Observation: The Parenting Super-tool!

Observation is one of the most effective but underutilized tools in a parent or educator’s toolkit!  Observation gives us the time and space to investigate behavior and get to the root.  Without observation, we often respond impulsively and defensive mode, reacting to behavior and slapping quick-fixes onto symptoms rather than identifying and addressing the cause.

Next time you are dealing with a challenging behavior, we encourage you to step back, be silent, and observe.  In this pocket of silence before you respond, there are a series of questions which you can ask of yourself.

What is my emotional state?

Children absorb our emotional state, so it’s tremendously important to be mindful of your own emotions.  Ask yourself questions such as, “How is this child’s making me feel right now?”  If you can identify anger or frustration, or other negative emotions, remind yourself that your role is to be the neutral and objective guide as your child navigates emotional waters.   If the adult joins the child’s dysregulation, it is like adding gasoline to a fire, and the adult’s intervention will hurt rather than help. 

A thought-provoking perspective is offered by Haim Ginott–an educator, child psychologist and psychotherapist.  He said, “I am the decisive element in the classroom [home]. It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher [parent] I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

girl with magnifying lens at preschool
Children are excellent at observation and have much to teach the adult!

If you are un able to be the neutral and objective guide, it would be wise to take a break, step away from the situation for a few minutes, or ask a partner to step in and support the child. 

What is this child trying to communicate?

All behavior is communication.  A baby’s cry is communication that they are hungry, needing a diaper change, etc.  Young children throwing a tantrum at bedtime may be communication that they are over-tired.  An adult who zones out of a conversation is indicating that they are tired or bored.  We are always communicating something by our behavior!

When a child’s behavior becomes difficult, ask yourself what they are trying to communicate.  They often don’t have the words to describe what they need or what they are feeling. They may be tired, hurt, sad, scared, angry, or sick.  They may have sensory needs (needing large muscle movement and activity, or may be feeling overwhelmed and over-stimulated).  They may simply need attention.

It would be premature of us to jump in to ‘fix’ a behavior such as correcting a child for being whiny and clingy when the child is communicating to us that they are feeling sick.  In order to respond to the child with empathy and understanding, we need to ask “what is this child trying to communicate”?

Is this behavior typical of the child’s temperament?

In order to answer this question, you need to know your child!  Knowledge of your child comes with time and awareness built by observation.  If your child who normally falls asleep without any issues is overnight pushing back, crying and needing extra cuddles, it’s time to dig a little further.

Is this behavior developmentally typical?

Has the child lived through significant changes lately?

Difficult behavior is often the result of changes that are significant in the world of a child.  A new baby, a move, a separation, house guests, moving into a new bedroom or bed, a new school, a new schedule . . . all of these things can upset a child, but they usually cannot identify why they feel the way they do let alone communicate about these feelings to an adult.  Extra time with, attention and patience from parents and careful attention to routine during these times can be an anchor to help your child weather the changes.

Are the child’s physical needs being met?

Is the child displaying a misguided goal?

How can I meet their unmet need OR redirect the behavior?


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