— Podcast

#47: Mastering Observe and Describe


Subscribe to the Podcast


Apple Podcasts

Google Podcasts





Subscribe:       iTunes        Stitcher        Spotify        Google Play



The ability to observe and describe behavior is a foundational skill used in every lesson taught through Smarter Parenting, and therefore an essential one to master. 

Observe and Describe is exactly what it sounds like. You observe what is happening, and then you describe what you see. Describing behavior can be used for both positive and negative situations.

Using descriptive words (instead of being vague or labeling) is helpful since it keeps the focus on the behavior. This removes the emotion that often comes with negative behavior, it allows for more clear communication, and it helps keep the situation from escalating.

Children with ADHD especially have a hard time connecting their behavior with what is happening. Using Observe and Describe helps them connect their behavior to what you want or don’t want.

Explaining behavior without emotion gives parents options for how to respond. It’s hard for children to argue with what is happening when parents describe what they witnessed.

Parents that master Observe and Describe find that their relationships improve and feelings of frustration and helplessness decrease. We can’t stress enough how important it is to master Observe and Describe.

To learn more about Observe and Describe visit: https://www.smarterparenting.com/skills/observe-and-describe/

For full show notes and transcript visit: https://www.smarterparenting.com/adhd-parenting-podcast/

Episode Transcript

This is episode 47. Let’s get started.

Smarter Parenting welcomes you to our podcast series, The Parenting Coach for ADHD. Here to heal and elevate lives is your Parenting Coach, Siope Kinikini.

Hello everybody. How are you my friends? Today is another beautiful day and I am super excited to talk to you about a skill that is found in the Teaching-Family Model called Observe and Describe. Now Observe and Describe is something that I have mentioned in the past, but we actually now are going to get in-depth to what it is, why it’s so important and why you as a parent need to implement this because this is a skill that is pretty foundational. I mean, a lot of the other skills that we use in Smarter Parenting use Observe and Describe or at least elements of Observe and Describe. I do want to clarify one thing as we get started and that’s that we use the skills that are found in the Teaching-Family Model. So the Teaching-Family Model has been around for decades and has been used by professionals and by parents to help shape the behavior of children while increasing strong relationships and helping children make better choices.

This isn’t anything that I’ve created. It’s not anything that has been created just in the past year or so. It’s not a whimsical thing. This thing has been around for a long time. The Teaching-Family Model has been here for a long time and it’s been tried and tested in various populations, group homes, residential settings. It’s been done in foster homes, in home-based placement where a social worker will come and work with a family. So these are all skills that parents can use. And now we here at Smarter Parenting are providing the skills of the Teaching-Family Model to you.

So this is actually a wonderful thing and I do have to give a shout out for the people who make this possible. Smarter Parenting exists because of generous donations and also from the support of the Utah Youth Village. So Smarter Parenting is a division of the Utah Youth Village. I just want to give a shout out to them and say thank you so much that we can do this, present this podcast and create a website where parents can go and grab these skills that have been used for decades to help families and children improve. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

And for you as a parent, let’s get down to it. Let’s talk. Let’s really, really talk about Observe and Describe. As I had mentioned before, Observe and Describe is a skill that parents learn how to do. And it’s one of those initial skills that parents learn early on and while they’re learning all the other skills, because you will use elements of Observe and Describe throughout the different skills that you will be learning that are available in the Teaching-Family Model. So it’s important to get this down and to really understand it.

I’m going to first define what it is and how you do it, but then let me explain to you why it’s important to to use this skill and then I will give you some examples of families that I’ve worked with, where we have used Observe and Describe, which has been super helpful. I’m going to actually use some examples of parents that I’m currently coaching right now. What I find fascinating, in the last couple of weeks I have been coaching parents and so if you had reached out to be coached, thank you so much.

