How to Make an Observation


When assessing a child with academic, social, or emotional struggles, it is important to understand How to Make an Observation of the child that is non-biased and lends to the collection of useful data. There are various methods of observation one might employ. Depending on the area of concern and the means by which you are making your observation, the following types of observation should be considered. 


The first type of observation you might attempt is Direct Observation. This is one of the most widely used procedures by psychologists who are performing assessments. Most psychologists will attest to performing 15 direct observations per month. Direct observations can be either Naturalistic or Systemic.

Naturalistic vs. Systematic

Naturalistic Observations are those in which the observer enters situation and observes all that is going on with no predetermined behaviors in mind. This type of observation should be anecdotal in nature. The observer should make a recording of events in the natural environment as they occur using an impartial opinion about what is taking place.


·      Used twice as often as other more systematic approaches

·      Ease in use

·      Minimal training required

·      Interpretation is descriptive of accounts/events


·      Inclination to over interpret the data

·      Danger of making inferences regarding student behavioral patterns from limited sample

·      Behaviors seen often confirm the observers’ original hypotheses

ABC recording (Antecedent Behavior and Consequence) is one type of commonly used naturalistic observation. This type of observation focuses on the recording of incidences that take place before and after certain behaviors in addition to the targeted behaviors themselves. It is important to note the environmental arrangements, and the behaviors or events that occur right before and after the behavior. This type of observation is often used in functional assessment strategy as data collection for testable hypotheses.

Systematic Observations tend to demonstrate five characteristics:

1.     The goal is to observe a specific behavior.

2.     The behavior is operationally defined in a precise manner.

3.     They follow a standardized procedure / are highly objective.

4.     The times and places are selected and specified.

5.     Scoring doesn’t vary from one observer to another.

Systematic Observational Procedures:

•       Behavior is quantified along one or multiple dimensions (for example: the number of times a student gets out of his/her seat during 3 observational sessions of 30 min each).

•       Flexible and tailored to the needs of the assessment.

•       Observations should include accurate descriptions of behavior that clearly define the parameter of their existence and nonexistence.

o   For example: describing a behavior as, “acting crazy,” vs., “running up and down the hallway screaming, the sky is falling 10-12 times a minute.”

Methods of Recording - Collecting Procedures

•       Frequency or event recording - counting the number of times during a specified time period

•       Duration: how long (from beginning to end)

•       Latency: time between the onset of a stimulus and the initiation of a behavior

•       Time sampling interval recording: selecting a period of time for observation and breaking it into small chunks (equal) and recording whether you see the behavior or not. For Example: 30 minute observation = 120 15- second intervals

o   Whole interval recording: behavior is scored as present if it occurs during the entire interval you are selecting, ex: behavior observed 13/15 seconds of interval, does not count b/c did not occur for entire 15 seconds.

o   Partial interval recording: if behavior occurs at any part of the interval

o   Momentary time sampling: if behavior is seen at a designated moment that a timed interval begins

How do we choose a behavior?

•       Need to be socially significant and ecologically valid.

•       Does the behavior increase or decrease benefit the child?

•       Chose to address a behavior based on the following criteria:

1. Alter the behavior that is most irritating to the person who identified it.

2. Select the one that is easy to change.

3. Select the one that will produce beneficial generalization.

4. Select the one that is at the beginning of a response chain (additional behaviors that require amendment can be added on to it).


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