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The Art of Observation and Interpretation
Interpreting Behavior

by Therese Rafalowski Welch

Psychologist Harvey Mar (1995) notes the importance of accurately describing behaviors and interactions. He warns, "Although observations are objective, interpretations are subjective" (p. 331). Observing and accurately describing communicative behaviors of students who use symbols (Levels V, VI, & VII) and students who use conventional communication behaviors (Level IV) can be considerably easier than observing and accurately describing students who communicate via nonsymbolic means (Levels I, II, & III). At the later levels of communication (Levels IV through VII) the risks of misinterpretation are lessened. This is not so for the earlier nonsymbolic levels. For example, Mar notes that a behavior that looks like a reflex to one person may look like a response to social stimulation to another.

No magic solution exists to ensure immediate accuracy when interpreting nonsymbolic communication. Educators can, however, take several steps to increase the likelihood that their observations and interpretations are valid.

Reference for Harvey Mar: PHASES: Psychologists Helping to Assess Students’ Educational Strengths.

Educators as Communication Partners

General responsiveness

At the earliest levels, the onus of successfully communicating is on the caregiver or communication partner. In other words, prior to the development of intentional communication, the caregiver or partner assigns meaning to an individual’s behavior. This happens naturally with an infant: The mother hears her baby’s cry and quickly goes to the infant, saying "Oh, you must be hungry;" or "Oh, you want to be rocked;" etc. The baby’s crying may be a simple reaction to waking, but the mother infers a communicative intent and responds accordingly. The mother’s consistent responses to her infant's crying helps build a cause-and-effect awareness for the baby: "When I cry, Mama comes to me." In time, as the awareness to consistent responses further develops, the young child begins to purposely or intentionally use behaviors to affect the behavior or responses of others.

It is vitally important for educators to be responsive to an individual’s behaviors, both intentional and pre-intentional. We know from basic behavioral principles that ignoring a behavior is a key way to extinguish it. In other words, by being unresponsive to an individual’s behaviors, we can inadvertently extinguish his/her attempts to communicate! Ellin Siegel-Causey and June Downing (1987) advocate reinforcing any effort an individual makes to gain our attention (such as moving, pounding an object, grimacing, etc.) The goal is to help shape pre-intentional communication into more intentional forms. We want our students to come to recognize that they can influence their social and physical environment. Here are some things to do.

This "calling device" could be a simple bell that can be touched, or activated via a switch, or it could be a more complex system such as a computer-activated voice output.

Examples of these devices can be found at: DynaVox Xpress handheld augmentative communication devices and Gus Communication Devices.

Starting with touch cues

The use of touch cues and object cues is a very important starting point for the development of a student’s expressive communication. That statement may sound a bit odd, knowing that touch cues and object cues are a receptive communication (input) option for individuals who are deafblind. It is essential, of course, that the cues selected for a specific student are used consistently. With consistent use over time, you may see the beginnings of a movement response from your student. For example, if you are using a particular touch cue for lifting the student out of his/her wheelchair, in time you may notice that after giving the cue, the student’s posture may change slightly as if he/she is readying or trying to assist with the move. Or, if given an object cue for putting on shoes, the student may start to extend his/her leg. Hurray! This is a critical development: The student has made the association between the cue and the action. Educators need to be attentive, because a student's movements may be very subtle. Again, it's important not to rush through even simple daily activities; without recognizing the extended wait time needed, we may act too quickly to allow a student to respond.

When a student starts to respond, it’s as though he/she signals to us that he/she is ready for more. At such a point, the educator can appropriately begin exposing the student to more complex options. For example, the educator may present the visual or tactile signs paired with the cues. The expectation is not for the student to very soon start using signs expressively. Instead, the goal is for signs to be presented in a way that helps make them more meaningful for the student. Remember, there are several steps along the way to meaningful production of an expressive communication option: Step 1: Exposure, Step 2: Awareness, Step 3: Comprehension, and, finally, Step 4: Production.

Initial Interaction

Communication is basically an exchange of information. In a conversation, the communication partners take turns sending and receiving messages. We are generally accustomed to people talking/signing to one another. But at the earliest levels, the nonsymbolic levels of communication, "conversations" may take on a very different look. Conversations with our students may involve taking turns tapping, vocalizing, etc. As mentioned earlier, initially we need to be responsive to a student's behaviors; the next step is to try to get an exchange going. Essentially, we want the student to attend to our response and then respond to us. Often the best way to start such a conversation is to imitate a student's action immediately after he/she produces it. Be patient waiting for a response from the student; we know that "wait time" is likely to be extended when students are deafblind.