If you want to be coached for 15 minutes initially for free, contact us. You can jump over to the Smarter Parenting website to do that. I will communicate with you and we can talk about what’s going on and I’ll give you some skills that you can implement to try and help with you and your child in your specific situation. So thank you, everybody, who’s reached out. I’ve actually learned a ton, but now I’m presenting this podcast so I can explain a little bit more in-depth about Observe and Describe because this is one of those skills that I come back to and I’m actually working with with multiple people that I’m coaching right now. Pay really close attention.

First, I’m going to describe how you do it. Observe and Describe is basically what it says. You’re going to observe a behavior and then you’re going to describe it. It sounds simple, right? For example, if you have a child who is arguing with a sibling and they pick up a Lego and they throw at the sibling because they’re upset, what you’re going to do as a parent is you are going to observe the behavior, you observe what happened, and then you’re going to describe what happened. You see it, you’re like, “Okay, you picked up a Lego…” You as in the name of the child. We’ll call him Scott. “Scott, you picked up a Lego and you throw it at your sister.” Observing and describing something that a lot of parents do all ready. However, this is actually making you more aware and more specific in being able to do both elements of those.

Now, let me explain to you why this is important and there are multiple reasons, but I’m going to give you some of the most important reasons of why this skill is so essential to learn. The difficulty that a lot of parents have and in the parents that have called in for coaching is that when a behavior happens, there is an emotional response that parents go through as well. So when they see the child, Scott pick up a Lego and throw it at their sibling, parents tend to get upset and their emotions tend to become elevated to the point where they may be angry or yelling or screaming because they’re just frustrated.

Observe and Describe, if you are cognizant that that’s what you’re going to do first when you’re addressing a behavior, it actually tells you to calm down emotionally because you’re just going to Observe and Describe first. You’re going to observe, describe, observe, describe. You’re not going to throw in your emotions or your judgements or anything else that may blur up what is happening there. So this skill allows you to observe it, step out of it, and describe it very specifically. And that is an exercise that parents need to learn how to do. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in working with parents for over a decade and plus years, is that when parents are able to remove their emotional response from behaviors, they actually gain a lot more power because they have a lot more resources to work with. When you become just too emotional when a misbehavior happens, you actually limit your ability to interact with the child. It usually looks like screaming or yelling or getting upset, but those are the only three tools when you let the emotions overcome you or break you down. You know, one of those.

When you are calm and you can remove that emotion by just observing and describing the behavior first, what you’re doing is you’re saying, “I’m going to to take a breath, we’re going to focus on this behavior and I’m going to put my emotions at bay so I have a lot more ability to deal with what’s happening and I can really think clearly about things.” So that’s one of the reasons why this skill is so essential for parents to learn and to use consistently over and over whenever they see a behavior.

Now, it doesn’t have to be for a negative behavior, it can be for a positive behavior. So you could see your child actually sharing a cupcake with their brother, and we’ll use Scott as an example again. So you can say, “Oh Scott, I saw that you broke off half the cupcake and you gave it to your brother Michael. Good job.” You can do it for either or. And in fact, I encourage all parents to do this. You can do this all the time. Now, remember, you’re removing the emotion by being able to do this and being aware that this is what you’re going to do when you start to notice behaviors. Do it for both positive and for negative behaviors that you observe.

Now, another reason that this skill is so, so essential for parents to learn is because it actually helps the child focus in on what it is that needs to be corrected. Let me repeat that just so you understand. When you use Observe and Describe, you are actually helping your child focus in on what it is they did wrong or what they did right.

Let me give you an example. I was working with a family and I’ve worked with a lot of families. And this is a typical thing that happens, but in this particular family, whenever the child misbehaved, the mother would always ask questions. So she would be… We’ll take Scott throwing the Lego again. “Scott, what did you just do? How many times have I told you not to do that? Why did you throw the Lego?” So she’s asking Scott questions and questions can vary in answers. I mean, think about it. You’re actually asking this child and the questions that commonly parents ask are these vague questions like how many times did I tell you not to do that? What did you just do? I mean, they’re just super vague for a child who if a child is misbehaving, they need to be told exactly what it is that’s happening in order to make the correction and to understand what we’re focusing and talking about.

