Are the children really being naughty?

Are they really being naughty?

Two very different opinions

Ask any two volunteers after a play session with small children, “how were the children today?” and you may hear two contrasting responses, something along the lines of “they were great” and “they were a nightmare”.


Volunteer opinions on group behaviour can be different even during the same activity.

Who is right?

Well, your opinion will depend on your perception.

Picture ten children in a nursery class sitting around a table each making a flying saucer out of a paper plate meanwhile two boys are running around the room. They are holding their paper plates screeching at the top of their voices.

Volunteer A is trying to help a younger child at the table, is worried about the distraction they are causing and wants the boys to sit down and be quiet. It would only take the smallest provocation for volunteer A say something negative to the boys.

Volunteer B sees the same scene differently. He sees two boys who have finished the activity early using their flying saucers as steering wheels. They are playing an imaginative car racing game around the room.

Volunteer B also spots that the boys are careful to keep to the sides of the room and not interfere with those who are still working at the table. Noticing volunteer B has been watching them, the boys hold up their steering wheels with pride every time they passed him.

Volunteer B feels the boys are being incredibly good and showing great imaginative play together without any squabbling which is often the case.


It is hard to do two things at the same time even if we are supposed to be able to multi-task.

Why do adults sometimes get it so wrong?

The main reason is that we are often too busy to notice fully two things at the same time even if we are being reminded that these days we are supposed to be able to multi-task at the same time!

How can any of us practically and fairly help one child on one side of us (the younger child needing help) and another  (the boys running around) at exactly the same time. It would be like driving a car whilst reaching for something on the passenger seat.

The way most of us manage this is to shut down one distraction quickly so we can focus on the one we want to give our attention to. It is either the driving or reaching for something – we can’t offer 100% attention to both.

Adult expectations too high?

Imagine if the boys had made this announcement before running around the room:

“We’ve finished now, so is it okay to run round the room and use our flying saucers as steering wheels? We will try not to disrupt anyone, is that okay? We don’t mind playing our driving game until you guys are ready to tell us what the next activity is. How do you feel about that?”

Undoubtedly the perception of anyone would have been quite different, even with the boys running around in the same way.

If it would take a very eloquent adult to communicate in this way, what are the chances for children who are disadvantaged and may lack even the most basic verbal communication skills? If any verbal skills at all?


At least if you react badly you can get immediate attention from adults.

Does it matter if we get it wrong?

Imagine you are a small child trying to show a picture you have drawn and are proud of to an adult. The adult pushes you away saying “not now”.

How will you feel about pictures now? Will you go to that adult if you need help? What have you learnt about adults and the way to behave?

Afterwards, another child approaches you to play but you push them away shouting “no!” You only do this as a way of handling your emotion after being rejected by the adult.

The adult now approaches you and scolds you for shouting. It seems to be one rule for the adult and another for you. Very confusing.

You are now looking at two response options to take depending on your character. One option is to retreat into your own bubble to protect yourself from this strange world or to react in frustration. Or you can pass on your anxiety to another child or adult, at least if you react badly in any way you can get attention from adults, that’s something to be gained if you can’t get attention from being good.


Children are usually just doing what seems appropriate in their minds at that time for that situation.

Does this mean that children that are basically okay?

Obviously there are moments when boundaries get pushed and you need to take control, but mostly yes, children are usually just doing what seems appropriate in their minds at that time for that situation.

I remember high school teachers shouting at us when we were talking in class, however, those teachers failed to notice what was blindingly obvious to the rest of us, that the talkers fell into three groups:

• those who had finished already and bored

• those who had no idea what they were supposed to be doing

• those who were disenfranchised because of overzealous impatience and shouting by the teacher in previous classes

We often talked about some of the teachers’ reactions in our break periods, wondering if they had completely forgotten what it was like to be a student. It was frustrating for us to know how easy it could be for them to teach us if they knew.

It’s one thing for 14 year olds to chat like adults at break time, quite another thing to alert the teachers or the school director. Any why should they have to tell us?

The onus of responsibility for understanding the children that we care for has to be with the adults in charge, not the children to explain it to us.


Volunteers could be seen to daydream and their attention drift.

Not watching but daydreaming

In an outdoor play session, the children were running around amongst the volunteers skipping and kicking balls. To any observer the volunteers were clearly either playing with or supervising the children.

On closer observation when there was no direct interaction, volunteers could be seen to daydream and their attention drift.

This ‘zoning out’ is possibly a natural response to an otherwise high-intensity experience, when the brain needs a re-charge for a minute or two with the unpredictability and responsibility of children running around.

Think of watching carefully like listening carefully. We can all appear to listen but not hear what is being said in the slightest.

To an external observer, we can appear to be watching the children in the playground, whilst in reality we are staring into space thinking about the forthcoming weekend.

Many times a play time supervisor can miss a fight or squabble even when directly in front of them and this ‘zoning out’ can often the reason behind it.

From my experience improving your observation is far easier to crack than your listening skills, it’s too easy not to pay attention when someone is talking to us and we all get so much experience at ignoring others, not least teachers at school.

During an observation, it was exciting to observe two otherwise unruly children play a bat and ball game for the first time. No one else had noticed, volunteers were either busy with other children or had zoned out for a few minutes.

With very few communication skills the two children learnt to share the ball and tried with actions to teach each other what they thought were the rules. It was very sweet and did change how I interacted with them in the following days.

They weren’t unruly children as first impressions suggested, they were children who were quickly moving forward and learning positive behaviours. I just hoped either the children caught up with the others quickly or failing that, for future staff and volunteers to be patient with them so their new behaviour could establish itself.

For me it was a unique glimpse into a crucial stage in their development, like walking for the first time. For anyone interested in behaviour and psychology, a quick observation at any community project could provide valuable insights.


Taking a step back can help you see what’s really going on.

Step by step guide to observing

Here’s a quick guide to get going:

• Decide who you want to observe and why.

• Check with local staff and other volunteers that they are happy for you to observe and it is safe to do so.

• Playtimes are a good time when the children are engaged in free play or equally in the classroom if any children are working without support.

• You do not need a long time for a good observation; 10 – 15 minutes should be enough and be careful you don’t zone out too – taking notes can help to keep your focus.

• Start by watching children with challenging or excitable behaviour to start with as there is more to observe. You may want to check out the quieter children later as the behaviour may be more subtle.

• Whilst watching, think carefully about why the child behaved, reacted or spoke in the way they did. Look for positive behaviours, not just the negative ones. Look out for when they are ignored or missed out by other children, staff and volunteers and how they react to rejection.

• Don’t be too hard on staff and volunteers if you find a child that is being neglected or wrongly labelled. Be diplomatic, not everyone may share your opinion! You may want instead to simply pass the information on, for example, “Johnny painted a great picture today and didn’t grab at all like yesterday, seems like he’s progressed since Monday”.

• Volunteers and staff hearing your observations enough should start to reconsider their own assumptions and behaviour towards the children.

• When you have done one or two observations it is easier to integrate it during any volunteering activity even whilst you are busy. You will soon start noticing things elsewhere out of the corner of your eye without making an effort and ultimately help you to (a) stop making assumptions about children’s behaviour and (b) improve your teaching or caring approach.

For more information on observation and play work in informal settings it is worth taking a look at Jane Gallagher and Annie Davy’s book New Playwork