The importance of observation

When it comes to babies, at my core, I am a scientist.  The process children go through as they transform from a fetus into a walking talking human child in just the first 2 years of life fascinates me.  It’s absolutely incredible really.  As a scientist, I want to understand all I can about this amazing process.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned that is the same in both my scientific and my Montessori backgrounds, it’s that observation is the key to understanding child development.

My daughter has Erb’s palsy brought on by her shoulder dystocia during birth.  At first I didn’t notice anything wrong, and since most babies heal on their own without any intervention, I just assumed she would too.   She did seem to prefer to use her right arm and hand, but I didn’t know that wasn’t normal.

We have a wonderful pediatric physical therapist who is teaching me all about arm, shoulder and hand development in infants.  She’s taught me that at three months old, Julia shouldn’t have a handedness or preference for one side over the other.  So, I started paying closer attention to the specific movements we’re looking for and truly comparing her arm and hand development on the left with the development of the right.  Much to my amazement there are differences that had gone unnoticed by me in the past.  Although she’s starting to use her left arm more and more, she does raise her right arm above her head more often than she does with her left.

So, what does this have to do with you and with parenting in general?  My point is that if we’re not paying close attention to the physical, emotional, and social development of our kids, things can slip through the cracks unnoticed.  We have to take the time to actually pay attention to where kids are developmentally in order to know that they’re on track and, more importantly, in order to know how to challenge and encourage them to develop further.

Luckily, children are born with an innate desire to learn and grow, so even if we’re not paying attention, most kids will continue to develop.  But if you’re reading this, then you want to help your child in every way you can so that he can reach his full potential.  In order to do that, you’ve got to know where your child is at and what the next steps of development are.

If your child is acting out with tantrums, biting, hitting, or in some other way, observation is a key to making a change.  When you know exactly how she looks just before she bites, or you notice him getting more and more agitated as the day goes on and every evening he has a tantrum, you can start to head these things off at the pass.

And if you’re not having those kinds of challenges, but just want to support your child to achieve the next developmental milestone or learn the next thing that interests her, again observation will give you new information that will let you know how to intervene or what you might introduce next.

So, what exactly to I mean by “observation”?  I mean watching your child, noticing his preferences and interests, being aware of his abilities, knowing what’s easy for him and what’s difficult for him.  When we observe a child, we’re not intervening or interrupting, we’re simply watching quietly and taking note (or maybe literally taking notes) about the areas of learning or development that interest us.

We’re also not making judgments or evaluations; we’re just noticing what’s so.  Rather than thinking something like, “Joey hates to use his spoon.” A true observation might be more like, “Joey seems to prefer using his fingers to eat, he gets frustrated when he tries to use his spoon and often throws it down.”  Try to make your observations as scientific, accurate, and free of judgment as possible.  This can be tricky, judgments seem to sneak in when we least expect them.  So, be patient with yourself as you learn this new skill.

As an assistant teacher in a Montessori classroom a huge part of my job was to observe the children and report to the head teacher what I had noticed.  Together, the head teacher and I would come up with strategies to introduce the next opportunity for growth and development.  Sometimes it was a new lesson with a Montessori learning material, but other times it was a social milestone we wanted to encourage, so we would come up with strategies to help kids learn to share, or work as a team, or resolve their conflicts.

At home with your family you might notice things like conflict between family members, or a child’s desire to learn to cook.  You might suddenly realize that the baby is hungry or tired at a time when you didn’t expect it.  When you notice these things you can address them proactively by coming up with a plan and implementing it.  But if you never noticed, then there’s nothing you can do to help foster the rest, peace, or new skill you might want to support.

This week take some time to sit and quietly watch your kids.  Take notes about what you’re observing.  What’s happening?  What are your child’s strengths and challenges?  And consider what opportunities you might have to help your child in a new way, now that you’ve taken the time to observe exactly where she’s at right now.

Please leave any questions or share a story in the comment box below.  Thanks!

Have a fantastic week, Shelly

lpn vs rn
lpn vs rn

Knowing children’s interests might help us prepare the environment, but it does not help us have better conversations.


How can i know if my 7yrs old is ADHD?


Hi Marie, I'll be writing a blog about this very topic sometime in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for it, but in the meantime I'll say that you can get more information than you might want from Alfie Kohn's book "The Punishment of Rewards" or his other book, "Unconditional Parenting". But the basic idea is that by telling kids they are "good" we set them up for a fear of being seen as "bad". Ultimately the research shows that it's better for kids when we use EFFORT based praise, rather than character based praise. So, it's better to say, "Wow, I can see how much work you did on that drawing!" instead of "What a pretty picture, you're such a good artist."

Additionally, I'm curious about why you're both telling your son he's "good". Is it because you enjoy him or you're happy with the way he's behaving? Why not get more specific and share exactly what he's doing that you're enjoying or tell him why you love him. I might say something like, "I love you so much!" instead of "good girl!" and if I'm proud of something a child has accomplished, I'd say "I'm so proud of you! You did it!" because ultimately I believe that kids are good, no matter what, not just when they accomplish something great.

I hope that answers your question and do keep an eye out for more detail in my upcoming blog. Have a great day Marie!


hi shelly, in one of your latest newsletters you mentioned something about the seasonal holidays coming up & how to deal with certain family members that now oh so much more about your child's education than yourself ;)
what caught my attention in particular was that you'd rephrase it when somebody says "good boy/baby/girl" and say "yes, you've been very easy " (or something similar)... so what is the actual reason that you shouldn't say "good boy?" my husband says it aaaaaall the time to our older son & i adopted this habbit too now...
i'd like to understand why we shouldn't say it... i kind of have an idea, but would like to hear it from the expert ;) it's easier, as i'm not sure how to explain my idea to my husband... i tried but got stuck for words. and he's very willing to learn & help!