When you use Observe and Describe what you’re doing is you are just making everything focused in on the behavior. Everything’s focused in on there. There is no question about what we’re talking about because the child doesn’t have an opportunity to respond. And in fact, with the family that I was working with, the mom would ask these questions and this kid was just so used to the questions that he would just respond with, “I don’t know.” So it was actually kind of sad because mom was like, “What did you just do? ‘I don’t know.’ How many times did I tell you not to do that? ‘I don’t know.'” I mean, that’s not an engaging way to address the behavior.

Now does he know? Probably. Does he care? Probably not. But by focusing in on the behavior by the parent describing that, super, super helpful. And this actually leads into helping parents understand that sometimes children when they’re upset or frustrated, they will misbehave but they won’t be aware of exactly what they’re doing. They just may feel an emotion, a strong emotion like anger and then go into autopilot.

I worked with a family where there was a young boy who would just get so upset. He would punch holes in the wall and then when he calmed down you’d ask him, “Oh, you punch holes in the wall.” And he would be like, “Wait, what? Huh? What?” When you use Observe and Describe, you are actually helping your child understand specifically what they are doing in the moment that they’re doing it. So Observe and Describe, super, super powerful. Those are some of the reasons why I use Observe and Describe and why I recommend it for parents. But for those who I’m coaching right now and for future families that I’m coaching, learn this skill. Learn to separate your emotional response by using this skill.

Now there are a lot of techniques that you can use to do that. I use the example of taking a picture and then describing what you see in the picture. That has been super helpful for a lot of families. For some parents, it’s pretend like you’re standing on a corner and you’re watching something happen outside of you, or pretend like you’re sitting in a movie theater and you’re watching a screen of the behavior happen and then you can just turn to your friend and describe what’s happening. If you can do those things, then you can Observe and Describe, but those are ways to kind of remove you from the behavior and from your own emotional response to address what needs to be addressed. So Observe and Describe. Always start with that.

You’re going to find that by learning Observe and Describe, you’re going to start to use that in various skills that are found in the Teaching-Family Model. When you give your child an instruction, for example, and they say, no, you’re going to Observe and Describe that because it’s a misbehavior. So you’re going to be like, “Go to bed. ‘No.’ Okay, what you’re doing now is you’re telling me no.” And then you start to make the correction. It kind of is this connecting piece to different skills that you can use on the Smarter Parenting website. And I will go through and explain how to connect some of these and how to make them work, but Observe and Describe can be used in any of those.

One of the more interesting things that I found in working with a family, there was a mother who had a son that misbehaved quite a bit, and I know I’m talking all about boys, but believe me, there are a lot of girls that misbehave too. So the boy misbehaved and one of the issues that the mom had was he would misbehave and she would not know what to say or how to respond to it. And I find that that’s actually pretty common. Sometimes a child will misbehave and parents are, they’re speechless because they’re just like, “I have no idea how to respond.” You can always fall back on Observe and Describe. You can always fall back on it and you can always use it. You can wherever you are.

Say you’re shopping with your child and your child is complaining a lot. So you would Observe and Describe that. You say, “Okay, what you’re doing right now is you are complaining.” And then you can give them instruction of what they need to do. What you need to do is boom, boom, boom. So it’s connecting piece. It’s observing something without becoming emotionally pulled into the drama because let’s face it, kids are drama in many ways and we don’t want to be sucked into their drama. Having our own drama, we want to be able to be the stable ones that can deal with it without having to delve in too much emotion because we need to make the correction and we need to teach Observe and Describe.

You’re going to find this skill is available in a video format on the Smarter Parenting website. It’s actually there listed as Observe and Describe. In the video, you will meet a parent who actually shares his experience with Observe and Describe and also he gives examples of how you can do it with younger children and with older children. This is in a video format so you can actually watch it, which is super, super helpful for you to be able to really integrate how to do this and how to really get into it. You can get some examples on how you could use it as well. So on the Smarter Parenting website, you can find a video that has this whole skill available, which is called Observe and Describe. It’ll be super, super helpful.

