Tips for Writing Observations

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Observation notes is essential teaching. There are some best practices to make this daily task easier and more efficient. Here are some tips:

Record Time and Date

Time and date information is helpful. For example, you can spot trending behaviors, such as challenges always happening in the morning. Teachers can also use time and date info to make sure their intentional about taking notes throughout the day.

I noticed that I use to take notes only between 10am and 11am, which is free choice time. I needed to do more.

Abbreviations for Names

Write quickly because you may miss something. For information you write repeatedly, abbreviate. For example, teacher can be “T” or teacher assistant is “TA”. Draw a circle around it so it helps you know it’s a name or professional title.

For children, write abbreviations. There’s two reasons for that. First, child observations are confidential. If notes are lying about, abbreviated names can help maintain privacy. Secondly, I would highly suggest you make up some names, such as having your own code for children. For example, in my picture above, I have “G1”. It could stand for the first girl on my alphabetized roster. Or, I could have a master list where I have a list of names matching with special abbreviations (“GB” is for Gabby, “ST” is for Samantha, etc.).

Practice Makes a Keener Eye

Keep watching. Keep writing. Writing speed will improve. With practice, you can write notes without looking at your notebook. Neatness is not necessary, but make sure you can read your notes later or else it’s all for not.

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Technology & Paper: I Need Both

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My family and friends know of my love of technology. Most of my hobbies and creative outlets utilize my laptop, digital camera, smart phone, tablet, or e-reader. However, some of my best work is done old school – written on paper.

I recently read an article in Inc. called Paper Chase by Saki Knafo. Although we live in a digital world, many organizations are pushing their staff to use paper. This is nothing new to preschool workers. We use paper (of all colors) on a daily basis.

I’m a big proponent of technology being utilized in preschool classrooms. Technology offers experiences and learning opportunities that would otherwise not be possible. However, there is still  debate among professionals staunchly positioned for or against technology tools. Despite the differences, the people who are most successful in rising above this argument are those who take the time to learn about the tool, then decide how the tools can be used in developmentally appropriate ways.

However, just because we use technology doesn’t mean it’s a replacement. It simply works along side other tools in a teacher’s tool belt. Paper is one these tools. It doesn’t need a battery or reception. There is no character limit. You don’t need a login or require an account. There are other benefits as well:

“The brain reacts differently – research says better – when you use paper and not a computer. Studies show that student’s performance on tests improves when they take notes on paper instead of laptops, and kids who learn to write by hand are better at recognizing letters than those who learn to write by typing.” – Saki Knafo

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Just a few notebooks I have on me daily. Many more in storage.

I have always had a journal since late in high school and reading this article was even more convicting that I have established a good habit. Over the decades, ideas, brainstorming, sketches, journaling, reflecting and processing events can all be found amongst my many notebooks. These are also a mixture of professional and personal notes throughout the pages.

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Over 3 years of notes on workshops, conferences, and ideas.

To keep my thoughts and notes somewhat organized, I did keep a separate journal for my preschool material. I made sure it was something durable and could withstand the wear and tear of a preschool classroom, which is why I chose this one. I especially liked this notebook because it was organized, large, and spiral bound (so I fold over and write while standing).

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Notes from a National Head Start Conference in Dallas, TX.

I get a new notebook every new school year (or at least every year). That along with calendar or monthly planner. As I plan for the new year, I have my laptop in front of me, my laptop mouse to the right, and my notebook to the left… and large cup of coffee in my hand.

Breathe

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When I was teaching, my classroom schedule had outdoor time preceding lunch time.  What does this mean?  It means that, everyday, sweaty, red faces entered the school.  The kiddos were dragging their feet and looking down at their shoes.  But the feeling the cool and gentle touch of our air-conditioned hallway calmed everyone down, refreshing our over-heated bodies.

When we sat down at the table, our meal was eaten in silence. Not because there was a no talking rule – but because no one had the enough energy to speak.

As everyone ate their meal, eyelids became heavier, which directly corresponded with the amount of yummy food filling our bellies. By the end of lunch, I gently tapped children on their shoulders, asking them to lift their heads off the table and remind them to get their blankets and pillows for naptime.  There was little, if any, complaint.  Bed time was an eagerly awaited reprieve from the summer heat.

These are probably one of the few times when children are completely calm and quiet. However, playing outside in energy-sapping heat should not be the only way to get children to be cool and collected. In fact, creating situations where children are serene and tranquil can go a long way in setting up children for learning and development and not just naptime.

