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How to use the steps of Observe and Describe

How to use the steps of Observe and Describe

If you’re like me, you have often found yourself seeking out parenting articles on the internet. Maybe you feel overwhelmed, like you’ve tried everything, or perhaps you are already a champion parent and simply want to add to what you are doing well in the effort to shape your children’s behaviors. Whatever your reason for reading this particular article, Observe and Describe is a great, simple way to take that first step into the proven Teaching-Family Model. It’s easy to remember and apply, and the components are building blocks for the other parenting tips you’ll learn at Smarter Parenting.


The Steps of Observe and Describe are:

1. Observe the behavior

Behavior is what people do or say—anything a person does that can be seen, heard, or measured. When observing your children, it is important to practice specific and neutral observation. What specific behaviors is your child expressing and could you describe them clearly (you’ll need to do this in step 3)?

2. Get your child’s attention

Do this calmly so as to start the interaction in a positive way. When getting your child’s attention it is also helpful to include praise or empathy. Praise and/or empathy should be included in every teaching interaction with your child. For example, praise would be something like “Great job Henry!”. An empathetic statement could be, “I understand it is hard to stay calm when other people take your toys.” These type of statements are helpful for both you and your child. It encourages your child to listen to what else you want to say. Children often put up walls when you start by telling them what they are doing wrong. Empathy helps you see their perspective in the situation, dispelling any negative emotion you may feel, and allows you to be more calm before moving on to the next step.

3. Describe what you see

Once you have the child’s attention you can describe what you observed, making sure to use “specific language.” Children need clear indication of what not to do as well as what they are doing well so they know what to repeat in the future. This leads to the difference between specific language and vague language. It is easy to turn to those common vague phrases, such as, “Why can’t you act your age?” or “You are such a good girl,” that don’t allow our children to grasp the full meaning of our words. This also includes avoiding labels such as, “You are a spoiled brat.” Although our children can generally understand if we are pleased or not pleased with their current behavior based on our words, tone of voice, and body language, they will not know how to adapt to the socially acceptable behavior if we don’t state them in behavioral terms. Here are some examples of phrases and whether they are specific or vague.

Demonstrating what they did or how they talked is also a great way to provide a clear message, as long as it is done calmly and not sarcastically or in a mocking manner.

Here are a few examples using all the steps together:

Example A

Step 1: After asking John to clean his room he starts to complain in a high voice and stomps out of the room.

Step 2: John, I understand that you don’t like doing chores.

Step 3: However, when I asked you to clean your room you started whining and stomped out of the room.

Example B

Step 1: You notice your daughter sharing her toys while a friend is over to play.

Step 2: Maddie, I am so proud of you!

Step 3: When Suzy came over to play you shared your toys and didn’t argue. Thank you!

Example C

Step 1: You notice Sharon pick up her basketball and head towards the front door.

Step 2: Sharon, I know that you want to go play basketball with your friends.

Step 3: But, right now you are leaving the house without finishing your homework.

If the behavior is inappropriate, you can go one step further and describe the appropriate behavior. If we only tell a child what they are doing wrong then they will not know what to do differently the next time. It is easy to get frustrated when a child demonstrates a negative behavior over and over again, but sometimes they do this because they don’t know what positive behavior to replace it with. Helping them understand what you want them to do clarifies your expectations and provides prompting the next time there is a similar situation.

Here are the examples from above adding what they should do instead.

Example A

John, I understand that you don’t like doing chores. However, when I asked you to start cleaning your room you started whining and stomped out of the room.

(Optional) When I ask you to do a chore you need to take a breath if you become frustrated, say “Okay”, and complete the chore.

Example C

Sharon, I know that you want to go play basketball with your friends, but right now you are leaving the house without finishing your homework.

(Optional) What you need to do is finish your homework then ask if it is ok to go play with your friends.

Although the steps are simple, it does take practice to feel comfortable using the skill in the moment. However, as you implement Observe and Describe you’ll develop a greater ability to stay calm during negative behaviors and see an increase in the frequency of the positive behaviors you have described to your children.