Now in Observing and Describing, we’ve been talking a lot about using it with children, but I do want to stress how important it can be for you just to master it to use in your every day life with different people. Even adults, I find myself using Observe and Describe. When somebody comes to me and says, “Hey, you know…” And they’re telling me something, but their behavior is not that, then I can do Observe and Describe. That’s what I usually do. I had a friend come up to me and he’s like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “How are you?” And he’s like, “Oh, I’m doing great.” So I Observed and Described that. I was like, “Well, okay, so you’re saying that you’re all right, but your face looks sad, your eyes, your brow is low, you’re looking down. You actually said that with a sigh.” So I describe that in a little more detail. You’re going to find that as your children get older, you can use a little bit more detail in there, but this is a skill that will be super helpful.

Anyways, back to my friend. This is my ADHD mind kind of going off of course, squirrel but friend and being able to communicate with him. I was able to Observe and Describe. Now how does this affect a parent with a child who has ADHD. What I can tell you is that Observe and Describe is very, very helpful for kids to be able to focus in on what they need to do specifically. Now, remember, you’re dealing with a child that has an inability to stay focused on something. When you are that directive to a child, you’re actually teaching them to reign it in to actually try and focus in specifically. One of the worst things you can do for an ADHD child is to ask them questions about what they did. So what did you just do? Why did you just… When you start asking questions like that, it just opens up the floodgates for their mind to wander. When you use Observe and Describe, you actually help them focus in on what needs to be done. This is also a skill that will be super helpful for your ADHD child to learn how to do.

Let me restate that. If you can use it and you do it, your child will learn how to do it too, but you can teach them how to do this and it will be so beneficial for them. If they’re able to observe something and spend enough time to focus in on what it is and then describe it. Now you can practice this using different things. Like you can watch a movie, just pause whatever’s on the screen, and then have your child observe what’s on the screen and then describe it to you. That’s going to help them try and focus in on… It teaches their brain and kind of trains their brain to be in the moment, to be observant, to not let it wander too far because they have a specific task that they need to do. And describing it could be describing what colors they see, describing what is being said, describing who’s in the frame or who’s in the picture, what is happening in there. So there’s a lot of ways that you can practice this with your ADHD child.

One of the things that I definitely want parents to grasp from this skill, and one of the most important elements of this, and I’ve mentioned it before, is being able to remove the emotional part. And I’ve mentioned it as being an emotional part, removing your emotion from it so you can address behaviors. You also want to remove your judgment about what’s happening. You’re strictly just going to observe something and describe it. That’s it. We just want the facts, just the facts. Because when you start throwing in the emotion and the judgment, actually that actually invites more emotion to be involved and can be really detrimental in the long run.

I bring that up because in teaching the skill with a family while we are coaching online, this has been an issue. And so I’m going to give a shout out to you mom, not going to mention you by name, but I’m going to give a shout out to you for being able to suspend your judgment and suspend your emotion to only Observe and Describe first and then we move on to fixing the behavior from there. Multiple ways that it can be beneficial to parents because it allows you to remove that emotional and judgmental piece out of that while you address a behavior, a very specific behavior.

So again, ADHD kids absolutely going to be a very useful tool for them. It’s simple enough that they can do it. It’s simple enough that it’s manageable for young children to be able to Observe and Describe. And I would even recommend that children learn how to do it when they’re young. Learn to observe things, have them be observant and be aware, and then have them be able to describe it using words that makes sense and improve their communication overall.

So these are suggestions that I would give. Now for an ADHD child, my recommendation is to have the child start with something that they can do and then gradually do something that’s a little bit more difficult. Again, pausing a favorite TV show and then having your child Observe and Describe what they see on the frozen frame. That’s a good way to kind of engage them. They’re usually watching something they like, they might throw a tantrum, but then you can Observe and Describe that.

