Child Observation : the relationship a four and half years old boy has with his male carer in a nursery school setting

By Moira Strachan

Date Posted: December 15th, 2011

Moira Strachan works with a children’s charity in Africa.



Child Observation : the relationship a four and half years old boy has with his male carer in a nursery school setting


Moira Strachan


From 2001 until 2006 I worked as a residential child care worker and I was fortunate to enough to be released from my work one day a week for a year to receive a training in therapeutic child care. When I think back on that time I am always struck by how much my residential work, and my work since, has been, and is, influenced by the reflection process I began to learn during a twelve week child observation in a pre-schooI setting. I was required to do the observation as a part of my training. When I read this account now 10 years after my child care observation placement I am aware that some of the judgments I made then are now altered by the course of time and some of the interpretations of situations I made then would now be further informed by the insight, as well as the jargon, gained from my subsequent experience and study. Knowing what I know now I might have written of, for instance, attachment theory, of transference,or of male role models. Nonetheless I feel I can rest fairly easily with the younger woman who wrote this essay.


The relationship that a four and a half year has with his male carer in a nursery school setting


Prior to beginning my child observation placement I had given little consideration to how a pre-school child related to adults outside of his or her immediate family. As my recollection of my own experience at that age was vague, I did not think that children formed close relationships with adults other than their parents. It was only while carrying out my observations that I began to notice that a relationship existed and was developing between the child I was observing and his main carer within the nursery school. It very quickly became clear to me that this relationship was important to the child and that during school hours, which accounted for much of his waking day,the child looked to his teacher to provide for his needs. As the observations progressed I was increasingly aware of how the relationship manifested itself and as it was a subject which interested me, looking back I now see that this developing relationship became the main focus of my placement and is the one which has remained influential on all my subsequent work. I decided to make this developing relationship the focus of this essay which is in large part the record of my child observation. Before discussing my findings however, I wll explain the background to my observations and put them in context as well as reflect upon my experience as an observer. The three observations I have chosen to base this essay on were selected on the basis that they documented most considerably the interaction between Alf and his carer. In order to protect their identities the names of all those concerned with the observation have been changed.

I undertook the twelve observations in a nursery school on the outskirts of a large city. The nursery school was a part of a primary school and came under the jurisdiction of the head teacher. The nursery was included in all aspects of the life of the primary school and each morning the nursery children attended assembly. Furthermore, the children were encouraged to wear a basic school unifom, which consisted of a school jumper combined with whatever else they wished, as long as it reflected the school colours as much as possible. The aim of the nursery school was to introduce the children to school life and the majority of the activities that the children undertook were aimed at educating and teaching them the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

The nursery was divided into two classes, with those children were only just four years old in one class and those children who were five or were to be five in the next few months in the other. I undertook my observation in the latter class with the older children. This class consisted of just over twenty children. Most of them were already five years old, however a couple were just four. The class was made up of children from different backgrounds though ta large majority were from a British background. However the social backgrounds of the children were more diverse. Some came from middle-class backgrounds,, some from lower middle-class and working-class backgrounds. Two main staff cared for the children. Mr. Blyth, a qualified teacher was in charge and Miss Wood, a nursery nurse, assisted him.

It was Mr. Blyth and Miss Wood who chose the child that I was to observe. His name was Alf and he was one of the youngest in the class, being four and a half years old. He had previously been in the younger class before joining Mr. Blyth’s class one term earlier. Alf came from a white, lower middle-class background and was the only child living at home. His father was in the building trade and his mother had previously been at employed at the school. Mr. Blyth informed me that the fact that Alf’s mother had previously been involved with the school, was an important consideration in Alf being chosen to be observed, as it was felt she would understand the situation better than other parents.

