Montessori Basics Principle #5 – Following the Child Through Observation

Following the Child Through Observation

Observation is a scientific study of something. Scientists observe to gather and record data in order to develop and test hypotheses and theories. Observations can and are made for many different reasons. Observation in the Montessori classroom is a tool that is used by the adult to gather information about the environment, such as a child’s behavior, learning styles and even about oneself. By observing children, we can learn to follow their lead.

Maria Montessori knew the great value in observations and recorded her observations of the children at her school regularly. She approached a child’s learning very scientifically which has proven to be one of the most valuable tools any parent or teacher could use when raising children through their developmental years. When we spend time observing and reflecting, we begin to see things through a child’s eyes and look at how we can support and honor them.

“The vision of the teacher should be at once precise like that of the scientist, and spiritual like that of the saint. The preparation for science and the preparation for sanctity should form a new soul, for the attitude of the teacher should be at once positive, scientific and spiritual.

Positive and scientific, because she has an exact task to perform, and it is necessary that she should put herself into immediate relation with the truth by means of rigorous observation…

Spiritual, because it is to man that his powers of observation are to be applied, and because the characteristics of the creature who is to be his particular subject of observation are spiritual.” -Maria Montessori

As the Owner/Head of School and Guide of a Montessori school in California for the past 25 years, I have used observation not just with our students but with our staff, as well.  It is my job to make assessments especially during training periods so I can see what other training might be needed or how to effectively help a teacher or assistant move forward in their professional growth and development. This same skill is of great importance with children whether in a classroom or home setting.

Over the years I have been asked many times about what to do regarding a child’s behavior, how to move forward with a child as they are developing different skills, and how to meet certain needs in a child who is struggling.  My answer has always been, “Let’s observe!” I feel that observation is the key! Before knowing what direction to move next or what guidance  I should give to parents or teachers I know I have to observe.

It’s easy to say, “Observe,” but it’s a little more difficult to understand how to observe and then interpret what you are observing and why it is important. Let’s discuss a bit about the why, what and how. Maybe it will bring some clarification.

Why Observe?

Follow the Child

As we watch and see where a child is going or what he/she is doing, we can learn more about their interests and current abilities. As we get to know them in every sense, we are better equipped to help guide them to meeting their needs

Watch for Sensitive Periods

“Through her years of study and observation, Maria Montessori discovered what she called ‘sensitive periods.’ Sensitive periods are developmental windows of opportunity during which the child can learn specific concepts more easily and naturally than at any other time in their lives. A child in the midst of a sensitive period will show an especially strong interest or inclination toward certain activities or lessons.” – Age of Montessori

To See the Need for Grace and Courtesy Lessons

As we watch children in action, we can see not only what they are doing but also what they are not doing. Based on the sensitive periods, we can plan appropriate lessons for our students and children. As well as what Grace and Courtesy activity or lesson to introduce. 

Once we had a student at our school, who was about 2 years old and was still mastering his language and communication skills. Each morning, he would throw a block or toy at an approaching child when they would enter the class. Of course we intervened because this child was being unsafe with the materials.  Most people would think the best way to change this behavior would be to tell the child throwing the blocks “No”.  But because in a situation like this, we want to ensure that both children feel safe, we tell the child who is throwing materials something like, “let’s be soft and sweet to our friends” or “the block is for building” or even, “the block stays on the floor.” as well as comforting the child who may have been hurt.  

I was curious about why the child was throwing blocks, so I decided to observe. In preparation, I did station a teacher near the arriving children and made sure that the materials the “block throwing” child was working with were lighter and softer in order to protect the innocent of course. :) Then I watched quietly as this little boy started his throwing behavior again. Interestingly enough, once all of the students had arrived, the block/toy throwing stopped. This made me curious. I watched the child’s body language and behavior.  He was always smiling and would run up to the other child as soon as he threw the block at them and would kind of dance around the child coming into the classroom.  Based on my observations, I was able to determine that the block throwing child was just greeting and saying hello or welcome to the other children. Although it’s a funny way to say “Hi,” it was the best he had without full verbal skills. To help correct the situation, I knew that a few grace and courtesy lessons were needed. Once these lessons were given both in a group and  individually to the child who had been throwing blocks during a neutral time, he began to greet his classmates differently, much to their relief I’m sure. :)


To Give Direction in Preparing the Environment

One of the most important roles of a Montessori guide is to prepare the environment for their children or students. It is important that the Montessori home and school environment allows children to find what they need, feel inspired to work, foster independence and allow for movement with grace and ease.

During an observation of a prepared environment, you can pay attention to and take note of things that might hinder a child’s learning or disrupt the flow of self learning.  

Is the furniture arranged so that it is easy to move from activity to activity? Are things placed where they are easy for a child to reach? Are there enough work mats and work rugs? Do the prepared works have all the necessary components? 

Everything in a Montessori environment is placed with a specific purpose in mind. If it doesn’t seem to be serving its purpose, it will need to be removed and maybe reworked or reintroduced at a later date. Or maybe you will find that it isn’t necessary and remove it altogether.