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While reading Teaching Young Children, I read an article entitled “Creating Quiet Space in a Loud World” by Lisa Danahy. The article described activities on how children could practice breathing techniques. Children even used objects, such as feathers and bells, to assist them in the activity.

Danahy, who is also a certified yoga instructor, says, “Using mindfulness tools like meditation helps children manage the stress of these environments (classrooms) and become stronger, more resilient learners.”

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Think about that? Have you ever tried to teach a large group activity while children were bouncing off the walls? Probably. I did. It failed. Failed horribly. However, rather than scold children and reprimand them for my poor classroom management, I should start the activity with a sound starting point – such as calming everyone down, priming the minds and bodies for learning.

Of course, breathing techniques are effective for other purposes. I taught children to count to 10 whenever they were angry. I used breathing techniques to calm children how were crying after injuring themselves, that way I could ask questions to assess and inquiry about their injury.

Breathing and meditation are great techniques to use. Calm, collected, and neutral children create a fertile ground for learning and retention. Of course, in teaching children to use these techniques – breathing, counting, and even closing your eyes – you may find yourself benefiting as well!

Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle

“Why are you always swaying?” asked my friend.

“I don’t know.  It’s just what I do,” I said.

“Can you stand still? It’s bothering me.”

A group of my friends were gathered around the table playing cards.  This was back in high school.  2000ish.  You know.  Richard won the first Survivor, Kobe and Shaq won a championship, and we all survived the “I Love You” computer virus.  Dang that feels like a long time ago.

A minute passes and my friend looks up from his cards.  “You can’t stand still?”

I was swaying again.  I looked down at my body.  I was gently swaying back and forth; rhythmically shifting my weight between left foot and right foot.  I didn’t even notice I was moving.  I was waiting for my turn to get in the game. 

“Well, yeh.  I can stand still.  But I’m comfortable doing this.”

“I bet you couldn’t stand still.  Like, two minutes.”

“I could.” I said.

“Two minutes? Naw… okay, two minutes.  A buck for two minutes.”  My friend pulled up his arm and pressed buttons on his wristwatch.  Remember those? And I don’t mean the one that allows you to send your heartbeat.

A dollar went on the table.  He looked at me, his finger hovering above the start button for the stopwatch.  I put my feet together.  Arms to my side. Easy breath out. Gave a wry smile, signaling I was ready.

“Go,” he said as he pushed the button.

“This is a waste of time,” I thought.

Then, as the seconds passed, the room around me became less visible – like tunnel vision.  I began to notice less around me.  I wasn’t aware of the cards on the table, as my eyes focused on the stopwatch.  Then, a little voice in my head started saying “Stay still. Stay still.”  It was my voice.  I was talking to myself in my head.  My subconscious thoughts becoming an inner voice.

“Arms at your side.  Don’t sway,” I continued thinking.

The longer I stood there, the more I retreated within my head.  There was nothing but the stopwatch and my thoughts.

“Don’t move.  Don’t sway.  Stay still.”  The thoughts were coming more frequently as the seconds passed; if time was passing at all, that is, because I kept thinking “This is longer than two minutes.”

“Time.”

“Whew,” I said… in my head, not out loud.  What I said out loud was “Told you.”  My friend threw the dollar at me.  I picked it up and smiled, then walked and sat in a nearby chair.  At that point, I let out a real sigh – out of ear distance.  My muscles relaxed.  Why are they sore?  That was mentally exhausting… but I won the dollar.

Moral of the Story: Children need wiggle room.

Circle time can be a very long time and sitting through everything can be absolute torture for children.  Criss-cross applesauce is commonplace in any preschool.  But, sometimes we go to far into believing that, if a child doesn’t keep this posture, that they are some how misbehaving, or are not in the optimal learning position.  We stop the lesson to remind a child to sit properly, and we won’t continue until they scoot back to their floor position.

All the while, the child’s inner voice is saying “Criss-cross applesauce.  Criss-cross applesauce.”  And, when this happens, don’t be surprised if you call on a child’s name and they whip their head around before making eye contact with you; as if you snapped them out of a trance.

When you plan your circle time activities and lessons, perhaps start the session with a little music and movement.  For the lesson your teaching, try incorporating large body movements or opportunities for children to demonstrate skills through copying you.  Sitting still for any duration is difficult.  Make it more than just sitting and talking.  Give them some wiggle room.

