HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Looking Closely The Value of Child Study for the Elementary Teacher

by Nili Pearlmutter Issue: The Whole Student

Pearlmutter describes a method developed for educators to see the “whole child” beyond the exigencies of classroom performance.

“She appears extraordinary to me, because I have truly taken the time to see her for who she is.” Janet Zucker (all quotations come from former Delet interns)

The prevailing currents in education today push us towards standards and testing, and the basic questions we ask ourselves about students stem from this trend: How does this child fall short of the benchmarks? What is missing? In this article I will describe an alternative way of looking at and learning about children, and suggest its potential for informing and developing our teaching.

“In a busy classroom, we as teachers naturally give individual attention to students for mainly negative reasons. … Child Study gave me the opportunity to give [this child] the opportunity to be very carefully noticed at his best, worst, and everything in between.” Michelle Andler

Each year, the graduate students in my Fundamentals of Education course at Brandeis University engage in a process called “Child Study.” The students are enrolled in the Delet/MAT pre-service program for elementary Jewish day school teachers, which consists of two summers of study on campus and a yearlong mentored internship, combined with study, during the school year. My course accompanies the internship.

Delet takes seriously the idea that children are whole people, with their own strengths, quirks, and ways of being in the world. Furthermore, we believe it is necessary for teachers to develop a well rounded, respectful and empathic understanding of the children we teach. Child Study embodies this idea.

Each intern chooses one student as a focus. Over a period of several months, the intern observes that child closely, taking regular observational notes, even while doing the daily work of teaching. The framework we use was developed by Patricia Carini and her colleagues at the Prospect School in Bennington, Vermont, as a tool for observing, describing and understanding children in comprehensive ways. Interns seek to broaden their knowledge of the child by noticing the child’s physical presence and gestures, disposition and temperament, connections with other people, strong interests and preferences, and modes of thinking and learning.

Because Delet prepares teachers for Jewish day schools, we added another category: the child as a spiritual being and learner. Periodically, Delet students share their observations with their colleagues. Eventually, they write up a full description of their study child along with ideas about how to use what they have learned from their observations to inform their teaching. They also reflect on what they have learned about themselves as teachers.

“One lesson that I have learned is the importance and challenge of setting aside one’s assumptions and really observing a child. As adults, we make so many assumptions without even being aware that we are doing so. Yet, to really get to know our students we must set these aside and simply ‘notice’ and then keep noticing.” Joanne Camann

A fundamental skill that teachers learn from engaging in Child Study is how to observe children. We might assume that the process of observing children comes naturally to teachers; after all, the elementary teacher spends many hours each day with her class. However, it is human nature to rely on our assumptions and allow our attention to be drawn to the child who needs help or who is being disruptive. Child Study pushes teachers to discipline their observations, to focus intentionally on a child whose need is not obvious in the moment, to seek evidence that may contradict assumptions. This process also calls on the teacher to be open to the growth and change that is part of the child’s development.

“I had the opportunity to hear other perspectives and possible analyses of the observations I made. People held my assumptions and interpretations up to the light for closer examination.” Miriam Benowitz

Learning to observe, without assumptions or judgment, is challenging. I would argue it is so challenging that it cannot be done alone. That is why a second aspect of Child Study is critical: interns make their observations public by sharing them with each other. Colleagues have the opportunity to probe and question, pointing out assumptions and providing alternate interpretations. A teacher states that a child behaved “inappropriately.” Her colleagues ask her to describe what the child was doing and point out this behavior could be interpreted as “helpful.”

We realize that we cannot know the internal life of the child. A child who walks alone at recess may be lonely or may be mentally composing a story. A child who smiles cheerfully at the teacher may be happy or may have strong social skills and a desire to build positive relationships with adults. While we all interpret the behavior we see, the process of Child Study teaches us to distinguish between our direct observations and our interpretations, which must always be held as tentative.

These discussions, which make a teacher’s observations and understandings public, benefit the presenting teacher as well as her colleagues. Everyone learns about the complexity and uniqueness of one child and, through the particulars, develops insights into all children.

“Patience and quiet observation have rewarded me with a deeper understanding of who he is as a full and developing individual. More than that, a wider and deeper gaze has helped me see things about many of the other children in my class that I might not have noticed before.” Jessie Mocle

Teachers are always pressed for time. What makes Child Study worth the time? How can the sustained study of one child benefit the class? Child Study develops a teacher’s disposition toward wanting deep knowledge of her students and supports a compassionate and respectful stance towards children. Once it becomes apparent that assumptions and interpretations are just that, one is compelled to move beyond them. Looking for evidence to support assumptions becomes a habit, a way of being. This knowledge of individual children forms the root of the relationship between the teacher and student and also enables teachers to create strong relationships with parents, who are reassured when the teacher is able to describe their beloved child so carefully, honestly and accurately.

