Why you need to use the skill of Observe and Describe
“Stop causing trouble,” wafted over the fence as I was doing yard work last night. For the last twenty minutes, I couldn’t help but overhear the exchange between my neighbor and his toddler son. I could hear the frustration rising in the dad as his son kept getting in his way, until he had finally uttered, “Stop causing trouble.” Unfortunately, the statement didn’t have the intended result as just a few minutes the phrase was uttered again. In that moment, I wanted to yell over the fence, “He’s not being a bad kid on purpose. But, he’s four and he doesn’t understand what causing trouble means. You need to be specific. Tell him instead, ‘Dylan, when you play in the garden, you are stepping on the plants and that can kill them.’”
When a Families First behavior specialist begin working with a family, they always start by teaching what we call core skills: Observe and Describe, Following Instructions, and The ABC’s of Behavior. These are taught first, because they are the foundation for every other skill taught on Smarter Parenting. When you use these core skills in conjunction of the other skills (Decision Making, Preventive Teaching, Correcting Behaviors, and Effective Communication) you increases the effectiveness of all the skills.
What is Observe and Describe?
The premises of Observe and Describe is simple—using specific words, you describe the behavior you see happening. That’s it. Sounds simple enough.
Wait a minute. Just because it sounds simple, it doesn’t mean that it is. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest. Just like how my neighbor thought he was doing a good job giving instructions to his son, many parents think they are doing a good job of observing and describing the behavior when they tell their child, “stop being bad” or “you’re doing a good job.” Like my neighbor’s son who didn’t understand what he was doing to “cause trouble,” our children aren’t going to understand what “being bad” or “good job” actually means.
Children are concrete thinkers meaning they can’t grasp the meaning of vague or abstract words. How many times has your child taken something literally that wasn’t meant to be taken literally? Probably more times than you want to admit.
As a parent one of our jobs is to give our children messages—both negative and positive—that they understand.
The real magic of Observe and Describe is that when you are specific in describing your child’s negative behavior that correction no longer becomes personal and your children don’t feel like they they are being attacked. Your children understand that you aren’t mad at them, but rather at their behavior and why that behavior is disappointing to you. When your child doesn’t feel like they are being attacked, they are more likely to listen and follow your instructions.
Observe and Describe also is effective in pointing out your children’s positive behavior and why you are proud of them. When your children know you are proud of them they will want to repeat that behavior.
What is behavior?
Behavior is what your child does or say. It is anything a they does that can be seen, heard, or measured (how often or how long). Things like, “you rolled your eyes,” you didn’t look up when your friend was talking to you,” or “you told me that you hated me when I asked you to finish your homework” are all examples of behavior.
How to describe behavior
When you’re describing behavior, think of it as taking a picture and then telling your children exactly what you saw being as descriptive as possible. For instance. If you saw your child put down their phone and pretend to do their chores when you walked in, this is how you’d describe their behavior. “When I walked in, you put down your phone and picked up something to put away.”
The more descriptive and specific you can be the more likely your children will understand what you’re saying. In the beginning being super descriptive or specific may feel foreign and unnatural for most of us. That’s normal. It was that way for me. I didn’t think I really needed to use this skill because I thought I was already doing a pretty good job. Then I started using the skill of Observe and Describe and realized I wasn’t as good as describing things as I thought I was. I’m better now—not always perfect, but it’s becoming much more natural.
The skill of Observe and Describe will save you, especially when you’re frustrated. Because you’re taking a “snapshot” and describing the picture, it gives you the ability to pause and take yourself out of the equation and that means you’re not being ruled by your emotions.
You can do it!
Even when it’s hard, keep at it. Eventually you’re going to master it and then you’re going to watch your family blossom and strengthen. Seriously, I can’t say enough good about the changes that will take place in your family when you use Observe and Describe.