To Document the Natural Development of the Child

Assessment of skills – The word assess is derived from the Latin form to sit beside. A basic fundamental element of Montessori is to let the child lead and the teacher stay back and guide. The guide will essentially ‘sit beside’ or assess the child to better understand their needs. Therefore, the guide can use their notes to further prepare the child’s learning environment based on their needs. Montessori schools do not determine mastery with the use of tests, but rather by utilizing observation. Instead of giving children a piece of paper with questions on it, we watch them in action.

When a child is able to independently place number tiles in random order on a hundred board, we know they have grasped the concept of ordering those numbers.  A child who is able to complete complex patterns within the shape they traced using a metal inset, and who also frequently uses the sandpaper letters correctly is likely ready to learn the written formation of letters using a pencil on a piece of paper.  This assessment, of course, ties back into planning appropriate lessons, as the guide has concrete information to inform their instruction.

To Gain Insight into Yourself as a Guide and Facilitator in Your Child’s Learning

Sometimes, without knowing, as adults we are a hindrance to our child’s learning and their natural progression. This can happen for a variety of reasons. It happens when we step in to help too often or begin to help without asking our child if they want help. Maybe we are too permissive and allow our child to do whatever he wants instead of creating solid boundaries.  

We have to observe not only how we respond to our students and children but why we do so in certain ways. Do our children do things that trigger us? What are they? And Why? Are we trying to control the situation? Trying to keep things from getting messy or spilling? Too tired to intervene at all? Do we get upset when our child says, “No!” How do we handle this? And why? 

All of these are important questions to ask ourselves and important observations to make about ourselves. More than likely, you will begin to realize that the behavior a child is exhibiting that is upsetting to you is more about you than them. When we follow a pattern of positive disciplining and honor the needs of the child in an environment that sets them up for success, we learn to let go of some of the tendencies we have that cause power struggles, hurt feelings and even defeat.  This is actually a huge subject and we will be talking in great length about this in our next principle but for now, just begin to pay attention to how you react and respond to your child and possible reasons why. :)

What to Observe

There are so many things that you can observe and honestly, nothing is off limits. However, in case you need ideas of where to start, here is a great basic list of important things that you can begin to look for during your observation journey.  We have also included a more detailed graphic below. You can print it for free on our website here.

  • Communication/Language Skills
  • Cognitive development/Interests/Work Cycle
  • Emotional development
  • Social development/Play
  • Fine motor skills                  
  • Gross motor skills/Movement                                 
  • Independence                 
  • Sleep Patterns                      
  • Eating Patterns              
  • Clothing                                                                                          
  • Self Observation

How to Observe

There are two kinds of observations; formal and informal

1. Formal Observations – In a classroom setting, we like to observe daily allowing for 10-15 minute intervals of uninterrupted observation notes several times a day.  We usually keep a notebook or a binder or even an observation page on a clipboard for our daily notations.We encourage the students to go to other adults in the room for help if needed so that we can focus on just watching our students for a period of time to gain insight into behaviors, needs and development. 

In home environments it may be a little more challenging especially if there isn’t another adult at home, but we encourage you to steal away a few minutes here and there to just write what you see.

2. Informal observations – These notations are made quickly and without writing them down necessarily. They are more like mental notes you would make to yourself to remember. Maybe as your child is cleaning up an activity, you note that there isn’t material to replenish that activity so you will need to prepare that later. Or maybe you note that a puzzle piece is missing from a work or the pouring material your child is using needs to be replaced, etc.  If you have time to jot down a quick note for later you can, but we all make several informal observations each day in many different situations that we remember to come back to. So, take those mental notes!

In order to help you get started along your observation journey, we have created an observation page that we use in our homes and invite you to download it here. Print off several of these and put them on a clipboard. On an observation day:

1.Date and highlight an area that you are going to focus on that day.

2. Write down under “What I See” exactly what you see happening.  Remember no judgement or agenda just the action.

3. Once you have gathered enough data and feel like you are beginning to see a pattern or learned something important about your child, his needs or his environment, write it down under “What I Learned.”

4. From here you can decide what you are going to do to help change, correct or help the situation so that your child continues to be in a safe learning environment that is best suited for his continued growth and development.

As a recap, here are a few things to keep in mind while you observe:

  • Have a notebook ready or a clipboard so that you’re are prepared when an opportunity for formal observation arises
  • No matter how much you want to, don’t talk to the child or interact or interfere with what they are doing (unless it is unsafe of course)
  • Refrain from any kind of judgement. Only write down what you see. Ie: “Crew hung up his jacket.” instead of “Because Crew was cold, he took off his jacket.” Just state the facts, not your interpretations of what is happening.  There will be a time for that later.
  • Sometimes just observe without goals.  Instead of looking for a particular thing to observe just watch to see what your child shows you in that moment.
  • Observe the environment and how it is serving the child.
  • Observe yourself. Are you neutral? How are you reacting? How are you influencing your child’s outcomes?

We hope that we have been able to paint a picture of the value in observing and that you will try using observation as a tool in your home Montessori environments! We would love to know how it goes!



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