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The Art of Observation and Interpretation
Student Behavior

by Therese Rafalowski Welch

Observation skills

Observation serves many different functions in our everyday lives: We observe because we are interested in something that we see. We observe to learn how a task is done or to learn to do it better. We observe to confirm a hunch or information we might have, looking for evidence to support the idea or statement.

In education programs, observation serves a vital function as an important assessment method. In general, we conduct assessments to get a kind of "snapshot" of a student's current skills and then to use that information to develop relevant program goals. We observe communicative exchanges for similar reasons: to better understand how a student interacts and to further develop his or her skills. Our observations will guide our actions in separate activities, as well as in the student's overall program.

In recent years, educators, especially those working with students who have multiple disabilities, have favored an ecological approach to assessment. Such an approach focuses not only on a student's behaviors, but also on the context in which the behaviors occur: What is the activity? What is the setting? Who is involved with the student? Similarly, we recognize that successful communication depends on more than a student's skills or behaviors alone. It is also based on the skills and behaviors of his or her communication partners, various environmental factors, and the activities or circumstances in which the student is involved. Our observations, then, will also need to be ecological in nature, considering the student, his or her communication partners, the environmental conditions, and activities. Let's begin our discussion of these components by looking at the student.

Student Behaviors - Expressive Communication

When we observe students, we view their expressive communication forms, that is, how they convey messages. Charity Rowland (1996) provides a very useful framework outlining various stages of expressive communication. She refers to the stages as seven levels of communicative competence. The levels follow.

* Level V behaviors tend to be interspersed with Level IV and Level VI behaviors.

More about the "Seven Levels of Communicative Competence."

Within this framework we can see several basic progressions of communication development as an individual moves from level to level:

These general progressions should help guide our instructional goals and objectives for our students. We want to move our students across these continuums.

Materials for the Communication Matrix.

A free online version of the Communication Matrix that makes use of these levels in an assessment:

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Click to go to "Interpreting Behavior"

Western Oregon University | The Research Institute | The Oregon Deafblind Project

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The Oregon Deafblind Project is funded through grant award # H326T130008, OSEP CFDA 84.326T, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education (OSEP), OSEP Project Officer: Susan Weigert.

However, the contents of this site does not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education, and no assumption of endorsement by the Federal government should be made.

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