Observe Like Sherlock Holmes

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Netflix is my friend.  I could stream an entire weekend away.  Could is the magic word here.  You know. Pre-fatherhood me could stream to his heart’s delight.

There is a very interesting PBS special on Sherlock Holmes called How Sherlock Changed the World, claiming how the fictional character laid the foundation for modern day CSI and forensics. Guess what? He kinda did.  Back in the day to solve cases, London police officers would look for eye witnesses then, if they couldn’t find a witness, they would make a guess (based on gut feeling and without evidence).  Pretty much, if someone said you did it, you were outta luck.

On the other hand, in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, he was using evidence, chemistry, ballistics, and studied the crime scene – and keep in mind these books were written pre 1900, before any of these techniques were even considered for real police work.  This kind of thinking was way before it’s time and pretty cool.

Okay.  You’re reading this post and maybe thinking, “Okay… neat.  What’s you’re point?”

Here’s the point: Preschool teachers could take a page from Sherlock.  Primarily, they could take away his two primary skills: observation and deductive reasoning.

Observation

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Stay with me here.

Sherlock says, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.  It biases the judgement.”

Preschool observations are based on facts; based on what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.  From these senses, you document.  However, the skill here is to remain objective and not bias the evidence.  It’s hard to tell if you don’t know what to look for.

Here’s an example of a teacher note that has bias in it:

“Bobby happily walked into the block area.  He sat down next to his friend Ikira.  Ikira is building a castle.  Bobby wanted to build a castle too, and reached for a block in Ikira’s pile.  Ikira got mad and said ‘That’s mine’ in an angry voice.  Bobby was scared and realized that he was wrong. He gave the block back to Ikira.”

Sounds 0kay, right?  No, not really.  Here are the issues.  How do you know Bobby is happy?  How do you know he and Ikira are friends?  How do you know Bobby was going to build a castle?  How do you know that Ikira was mad or that he was using an angry voice?  How do you know Bobby was scared, which resulted in him giving the block back?

We are making a lot of assumptions.  Those assumptions are called theories.  Theories are based on observations.  See the conflict here?  You can’t have theories in observations.

Make sense?  Well, let’s keep going, shall we?

Let’s take the Holmes approach and document the same episode, using only your senses to collect the evidence:

“Bobby walked to the block area and sat next to Ikira.  Bobby grabs a square block from a pile that is next to Ikira.  Ikira says ‘That’s mine’ and reaches for block.  Bobby looks at Ikira, then puts the block in Ikira’s hand.  Ikira continues building with blocks.  Bobby watches Ikira.”

Can you picture this?  You probably could.  What can you draw from this observation?  Have any theories?  Well, this leads to our next Holmes attribute.

Deductive Reasoning

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From Bobby’s observation, we can theorize that when Ikira said “That’s mine,” something in Bobby provoked him to give the block back. Perhaps there is a social-emotional note here?  Or maybe cognitive?  We’d need some observations to confirm this theory.

Additionally, if we want to answer the other questions – Bobby and Ikira are friends, Ikira’s angry voice, and Bobby scared – then we need to collect more observations.  You may be surprised where the evidence takes you.  You may find that they are friends, but documentation shows that Ikira anger looks different, and Bobby scared is shown differently.

Go where evidence leads you.

Moral of the Story: Preschool teachers need to observe, then analyze those observations to theorize about the child’s development and plan future learning.

It’s easy for teachers to say that a child is this or a child is that.  They may feel that they’ve been around the child so much and they know the child so well that teachers make general statements about the child’s language development, social-emotional development, cognitive development, and physical development.  And all of these statements are made without any documentation, with the teacher’s memory and “gut feeling” serving as the primary evidence.

Think about it.  Would you want your doctor to make “gut feelings” for you? 

That’s why it’s so important that teachers diligently and intentionally take detailed, fact-based observations on their children.  Once they have those observations, analyze those notes.

You know which shapes children can name because you documented the circle time routine.

You know how high they can count because you led a small group activity.

You know who the child’s best friends are because you can refer to the their drawings and meal-time conversations.

Yes, it takes time.  Yes, you don’t have time.  But that shouldn’t stop you from doing the best job you can do.  If those memories and “gut feelings” are true for you, then go in the classroom, get some evidence and back it up.  Observations and deductive reasoning are a preschool teacher’s best friends. It’s elementary.

P.S. If you want a book to learn more about Sherlock Holmes’ techniques, you can also check out these book: