By Marie Tree
Date Posted: December 15th
This article was written by Marie Tree in 2010 as a record of her child observation assignment for her post-qualifying Specialist Social Work Award course at Portsmouth University. When submitting it article Marie wrote remarked that when completing this assignment she was taken “back to my early days in the 1990’s when I did have what now seems the luxury of reflecting on my practice.”
A Child Observation Assignment
by Marie Tree
“In childhood, everything was more vivid – the sun brighter, the smell of fields sharper, the thunder louder, the rain more abundant and the grass taller”.
The context for my observation was a local authority Children’s Centre which provides Ofsted registered care for babies and children between 0 months and 5 years. The Children’s Centre has been classed as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted since June 2006 and has been working with children with additional needs since the 1970’s.
The setting was a group of 12 children of mixed sexes, all of mixed abilities such as physical and learning difficulties. The group was well staffed (by women) with some children having one to one support. The setting is headed by a teacher and the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum guides the work, and the children learn through play.
The observations were based upon the Tavistock model (Bick 1964) and my remit was to observe a child for 1×4 hours and record my observations after the sessions. I also included my reflections, dilemmas and prejudices with my seminar group.
The staff at the Children’s Centre were aware of my role, and the purpose of my observations. A 2½ year old little girl was selected and I shall call her Anna (pseudonym). I had no contact with Anna’s parents, although the Children’s Centre informed them of my remit and they gave their written consent.
The first session took place after lunch and I placed myself at the back of the room, discreetly tucked into a corner hoping that my presence would not be noticed. How wrong I was!
The room was filled with an array of spontaneous discoveries, books, toys, computers, sand, paint and dressing up clothes and the clutter of noise and emotions reminded me of my own home where I have three young children, where exploring the world extends their nascent theories as to how the world works.
Initially, I found it very difficult to sit and focus on Anna solely, as I was used to talking and making eye contact with children, and not being able to engage or speak was difficult. For the first session, I watched Anna intently and I had to clear my head of any judgments of her which were purely based on bits of information I had picked up from staff. I had based assumptions of Anna’s background and life, which were purely speculative and ill informed.
It was this reflection that helped me focus between fact and feeling and challenging myself on how the information I had been given about Anna had given considerable weight in how I thought she might play and socialize with other children. I needed to separate these two contradictory parts (Goldstein, 1990).
I watched Anna carefully glide from one activity to the next, first playing with the sand letting it quickly sift through her fingers and making shapes and marks with the palms of her hands. She slowly toddled off when a young boy, eager to play more adventurously nudged her out of the way.
Watching Anna play, I did think of her goals and what she was trying to create through her thought and actions, and I did think of Piaget’s (1973) theory on children’s cognitive development. Again, I had to challenge my assumptions on stages of Piaget’s theory as they are not fixed and concrete in any child.
On several occasions, children came up to me bringing toys, books and requests to go to the toilet, and at one point, a young child stood in front of me for what seemed like a very long time. I replied only briefly to the children and avoided eye contact when possible.
My desire to become involved with the children was very strong, and it was difficult to refuse a simple request from a small child. However, remaining in a passive role allowed me to stand back and slow down and examine in detail the relationship with the child. (Bridge et al, 1996, p.113).
The method of sitting observing Anna was at times alien to me and having no prescriptive focus other than observe made me feel vulnerable. It felt like the anxieties that Segal (2003) identified in his work as ‘professionals giving up control and being open to what is emerging’. (Segal, 2003, p.16).
How I managed my feelings around observing Anna also reminded me of the work by Isabel Menzies Lyth (1989) who wrote about anxiety and how its experience, expression and sublimations are a major factor in determining personal and institutional behaviour.
I often refer to the work of Isabel Menzies Lyth when I am faced with uncertainties, and it is my acknowledgment and containment of these feelings that will impact on the overall work that I do with children and their families. In the room with Anna, I had to contain my feelings around the observation.
Anna continued throughout my observation to drift from one activity to the next. At one point, I observed her clasp the hand of a worker and pull her gently towards the book corner. The worker gently tapped the hand of Anna, letting her know she was aware of the request.
At that moment, I thought of how unique and complex children are as they do not have the language to explain how they think and explore the world that surrounds them. By slowing down and observing them, we have the advantage and a willingness to speculate. Ending the hour observation was less problematic than I thought and I quietly put my coat on and said goodbye with a few children holding gaze with me as I left the room.
In the next session with Anna, I felt more relaxed and in tune with what I was trying to do. It was much more comfortable not having to put any kind of theory into practice. I had the added luxury of not having paper and pens or an assessment to complete. It was a time to observe Anna and explore my own feelings.
Anna made eye contact with me on a few occasions and I would not be convinced that she knew that I was watching her; however, that is purely my interpretation. In this session, Anna lay dozing on and off on a bean bag, and although she already had had a nap earlier, she seemed somewhat tired and lethargic that day.
Beside Anna, on a separate beanbag, lay a child with cerebral palsy, and at that moment, I felt a gush of emotion run through me, and I was reminded of my own child with learning and mobility problems. Two children, side by side, one able bodied and the other, confined to a soft cushion. Rustin (2004) identifies this problem well and suggests that recognizing feelings and working with this is very important in the work that we do. I am aware as a practitioner, that we risk professional dangerousness if our roles and boundaries are not clearly defined. Our relationships with clients need to be based on objectivity and self awareness. This allows us to step outside our emotional needs and to be sensitive to the needs of others. (HMSO, 1988: Protecting Children). I believe for any effective intervention, the worker must remain quite distinct and separate, whole and intact.
It was good to be able to discuss my feelings with my seminar group and it is Erikson (1950) who talks about basic trust as the first stage of the eight stages of man. I believe that talking about observations was now similar to that described by Winnicott (1965) as holding and Bion (1962) as containing, and what emerged from the seminar group was a secure base where thoughts and feelings could be openly discussed amongst ourselves, and it was the first time that as a seminar group, that we spoke freely and openly about experiences during observations.
The remaining sessions observing Anna became enjoyable and watching her play was fascinating as her tiny hands grasped and touched the toys and objects around her. By observing her, I was to enter her world of self wonderment and capture moments by focusing solely on her.
I am aware of the importance of endings and although I had clearly given my remit to the staff, I said goodbye to the children and thanked them for allowing me to sit in their class. I think that they were more interested in circle time and the nursery rhymes to notice my quiet departure from the room.
Observing Anna had brought back the sense of refocusing on the child and their world. Being able to discuss feelings within the seminar group helped to contain hidden ideologies and prejudices within myself. Humphries (1988) puts this very well by describing ‘perspective transformation’ in which we can reflect and challenge our belief system, and through this, transformation occurs.
Having no social work task to do was a luxury. To sit and observe was a chance to explore the children’s lack of power, vulnerability and dependence on adults. So much of social work time is spent on the speed of completing assessments, ticking boxes, and only the neediest of children receive a service. In my view, much is lost to the benefits of observing children. Too often, only a snapshot of a child is all that a social worker can grasp when working with children and much is lost by not having a space for reflective and analytical practice which gives the worker a platform to critically evaluate and challenge their work.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of observing Anna, and my own criticism is not having more time spent on reflection with the seminar group.
Bick, Ester (1964) ‘Notes on Infant Observation in Psychoanalytic Training’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Bion, W (1962) Learning from Experience. Heinemann. London.
Bridge, G & Miles, G (eds) (1996) @On the Outside Looking in: Collected Essays on Young Child Observations’ in Social Work Training CCETSW.
Erikson, E (1950) Childhood and Society. New York Norton.
Goldstein, H (1990) ‘The Knowledge Base of Social Work Practice: Theory, Wisdom, Analogue or Art? Families in Society’: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, January, pp.32-43.
HMSO (1988) Protecting Children – A Guide for Social Workers. Undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment HMSO.
Humphries B (1988) ‘Adult Learning in Social Work Education: Towards Liberation of Domestication’ : Journal of Critical Social Policy, September, 8, 4-21
Menzies, Lyth, I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions. Selected Essays, Volume One, London : Free Association Books.
Piaget, J (1972) To Understand is to Invent New York : The Viking Press Inc.
Rustin M (2004) ‘Learning from the Victoria Climbie Enquiry’ : Journal of Social Work Practice. 18 (1): 9-18
Winnicott, D (1965) The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment London : Hogarth
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