Encouraging Signaling

It is no surprise that students are more attentive during activities that they find pleasurable. A common practice is to identify activities that a student enjoys. While the student is engaged in these activities, stop frequently and wait for some indication from the student (such as a wiggle or other movement, vocalization, etc.) that he/she wants the activity to continue. Acknowledge the signal, signing and saying "yes," and quickly resume the activity. If the student does not respond, discontinue the activity. In time, you can expand your response. For example, if the student wants to continue swinging, you could sign and say, "Yes, you want more swinging" and help shape his/her hands to form the sign "more."

Some students may be more inclined to indicate their displeasure with an activity through rejection or protest. Whenever possible, we need to respect what the student is communicating - a desire for a change in circumstances. In nearly all cases, rejection or protest should be honored, except perhaps for such things as medical/health procedures, or emergencies. If a student is indicating displeasure throughout the majority of the school day, his/her team needs to carefully review his/her program and make needed changes.

Environmental Conditions

The environment plays a major role in successful communication. This is especially true for students who are deafblind, as the information they receive from the environment is compromised by visual and auditory impairments. Our observations of students' communication efforts must take into consideration environmental factors. The key question is whether or not a student's environment is facilitating communication for him/her. We need to assess the environment and then provide the necessary supports. As we examine a student’s interaction within an activity we should ask: Are the lighting and acoustics appropriate? Are the essential materials, including communication devices, accessible (visually, auditorily, and tactually) to the student? Is the student positioned so that he/she is comfortable; can see and hear as best as possible; and can access other people and things? Often small environmental changes, such as using materials with good contrast, positioning oneself within easy physical range, keeping tangible symbols within a student's reach, can make a major difference in a student's ability to interact.


An ecological approach to observation will also take into account the activities in which a student is involved. Much like environmental conditions, activities also influence the quality of interactions. Earlier we mentioned the importance of pleasurable activities in encouraging expressive communication. We also need to examine our role in "engineering" activities so that students are well-oriented by receiving essential information, such as with whom they’re interacting, where the activity takes place, and when the activity starts and ends. Educators should ensure, too, that a student would have opportunities for turn taking and choice making within an activity.

Helpful hints

  • Videotaping examples of your interactions with students can be very useful. It is easy to miss important behaviors and cues (those of your students and you own) "in the moment." Videotapes also can provide a good record of progress, capturing advances in subtle qualities of interactions that may be difficult to describe.

  • Routines provide a very good context for observation. Subtle changes in behavior may be more evident within a familiar piece. Also, because a student is not learning a new task, more attention can be focused on interaction.

  • Sometimes "a new pair of eyes" can reveal valuable information. It may be helpful to ask for input from an observer who is not familiar with your students. We run the risk of getting so accustomed to our own activities and environments that we can overlook important details.


Touch Cues: Information and Fact Sheet from from California Deaf-Blind Services.

Object Cues: CADB's article in the reSources newsletter - Volume 11, #5 Getting started with Object Communication.


Mar, H. H. (1995). Assessment of communication skills. In K. M Huebner, J. G. Prickett, T. R. Welch, & E. Joffee (Eds.), Hand in hand: Essentials of communication and orientation and mobility for your students who are deaf-blind (pp 313-365). New York: AFB Press.

Miles, B. (1999). Talking the language of the hands to the hands. Monmouth, OR: DB-LINK.

Rowland, C. (1996). Communication matrix: A communication skill assessment for individuals at the earliest signs of communication development. Portland: Oregon Institute on Disability & Development, Oregon Health Sciences University.

Rowland, C., & Schweigert, P. (1993). Analyzing the communication environment (ACE): An inventory of ways to encourage communication in functional activities. Portland: Oregon Institute on Disability & Development, Oregon Health Sciences University.

Rowland, C., Schweigert, P., & Dorinson, A. (1995). Let's talk. Portland: Oregon Institute on Disability & Development, Oregon Health Sciences University.

Siegel-Causey, E., & Downing, J. (1987). Nonsymbolic communication development. In L. Goetz, D. Guess, & K. Stremel-Campbell (Eds.), Innovative program design for individuals with dual sensory impairments. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Western Australia Deafblind Association (2000). Where do I begin? [Videotape]. Perth: All Round Vision. [email: wadba@nw.com.au]

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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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