I undertook my observations at the same time on the same day of the week. Although initially I was anxious and unsure what to expect in my role as an observer, on the whole I enjoyed the experience and found it very interesting. Right from the start the staff were positive in their attitude towards me. They left me very much to my own devices leaving me to follow Alf around, observing him whilst he engaged in different activities within the classroom, as well as observing him during his playtime. At the beginning of my observations both Mr. Blyth and Miss Wood were very discreet and did not draw Alf’s attention to me, however as the weeks passed by, they began to talk to me about Alf while he was in close proximity and I found this left me feeling quite uncomfortable. I was concerned that his behaviour would be affected and as a result I made every effort to refrain from engaging either of Alf’s carers in conversation while he was present.

It took me a lot longer to get used to relating to the children in my role as an observer. Mr. Blyth introduced me to the whole class during my first observation as someone who would be observing their lessons. Most of the children ignored me during the first few weeks. However once they were more used to me being around several of them began to approach me, particularly to ask me to help them. On these occasions I tried to be respond to the children warmly, but I would firmly point them in the direction of the teacher. However I found it very hard not to become involved. After having done five or six observations I had come to know all the children by name and had grown especially fond of Alf. Consequently I found it hard not to intervene in situations observed which involved Alf, particularly when he was upset, hurt or caught up in an unfair situation. At these time I found it near impossible to remain just an observer and I struggled internally to maintain that role.

In spite of the difficulties of being an observer, I found the experience a very informative one. From the outset, considering his gender, I was interested in Mr. Blyth’s role as the main carer in the nursery school. It is less common to see a male in this role and I wondered how Alf would find that situation, knowing that prior to beginning nursery school Alf’s main carer had been a female, his mother. I assumed that Alf would mainly seek out Miss Wood to meet his needs and that his relationship with her would be closer than his relationship with Mr.Blyth. After completing two observations, I realized I was mistaken, as it became obvious that Alf had a closer relationship with Mr. Blyth. This caught my interest and I began to observe Alf’s interaction with Mr. Blyth more closely.

It was clear Mr. Blyth was an important person in Alf’s world for several reasons.

First, Alf often sought Mr. Blyth’s presence. He did this when he appeared unable to cope with thesituation which he faced. Alf’s need to return to Mr. Blyth manifested itself most frequently when Alf was working in a group with other children. (All the children in the class were divided into work groups, in which they undertook different tasks on a rotational basis). Most of the time Alf played happily and interacted easily with his peers and he often took a dominant role within the group. However, on several occasions I observed Alf running to find Mr. Blyth when his authority within the group had been challenged in some way . On one such occasion Alf was sitting around a table with his work group, colouring in some pictures. The children were all talking quite loudly and Alf said “ssshhh” to them. My contemporaneous notes read,

A few minutes later Alf begins to count how many letters he has in his full first name, Alfred. “I’ve got six in my name,“he said. The other children join in counting out loudly. Alf puts his finger to his lip and said, “Ssshhh.” He looked around. There was no response from the other children. He turned to a girl called Mary and said, “You’re shouting and I’m telling.” Alf left the table and ran to Mr. Blyth and told him what happened.


Mr. Blyth’s presence brought control into a situation that Alf felt vulnerable in. Alf’s initial distress was settled immediately by Mr. Blyth’s presence and within seconds Albert returned to his group and related to his peers as the previous few minutes had not occurred. Furthermore, Alf relied on Mr. Blyth to protect him, considering him someone who would listen and advocate on his behalf. This was evident whenever one of Alf’s peers threatened to “tell on him.” Alf’s immediate reaction was to run to Mr. Blyth first and explain his side of the story, as the following example taken from my notes illustrates.


‘Alf takes a triangle and puts cubes around it. He takes quite a lot of cubes from Suzie and puts his arm around them , as if to protect them. Suzie calls Mr. Blyth but Alf jumps up an runs to Mr. Blyth saying, “By accident I took some of Suzies’s cubes and she’s gonna tell.”’


At several points I also observed Alf seeking to be physically close to Mr.Blyth, particularly in those times when he appeared tired or in need of comfort. During my fourth observation I observed Alf rubbing his eyes and yawning frequently. He was quiet and more reserved than usual and I concluded he was tired. It was on this occasion that,


‘Alf rubs his eyes and asks Mr. Blyth if he can sit next to him.’


