Chapter 12: Observation

Activity 1: Structured observations

Watch this video of a structured observation, used for looking at parent/child interaction. Note that the observers have a list of behaviours that they are looking for, which has been decided beforehand. (accessed12-03-2022). Consider another situation that you may be observing: practitioner/child interaction during a nappy changing routine. Draw up an observation sheet similar to the one you have seen in the video, but with the kind of behaviours appropriate to this situation. You may think, for instance, that you would like to record when the child initiates the communication, the number of times the adult responds to the child, etc.

Activity 2: Tronick child observation video

Observations used for research are often recorded so that researchers can take their time over analysing what they have seen. This video is one of the originals from Tronick et al.’s 1975 Still Face experiment. (accessed 12-03-2022)

Tronick, E., Adamson, L.B., Als, H. and Brazelton, T.B. (1975, April) ‘Infant emotions in normal and pertubated interactions’. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.

Activity 3

Sage research methods content

Read this article and then answer the following questions:

Carnevale, A., Macdonald, M., Bluebond-Langner, M. and McKeever, P. (2008) ‘Using participant observation in pediatric health care settings: ethical challenges and solutions’, Journal of Child Health Care, 12(1): 18–32.

This UK-based study discusses the ethical issues involved in the use of participant observation in paediatric health care settings, which are very similar to the issues faced when early childhood practitioners undertake observations for research purposes in early years’ settings.

In Chapter 12 of the book there is a discussion about participant and non-participant observation. The ethics of complete participation, which involves the researcher being a full member of the group and not disclosing that they are conducting observations, have been debated and we strongly advise students not to involve themselves in this type of study. However, many of you will be undertaking observational research in the setting in which you are employed (participant as observer) or where you attend for the purposes of your observational research (observer as participant).

  • Consider the ethical issues in relation to participant observation.
  • What do the authors consider to be the advantages of observational methods of collecting data with children, compared with interviews or focus groups?
  • Why do they consider that observations of children can be more ‘status levelling’ than interviews?
  • The authors advocate a ‘participative role’ rather than a passive role for children who are being observed. What is your understanding of this?
  • What are the ethical challenges outlined in the article and how can they be overcome?
  • There is a discussion about obtaining the assent of children. What does this mean? If a child objects to being involved in the research but the parent consents, what course of action should be taken?

Read this article:

Seland, M., Beate, E., Sandseter, H. and Bratterud, A. (2015) ‘One- to three-year-old children’s experience of subjective wellbeing in day care’, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 16(1): 70–83.

In Chapter 12 we looked at the Leuven Scale for well-being and involvement which is a structured observational method. In this article, from Norway, a very different observational approach is used.

The authors wanted to look at subjective well-being from children’s perspectives. However, the children in this study are very young (1–3 years) and the usual methods employed for older children (letting the children tell their story through talking, drawing, using a camera, etc.) are not appropriate. An observational technique based on the Infant Observation method developed by the Tavistock Centre in London was used. In the study the children were observed for 30-minute periods. The observers only wrote up the notes after the observation was completed. They recorded not only what the child did, the child’s interactions and emotions, but also the emotions felt by the observer at the time. The method requires the observers to be trained in using this reflexive approach. The findings suggest that infants experienced their most positive states of well-being when they were interacting with other children and adults and when they were deeply engrossed in play on their own.