Direct Observation Techniques

Observing what children do is one of the most accurate, direct, and detailed ways of recording their behavior. How close you come to describing what children actually do depends on how good you are at observing behavior. This section offers you some techniques and tips on doing your own behavioral observations.

Several methods are available for you to observe behavior:

  1. anecdotal reports–writing down particular incidents of children’s behaviors. This is the most comprehensive way of recording behavior. It explores the whys behind children’s behavior by letting you examine their surrounding events and circumstances.
  2. event recording–counting the number of times a child performs a target behavior. This technique is most suited for behaviors which do not happen often, such as lying or stealing.
  3. duration recording–measuring how long a child’s behavior carries on for. This information may be useful in setting treatment goals; for instance, shortening the length of a child’s temper tantrum.
  4. interval recording–a combination of event and duration recording. For this technique you need to make a graph which divides a time period (say two minutes) into intervals (say 10-second). Watch constantly for the entire two minutes, and check off those intervals when the child does whatever behavior you are interested in. It doesn’t matter how long the behavior lasts within the interval; you just check off whether the child does it or not. This method works well with behaviors which occur fairly often, not paying attention or fidgeting, for example. Preferably, watch only one child at a time, and check off only one behavior at a time. Any more and you run the risk of missing behaviors.
  5. time sampling–similar to interval recording, only you check behavior after a certain period of time, not during. If you want an ongoing count of a child’s behavior which you can extend over longer periods of time, this is a useful tool. The only problem with it is you miss whatever happens in between the interval counts.

For all these methods, the more observations you make, the better. It is also preferable to make your observations in a variety of settings such as the playground, classroom, and home, as well as at different times of the day. In addition, aim for objectivity in your recording. Record only what you see children do. Forget about what you already know about them, expect them to do, or feel towards them. One way of measuring how accurate you are is by watching a videotape of children’s behavior, and then comparing your observations with those of other teachers. Another suggestion is to observe a few average children in your classroom, so you have a base from which to compare the problem child’s behavior. You may find it’s not all that different from what other children do.

Lastly, when you are observing behavior, especially anecdotal reporting, try to make note of as many peripheral factors as you can. As an example, if Charlie slugs Ken, there are several before and after circumstances you can consider:

(a) what triggered Charlie’s reaction, and how long he waited before slugging Ken.

(b) what happened after Charlie slugged Ken? Was there a pay-off, something which would encourage him to do it again?

(c) where did it happen? What physical variables may have set Charlie off: crowded classroom, open area, loud noises, funny smells, stimulating equipment?

(d) what time of day was it?

(e) who else was there? Was Charlie by himself or with a gang of friends?

(f) how serious was the behavior? How hard did Charlie hit Ken, how many times, for how many minutes?

(g) has this happened before? If so, what were the circumstances then?