad. Here are some tips to consider:
- Be gentle as you start this conversation. Parents will have come to the center, thinking they will hear only good things. They may not be expecting bad news and they may think their child is developing in typical ways. It helps to say what you've seen, in general terms, then ask if parents have noticed this at home. This gives you an idea of their awareness of the problem.
- Share the records that you made that document the issue. Be careful to not blame the child or make any accusations. Stay calm and objective. Share the facts.
- Listen to what parents have to say. Do not argue with them or get defensive. If this is the first they've heard about this problem, they will be understandably upset and may take out their feelings on you.
- Be ready with a suggestion for what parents should do next. Never send parents home with bad news and no help. Have copies of key records that parents can take with them, to share with their child's doctor or specialist.
- Make a plan to talk again in a week or two. You and the child's parents are partners in this, you are part of a team. Making plans to talk more strengthens your relationship and ends things on a positive note.
Many professionals ask another teacher or the director to provide a second opinion before they meet with the parents and they may also ask this second person to be with them at the conference. Be careful to not "gang up" on the parents, though. Better to talk to parents by yourself than to share the conference with another professional who is not so sensitive to parents' issues as you are.
Keep in mind that records on the children you care for are strictly confidential. Do not discuss them at home with your family or with your friends. Do not gossip about children or families with staff at your own center or with parents, and do not listen to others if they gossip.
Make certain that records, including records kept on your computer, are secure and cannot be accessed by anyone but you without your knowledge.
Parents trust you to do right by their families. Uphold that trust.