Child observation for teacher and parent

How to recognise children that need help?

There are many different ways that children show us when things aren’t going well for them. Some will display demanding behaviour, some will withdraw and become very quiet, some will become physically unwell. Their ability to pay attention, listen to what is said, understand an instruction, or achieve academically may be compromised. Others may have learned a whole range of coping mechanisms to deal with their difficulties, and therefore seemingly do alright, not stand out, but possibly fall through the cracks at a later stage when these coping mechanisms aren’t sufficient anymore.
How do we, as parents or professionals working with children, recognise that these behaviours are warning bells for some underlying difficulty? How do we get out of the pattern of reactive interaction to start making changes that will last? How can we then help the child so that they are seen for who they really are and not judged by what is out of their control?


It is important to understand that for the young child the level of consciousness about their behaviour, and therefore the ability to change that behaviour, is not very high. They do not consciously ‘choose’ to have a tantrum, and so can also not easily consciously control their behaviour when they are in a difficult situation.   If we understand the development of the level of consciousness in the child, it is easier to understand and meet their behaviour.
It is only gradually that a sense of ‘separate self’ develops. Until the age of 9, 10 years, the child experiences himself very much as being part of the world. What happens out there has an immediate impact on how they can and will react/act.
We can recognise the gradual separation between self and environment in these observations: The 8 month old will for the first time recognise strangers and feel uncomfortable with them, the two year old’s ‘no’ phase, is when for the first time there is an, as yet totally unconscious, realisation that he can put his own will against what is happening in his environment. The three year old will for the first time call himself no longer with his name, but with the word “I”.  The 4- 5 year old can start to learn about taking turns and sharing, the 6- 7 year old will notice differences between him and his friends. The 9 year old will start to feel more separate from the world, his mother… and we often see little groups forming in a classroom, almost as a safety net for the feelings of loneliness that can occur, or the anxiety related to feeling threatened by other children’s differences, they are more consciously experiencing what it means to belong or not… This development continues all through life, even as adults we continually gain self-knowledge and self-awareness through our life experiences.


So when we see a young child express difficult behaviour, we need to place that in this context, and that it is often their unconscious way of telling us that all is not well. And then it is for us, the adults around them, to try and find out what it is that is not going well so we can help them. When talking to them and telling them to act differently, is not enough, even after many times repeating and explaining it again and again, their behaviour still doesn’t change, then we need to look at deeper underlying issues that might need attention.


In order to do that well, it is important that we also recognise our own, often unconscious, feelings and underlying difficulties. If we recognise the child has a strong connection to its environment, we must see ourselves, as part of that environment, also as part of the solution for the child. It is important that we try to overcome our own feelings of frustration, anxiety, antipathy or feeling overly sympathetic for these children. Our own emotions often get in the way of understanding what the child is trying to tell us, and in order to help them, it is important that we learn to understand what is truly an objective observation of the child, and what is actually an observation I am making about myself. Very often, if we can change our own understanding and behaviour first, the child’s difficulties can find a different way of expression.


To help with the process of observation, I have listed a set of questions, to train ourselves to become more objective, and let the phenomenon of the child, how he presents, his abilities and qualities speak for themselves. Some of these observations are easier to make by a parent and harder for the teacher in the classroom situation, and a conversation between the teacher and parent is very important, to get the whole picture of the child. Home and school are also very different environments with different expectations, so often a child will show different behaviours and levels of stress.

We can distinguish different aspects or categories in the child, which will help in trying to disentangle our observations, so we are clearer about what the child is showing us.


1. Their physicality:
This may be the easiest area to be objective in these observations, it is looking at what their physical appearance is, observing all the things we can measure, and can name with a NOUN.
Here no feelings get in the way, or at least we try to become very conscious that we leave all feelings out.
Questions to ask are:
– How tall is the child?
– How much does he weigh?
– What is the colour of the skin?
– What is the colour of the hair?
– What is the colour of the eyes?
– Does he have large feet? Hands? Head? Long limbs? Long torso?
– Do the feet have a strong arch?
– How long are the fingernails?
– Are there a lot of bruises/scratches… on the legs/arms?
– Does he have a straight posture or slouched?
– Is the spine straight or overly curved?
– Etc.