“I believe that it is in our relationships with our students… that we plant the seeds of learning. Without this environment of trust and respect, we cannot hope to create a space in which children can take risks and explore, feel free to make mistakes and grow.” Joanne Camann

Besides forming the basis for healthy, trusting relationships with children and their families, the knowledge gained from Child Study enables the teacher to create and teach powerful curriculum, grounded in an understanding of who the learners are, what engages them, and how they think. We know that teachers need deep knowledge of content. Child Study provides teachers with a way to develop deep knowledge of their learners so that we can bring the learners and the content together.

Child Study is not a practice reserved for teachers-in-training. Because it is challenging for classroom teachers to observe while teaching, it is all the more important that all teachers develop this capacity. It is astounding what teachers can notice when we take a breath after asking a question and really look at our students, pause and focus our attention while students work independently or spend five minutes noticing interactions at recess.

Teachers commonly use labels as shorthand and slip into the “deficit model” when talking about children. We are quick to say what David can’t do or needs to learn, it is convenient to label Sarah smart or slow, lazy or kind. The teachers’ room can be full of this kind of talk. The discipline of Child Study creates a different kind of discourse, one in which we see children in their entirety, where we look for their capacities. In most Jewish day schools, multiple adults teach each child, but they rarely have the opportunity to engage in serious, sustained discussion about individual children. Sharing observations within a structure that is accountable to evidence allows new perspectives and possibilities to emerge from the various adults who work with a child.

“Much as I might like to think that I have a ‘picture’ of her now, I must not forget that it is only a picture. She, however, is a human being, constantly growing, changing and adapting.” Heather Greene

Child Study has been embraced in educational circles as an effective tool for professional development. In the future, I hope that Jewish day schools will also reap the benefits from engaging in this child-centered process. If you are interested in bringing this practice to your school, here are some ways to get started.

  • Learn more about the history of this practice through Patricia Carini’s work; I suggest the book From Another Angle.
  • Share about Child Study with faculty at your school and suggest it as a possible activity during faculty meetings. Distribute Carini’s essay “A Letter to Teachers and Parents on Some Ways of Looking at and Reflecting on Children” (found in From Another Angle). Identify a facilitator (teacher or administrator) who is familiar with the process and gather a group of teachers interested in trying this practice. Ask them to commit to meeting at least three times so that they have an opportunity to learn the process.
  • Teach those who are interested in participating about the difference between description and interpretation. One way to do this is to pass a plant around a circle, asking each person to describe something he or she sees. The rest of the participants should ask for clarification or evidence if necessary. For example, if one person says, “The plant needs water,” others might ask, “What do you see that makes you think that?”
  • Solicit a volunteer to present a child. Encourage that teacher to spend a few weeks taking notes about the focus child. If multiple teachers work with the same child, it is best if they all take notes and share in the presentation. The teacher or teachers should also consider what questions they would like the group to focus on.
  • Before the presentation, have the presenting teacher or teachers meet with the facilitator to discuss the child, review the protocol, and clarify the questions they may want to pose to the group.
  • A simple protocol begins with the presenting teacher (or teachers) sharing descriptive information about the child, using the headings listed above to organize their presentation and posing one or two questions they have about the child. The participants probe for evidence, offer alternate interpretations, and discuss how the presenter could seek answers to her questions.
  • At the end of the session, ask the presenter and participants to reflect on new learnings or questions about children or teaching. The presenter can share any next steps she will take to learn more about or support the child.♦

Nili Pearlmutter, a former elementary school teacher, serves as a senior education specialist at the Delet/MAT Program at Brandeis University. She can be contacted at nilip@brandeis.edu.

To learn more:

http://www.brandeis.edu/mandel/questcase/LearningWQuest.htm (A webcase about Brandeis Professor Sharon Feiman-Nemser’s use of Child Study with her undergraduate students.)

Himley, Margart & Carini, Patricia. (2000). From Another Angle: Children’s Strengths and School Standards: The Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review of the Child. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

http://www.nsrfharmony.org/protocol/a_z.html (A website with protocols, including a protocol for a “Descriptive Review of a Child.” The one listed here takes 90 minutes to complete fully.)

http://www.brandeis.edu/programs/delet/ (The website for the Delet/MAT program at Brandeis.)

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