As a school psychologist, student observations were regularly a part of my day. For special education evaluations, I observed students in multiple settings with multiple adults doing multiple tasks. I came to know that student in depth and felt ready to suggest supports that could make a difference.
I soon realized that these student observations could be an invaluable part of referrals for counseling or behavior support. Much more than special education evaluation referrals, I was stopped regularly with concerns about friendship drama, classroom management, explosive behaviors, suddenly anxious students, among others on a long list. Usually in the hallway without any paper on me.
While many teachers were great about giving details and their own hypotheses, when I started regularly incorporating student observations into my practice, I gained a much richer understanding of a classroom environment, antecedents, and student struggles. I was able to truly create interventions that were effective and well received because they fit the classroom environment, the student, and circumstances.
Reflect on your Referral Reason
Consider the following before a student observation:
- What behaviors, changes, and significant events is the teacher describing?
- What are the most important things to look for?
- Do you need any additional information before observing?
- When is the best time to observe the student or the class? When will you be most likely to see the referral concern?
(Redirect those teachers who exclaim “I’m so glad I saw you” in the hallway to complete a referral form.)
Make sure your student observation forms are tailored to the referral concern. For example, I receive a referral for low work completion and inattention during all activities. For this specific concern, I would want to note a student’s time on task compared to other students, percent of work completed, antecedents and consequences, time of day, difficulty of the material, subject matter, and staff involved. This will begin to give me a complete picture of the concern, as well as rich baseline data for any intervention.
Essential Elements in a Classroom
I know I just said to really reflect and tailor your observations, but there are key elements that should be present in classrooms. When these are missing, it can cause all sorts of issues. It is important to note these and consider them when developing interventions. Sometimes it is easier to change something about a classroom than to change the reaction a student is having.
Grab this Free Classroom Observation Checklist and add it to your observation protocol. It will give you richer information about what is happening outside of the student that may be an important factor.
What other elements do you consider foundational in a classroom? What happens when they are missing?
Use the Right Data Collection Tools
I mentioned above to make your student observations specific to the referral concern. To do this, I consider the best data collection forms to fit my goal. For example, if a student is slow to start a task, I want to make sure I’m collecting some latency data. I want to know how many seconds it takes the student to start after a direction is given. If a student is frequently on and off task, I want to do some time-sampling. So every 30 seconds, I want to note if the student is doing what is expected. I can also compare the student to peers to give me a good norm for the classroom.
Collecting data that is specific to the behavior, rather than a running record of what is happening in the room, is crucial to developing interventions and showing progress. The above might sound overly detailed, but once you have a few tools in your toolbox, this type of data collection will become a go to. Check out these data collection forms for richer classroom observation data.
Analyze your Data
After an observation, analyze your data. This is key for you developing an intervention that has a chance of being effective. You will know where the student is functioning, where their peers are functioning, and the gap between them. Write a short summary of what you observed (consider multiple observations), including teacher strategies and the classroom environment that may be helping or not helping the student.
Develop a plan
What kind of intervention would close that gap between the student and their peers? Does the student seem to lack skills or motivation? Does your data agree with the teacher concern? What skills does the teacher have to support the student? A teacher may have wanted you to see the student for counseling, but your data seems to show that in-class support would likely be more effective. Without this data, you may feel pressured to go along with what other adults think is best for your practice. Use your observation data to feel confident that you are building a plan to best support the student and answer the teacher concern.