2. Their health:
Here we are looking at the quality of what we see and things that we will need ADJECTIVES for to describe. (We still pay attention that we leave all feelings and emotions out of our observations.)
– Is the hair glossy or dull?
– Is the skin dry or moist, clammy?
– Is the skin pale or nicely coloured?
– Are the feet/hands warm/cold?
– Are there dark rings under the eyes?
– Is the nose runny or not?
– Is the child often tired?
– Does the child often pass wind?
– Does he need to go to the toilet often?
– Does he fall asleep and wake up easily?
– Does he have a good appetite?
– Does he fall asleep and wake up easily or slowly?
– Etc.

3. Their Movement:
Here we observe and describe the way the child moves, the quality of his movements. We now live with the VERBS in our mind.
– Does he move gracefully or clumsy?
– Does he move fast or slow?
– Does he walk on tiptoes or with a very heavy step?
– Can he sit still easily?
– Is it hard to start/stop moving?
– Can he stand on one (each) leg without wobbling?
– Is he in control of his movements or is he driven to move?
– Are there uncontrolled movements?
– Are the feet placed straight on the floor, toes pointing out or in?
– Does he move his left and right side symmetrically?
– Etc.

4. Their Individuality:
Here we try to observe how the individuality of this child is able to express itself, how is their personality able to be present and then also relate to others. What is the IDEA, the SELF, which speaks through all the observations we can make.
Questions to ask are:
– How is the handshake, strong or weak?
– Is it easy to have eye contact?
– Is there enthusiasm to meet other people?
– Does he need lots of personal space?
– Does he need to have close physical contact with other people?
– Does he take initiative or is he a follower?
– Is he overly shy?
– Can he allow for the other’s presence?
– Does he listen to others, take turn to speak?
– Is his voice loud or quiet?
– Is he a team player?
– Etc.

5. Their Unique Gifts:
Here we are trying to find out what it is that belongs only to this one child, what makes him special and unique among all his friends and family, what he can bring as a gift to the world. Questions can be:
– What is special about this child?
– What does he bring that belongs to him?
– What does he bring to a social dynamic?
– Is he very good at thinking clearly?
– Is he very good at social situations, understanding others’ feelings?
– Is he very good at making things with his hands?
– Is he very good at sports?
– Etc.

When we take the time to really observe a child, and allow all the phenomena that present themselves to us to speak for themselves, without our feelings or judgment to cloud them, then we often find surprising gifts that these, sometimes challenging, children bring. Or at least would like to bring, could bring, if only they had the right instrument to manifest these gifts.
That instrument is their body and how it can function to maximum capacity.
If in our first set of questions about their physical body, we noticed that for example, the left arm cannot lift as high as the right one, or the neck is slightly bent, the hips are not even… then there are structurally obstacles that make it hard for the child to feel comfortable and free in their body. This can have neurological consequences (see article on reflexes) and delay the normal development of the movement patterns and so limit their skills to develop freely.
If in the second category of questions we noticed that the child’s health is often compromised, or there might be chronic problems with digestion or breathing, then things like memory, focus, and sensory integration… can all be compromised.
If the movement is not coordinated, happens to the child, drives him, rather than being initiated by him, is sluggish, clumsy… then that will have an effect on attention span, sensory integration, balance, emotional stability etc…


And then it doesn’t matter what the gifts of this special child are, if his bodily structure, his health or movement system is compromised, it is going to be very hard work just trying to be present, let alone give his special gifts to the world. A lot of coping mechanisms will be in place in order to manage all the tasks asked in a day. And these put stress and strain on the child’s nervous system, he will get tired and revert more and more to the state of ‘not coping’ anymore.


Each child, where we notice things being compromised, will then need to have some form of intervention or remedies offered to help with the difficulties he is experiencing. These can range from Cranial Sacral Osteopathy for any structural problems, doctor, homeopath, allergy testing, supportive massages, oiling etc… for any health problems, movement therapies for any movement difficulties. It is often also important to see if the eyes and ears are working well and working well together, by a behavioural optometrist and audiologist for an auditory processing assessment.


Lut Hermans, January 2015

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