Methods of Observing Young Children

I Narrative

The most popular method of recording child observations is "narrative recording," or a written description of children's actions.

1. Running records (or Descriptive Narrative Record)

A detailed narrative account of behavior recorded in a sequential manner as it happens;

Not limited to a particular incident like an anecdotal record;

The observer records everything seen.


1. Rich in detail;

2. Focuses on all behaviors, not just one particular behavior;

3. Does not require a great deal of training;

4. Understand not only what behaviors occurred but also the context in which the behavior occurred.


1. Time consuming;

2. Works well for observing one individual, but is difficult to use when observing a group;

3. Observers keep themselves apart from the children which would be difficult for a teacher to do.

2. Anecdotal records

A brief narrative account describing an incident of a child's behavior that is of interest to the observer.

Anecdotes describe

These are brief

They are often written after the incident.


1. Focus on behavior of interest and ignore other behaviors;

2. Less time consuming than running record;

3. No special training needed for the observer;

4. Observer can catch an unexpected incident no matter when it occurs, for it is usually recorded afterwards.


1. Does not focus on all behaviors; may overlook important behaviors;

2. Depends on the memory of the observer;

3. Difficult to use for research purposes.


II Samples

Written samples of certain behaviors to discover how often, how long, or when a particular behavior occurs.

Time sampling: The observer records the frequency of a behavior's occurrence over time

Involves observing specified behaviors of an individual or group, and recording the presence or absence of this behavior during short intervals of uniform length

Behavior is specified, defined, and limited

Provides quantitative data or number of events


1. Takes less time than running record and anecdotal records;

2. Can record data on many children at once;

3. It provides useful information about the intervals or frequency of behavior;

4. Counts of behavior can be used for research purposes.


1. May miss important behaviors;

2. Context of behavior not noted; does not focus on the causes and consequences of the behavior;

3. It is limited to behaviors that occur frequently and not rare behaviors that might also be important.


2. Event sampling: The observer waits for and records a specific preselected behavior

Used to study the conditions under which particular behaviors occur or the frequency of behaviors.

A "unit of behavior" is defined and the setting in which it occurs is determined

If studying causes or results of behaviors, then an ABC analysis is used

A = antecedent event

B = behavior

C = consequent event

If frequency of occurrence is the focus, the recorder can record by counting rather than description.


1. Can be used to study infrequent behaviors; note them each time they occur;

2. Notes the antecedents and consequences of the behavior unlike time sampling;


1. Focuses on only one or a few behaviors;

2. Does not have as much detail as running record or anecdotal record.


III Rating Scales

Rating scales are observation tools that indicate the degree to which a person possesses a certain trait or behavior

Each behavior is rated on a continuum from the lowest to highest level

Rating scales work best where particular degrees of behavior are well defined, and where there is a distinct difference in the behavior

1. Numerical Scales: A rating scale that is numerical in form

Raters observe children for as long as it takes to circle a number for each item, or they can observe on a daily basis and then average the scores.

The numbers on the scale also represent words.

1 = not at all like the child

2 = somewhat unlike the child

3 = neither like or unlike the child

4 = somewhat like the child

5 = a lot like the child

2. Sematic Differential: A rating scale using adjectives with opposite meanings at either end


1. Easy to use;

2. Takes relatively little time to complete;

3. It is a convenient way to observe may traits at once;

4. Degrees of behavior/characteristic can be noted, rather than did the behavior occur or did it not occur.

5. Easy to score for research purposes.


1. They examine only specific behaviors/traits and may overlook other important behaviors.

2. Ratings are subjective and raters may give biased responses;

3. Not as much detail about the behavior as other methods (e.g., context of the behavior).

4. The response categories may be subject to personal interpretations; one person who views the behavior of the child may believe the behavior occurs "often" and another observer may believe that it occurs "sometimes."


IV Checklists

Checklists are lists of specific traits or behaviors arranged in logical order

Check lists are especially useful for types of behavior or traits than can be easily and clearly specified

Information from anecdotal and running records can be transferred to checklists to make interpretation easier


1. They are easy and quick to use;

2. Little training required;

3. They can be used in the presence of the child or recorded later;

4. Helps to focus observations on many behaviors at once;

5. Can be used for curriculum planning; activities can be planned to encourage certain behaviors that have not yet been observed;

6. Can be used to condense information from running record or anecdotal records.


1. Not very detailed;

2. Little information about the context or sequence of events;

3. May miss important information not included on the checklist.

4. Notes if a behavior occurred but not how often it occurs or the duration of the behavior. Something that happens once may not be very meaningful.


V Media Technique

Capture moments on film and then write notes about what happened

1. Photographs; Useful for discussion with other staff members who may not have witnessed the incident you observed

Photo should be dated and placed with the recorded notes.

2. Videotapes: Record live actions of children for later observations and discussions

Staff may observe with a checklist

A group discussion of the tape can be recorded and added to the observational data.

3. Audiotapes: A tape can add depth to a written observation by recording a child's spoken language and/or verbal interactions with other children

Speak child's name; Current date; Classroom location.... before placing the recorder on a table or counter

Some observers speak into a cassette recorder instead of writing their observations


Uses of Observations

Subjective: What is impression of what happened during the time that you observed.

Objective: What did you actually observe? What are the objective behaviors that anyone could observe? What behaviors did you observe that led to your subjective impression?

Assessment: Based on what you observed and your impressions, what conclusions did your reach? Are further assessments needed?

Planning: Given what you know, what would be an appropriate plan for the student or patient? What should be done? What would be helpful?