Second, Alf trusted Mr. Blyth and looked to him to provide for his needs. Alf sought help and assistance from his teacher whenever he was unclear about something or was unsure as to what to do. Following my ninth observation I wrote,


‘Alf asks many questions about the work he is given to do and returns often to Mr.Blyth to show him what he has done and to enquire of him the next step.’


Another example of Alf seeking Mr.Blyth’s assistance was evident in an earlier observation. Alf’s group had been listening to some tapes on headphones in the corner of the room and Mr. Blyth had asked them to clear away. Alf began to pack the equipment away but appeared unsure of himself and called Mr. Blyth.


‘Alf puts the headphones on the shelf and then picks up another pair…. He puts the five tapes back in their boxes….`He calls out, “Mr, Blyth, am I doing the tapes right?” Mr.Blyth replies, “You’re doing alright.” ‘


Third, Alf clearly enjoyed Mr. Blyth’s company and sought to interact with him often, by calling his name and asking him questions. Alf responded well to Mr. Blyth and he smiled and laughed a lot in his presence. Indeed the extent to which Alf enjoyed his interaction with Mr. Blyth was evident by his excitement, particularly when Alf was Mr. Blyth’s sole focus. During my third observation Mr. Blyth was with Alf’s work group, practicing their counting. Mr. Blyth focused his attention on Alf and encouraged him to count to twenty. Alf’s body language revealed him very excited.


‘Albert counts out loud with Mr. Blyth and taps his foot as he counts out the numbers from one to twenty. When it gets to twenty Alf grins and punches the air.’


Fourth, Alf liked Mr. Blyth and there was an obvious fondness between the child and teacher. This manifested itself on several occasions as I observed Alf looking at Mr. Blyth for prolonged periods and also observed him imitating Mr.Blyth.


‘The class gets noisy. Mr.Blyth says, “Ssshhh” and claps his hands loudly and rubs them together. Alf looks at Mr. Blyth and stops talking but begins to clap his hands and rub them together.’


Alf was also eager to help Mr. Blyth and whenever he was with Mr. Blyth he closely observed whatever he did. Alf often commented on what he observed Mr. Blyth doing and if ever Mr. Blyth had a problem Alf was keen to assist him. During my ninth I witnessed an example of this fondness.


‘Mr. Blyth draws on the board. He moves a book and another book falls down. Mr. Blyth looks surprised and Alf calls out, “I didn’t think there was another one there.” Mr Blyth says that he didn’t either and smiles at Alf.


Finally, evidence of the importance of Alf’s relationship with Mr. Blyth was obvious when it was temporarily damaged for some reason. Alf’s behaviour changed and became subdued. Although in the main Alf was a well behaved child, on occasions Mr. Blyth felt the need to speak very firmly to him about his actions. At no time did Mr. Blyth raise his voice but just a quiet word with Alf was enough to reduce him to silence. On two occasions Alf seemed to shrink physically upon being told off. The first occurred after Mr Blyth had to tell Alf off for hitting another boy.


‘In a quiet voice Alf interrupts and says, “He did it first to me. He hurt me.” Alf looks at the floor and then at Mr. Blyth. Mr. Blyth speaks firmly to Alf. Alf puts his hand on his mouth and says nothing.’


On the other occasion Alf reacted similarly when Mr. Blyth spoke to Alf about his behaviour in assembly. I wrote,


‘Alf remains quiet with his finger in his mouth, sucking on it.’


The relationship which existed between Alf and Mr. Blyth was close and was clearly important to Alf. Although I was initially surprised, through observing their interaction I came to recognize how necessary Mr. Blyth’s presence was for Alf in meeting his needs. Albert looked to Mr. Blyth to protect him, engage him and assist him and as a consequence of receiving these from Mr. Blyth, Alf was fond of him and enjoyed being in his company. As an observer I enjoyed seeing this relationship develop over twelve weeks and observing Alf taught me that pre-school children do indeed form important and close relationships with adults other than their parents.