You can be like, “Okay, you’re throwing a tantrum right now. What you need to do is boom, boom, boom.” And then we can start moving into the behavior. So Observe and Describe. You’re going to observe a behavior, you’re going to describe it to your child, and then once that is established, you’re going to be able to use skills, other skills to either correct the behavior, to reinforce the behavior with Effective Praise. We’re going to talk more in-depth about those things, but what I want all parents to do is to learn this skill, Observe and Describe, practice it.

In fact, I challenge you practice this skill as often and as much as you can during the course of the next couple of days. See how well you are doing it and how well you’re able to remove your emotional connection to them. Now, some parents, there is a family I’m working with. They’re like, “How do I suspend my emotional response to this?” In our working together, we decided that the mom was going to pretend she’s standing on the corner watching everything happen, but from a distance. The concept is that she doesn’t want to be a part of what’s happening in there. She wants to be an observer and there’s always a different perspective from the observer that allows judgment to stay out.

Think about a traffic accident, for example, you have one car with their perception of what happens and another car with their perception. It crashes, right? But it’s the bystander who’s watching and observing everything on the side that police will tend to believe. But why is that? Why is that? Because the person who’s standing observing everything who’s able to do that, they don’t have that emotional connection to all of that. They may have some emotional connection, but they’re removed from that enough that they can make some comments and commentary on what they saw, what they observed.

In this example with a family, mom is actually pretending and she’ll close her eyes and pretend that she’s standing on a corner observing something but at a distance, which allows her to remove her emotional response and just describe what’s happening, observing and describing what’s happening. And then we just want to see the facts. What are we observing? What are we describing? We need to make it clear for the children. It helps us remove our emotional response and it also makes it clear for us on what behaviors we need to focus on.

Observe and Describe. Those are the things that I wanted to share with you. I shared briefly about some of the coaching families that I’m working with. If you haven’t signed up for coaching, please do. I would love to communicate with you and to build on these skills. Now again, Observe and Describe is one of those fundamental skills and we are going to be adding to this. So adding more skills to Observe and Describe to help you and your child. So your challenge for this time period for the next couple of days is to Observe and Describe everything around you.

What you’re going to find with adults when you do this, is adults will actually correct you if you’re wrong, which is great. But usually, if you’re just stating the facts, just stating what you observe and what you describe, they can’t argue with that. And that’s one of the things that takes the power struggle away from kids too. If you’re just stating what you Observe and Describe, there is no denying it. That’s what happened.

Anyways, that’s it from me. As you can tell, I’m super passionate about this skill of Observe and Describe and I want you to practice and to learn it. Again, if you need some additional support or you want to watch an example of that, jump over to the Smarter Parenting website and look for the skill called Observe and Describe. And you can watch the video, it will explain all of it for you to help you out and then practice. Practice, practice, practice. You’re going to get it once you practice it and you learn it and you adopt it and it becomes a very natural thing. After a while, you’re going to start doing it without even realizing you’re doing it. But you will find that it will increase your communication with your child, it will strengthen your relationship with your child because the communication is clear and it’s consistent.

Those are fantastic things that I know every parent wants for their children. Strong relationships and better communication overall in Observe and Describe, and I would love to hear how that is working out with you. If you call me in for coaching session, let’s talk some more. So that’s it for me and I will talk to you again later. Take care, and I hope to hear from you guys soon. All right. All right. Bye.

The Teaching-Family Model

Our Teaching-Family Model Family

The Teaching-Family Association

Behavior skills of the Teaching-Family Model

Behavior skill: Observe and Describe

Free 15-minute ADHD coaching mini-session

Blog post: Why you need to use the skill of Observe and Describe

Blog post: 5 things to remember when using Observe and Describe

Blog post: 5 games and activities to practice Observe and Describe

Podcast Transcript

The transcript text is below. You can also download the PDF file of the transcript here.