Naturalistic Approach to Understanding Child Development

The Tavistock observation Method (A-TOM)

Originally coined and pioneered in 1948 by Esther Bick, the Tavistock method of observation takes a naturalistic and open-minded approach to observing a child (Reid, 1997). According Rustin (1989), the observer focuses on collecting materials that can be of emotional significance. However, the observation occurs within a process that starts with obtaining permission from the parent’s family by holding a conversation with them regarding the nature and method of the observation, a phenomenon that Rustin (1989) considers quite intrusive. Nonetheless, during the observation, the observer pays attention to the child’s positioning while taking no recordings nor notes. Instead, as per Reid (1997), the observer only writes as much details as they can remember after the observation. According to Reid (1997), the absence of any other activity during observation enables the observe to be receptive of the child’s emotions by entering the child’s emotional world. As such, the observer’s attention is mainly focused on the child, so much so that what they see is what they feel. This allows the observer to focus on the child’s emotions and interactions as well as other aspects within their emotional sphere such as how they emotionally respond to the observer (Rustin 1989).

The Tavistock technique of observation not only differs methodological from other techniques but also content wise. For instance, as opposed to narrative observation methods, the Tavistock observation method emphasizes on emotions and subjectivity as its key components (Reid, 1997). He observer reads and shares the observations to a seminar group, which in itself is an extension of the observation process. During the discussion, according to Reid (1997), the observer remains quiet and stays attentive, noting the points being discussed. During the discussions, the theory is analysed, anxieties are held, and speculations are made. This process develops over a period to result into a collection of observations made within the same place and time. As a result, according to Rustin (1989), the observer achieves a holistic and detailed picture of the child’s emotions, wellbeing and behaviour. Ultimately, the child’s inner world is revealed, demonstrating how they have a resonance to a specific personality development.


But when applying the A-TOM observation model, the observer’s role is not only to observe the child’s emotional experiences but also ascribe meaning to those experiences. According to Alcock (2016), this is a critical role that the observer must play and do it in a balanced manner to sustain the physical and emotional experiences that unfold before most cases, as Barnett (1995) observed, the researcher must rely on the emotional transactions that occur between them and the child’s family because despite being unconscious, these transactions give more meaning to the experiences than the infant produces when they are interacting with their family members.

To have a meaningful observation, the observer’s role is to give attention to the events that unfold before them. According to Elfer et al (2012), the attention and sensitivity wielded by the observer during the observation form the fundamental component of this technique. With the unavailability of instruments for taking notes, the level of the observer’s sensitivity and attention determines the technique’s ability to successfully observe the child.

A significant feature of the Tavistock observation method is frequent visits and observation of infants. When an observer such as a social worker identifies an institution of a home with an infant to study, they make consistent and periodic visits (Goldscmied & Selleck, 1996). the consistency is achieved by visiting the same days of the week. According to Murray & Andres (2000), this approach plays an important role in ensuring that the observer understands the relationship between the infant and their families. Furthermore, because there is minimal evidence being available for such an interaction, the frequent visits provide a chance for the observer to understand the patterns of behaviour that may not be visible within just a few visits. Therefore, the frequent visits primarily help the observer to concretely understand from daily observations that help develop a picture about the infant (Gopnik et al, 1999). with a given trend or picture that the observation depicts, the observer can build an understanding of the relationship between the infant and the family. According to Holme (1993), these are useful in drawing crucial insights about how the infant’s mind works, how they feel and the interaction between the infant, family and the observer.

A Critique of A-TOM

As earlier noted, the process of conducting an A-TOM observation begins with seeking permission. However, the ease of getting this permission varies with circumstances. This would be easier for a teacher who teaches in the nursery school. However, this would be almost impossible for other groups or in other settings. The mother to the child I was observing had some little knowledge for issues to do with confidentiality – she even granted permission for other previously held research.

I comfortably explained the observation process to the mother, despite some negative perceptions held against the process that it represents making judgements on the child. In my case, I did not have any feelings or perceptions of that kind. Rather, I felt that because the mother understood the entire process, I was just conducting my professional role of helping her to understand the child better.

But because I chose to observe an 8 month 2-week old child, I was somehow reluctant to focus on her emotions so that I could avoid the potential anxieties and uncomfortable feelings that I or the family might have whenever I enter into the homestead to observe the infant (Miller, 2002). however, I believed that with extra effort and keenness, I would successfully adhere to the guidelines and procedures of conducting A-TOM observation.

Unfortunately, I kept on avoiding the complexities that accompany maintaining the professional and personal balance when conducting the observation, and this offered a great challenge to me. Different situations put me in dilemma, including the decision of whether to accept the frequently offered drink or observing some of the child’s most vulnerable moments; combined with the complexity of being a male observer. Moreover, I feel that as a professional, my observational focus was more on the child’s emotional responses within the educational environment. These complexities were further worsened by the difficult logistics of observing the child in the home.

Nonetheless, observing the child within an educational setting would give me a better opportunity to learn and help me develop my understanding of how the child developed his relationships, emotions, personality, and wellbeing; as well as help me to develop a better psychoanalytic attitude (Music, 2017). Whereas observing within an educational environment would not less useful than the home environment, it would maybe reveal something else about the child.

The A-TOM also involves interacting with other adults within the child’s environment. In this regard, a few people in the room where I was conducting the observation has a bit of understanding about the observation method, while I discussed the method with those who did not understand it. Compared to the family members, the staffs were more willing to engage with me and somehow distracted me from giving my full attention to the child. This possibly hurt the quality of my observation Watson et al (2012) and is one of the challenges accompanying observing such a young child. However, during my observation, I was only spoken to once, and this was just a pass-by comment when the child was asleep necessarily not demanding a reply from me or significantly distracting me.

Comments and conversation starters made by other adults to the observer during the observation are common and, in my case, were more frequent. Maybe, due to the uncertainties and complexities that exist in conducting the first steps of the observation in the home (Gopnik et al, 1999). One aspect of balance that I kept in mind during the observation was my ability to be an active listener, as recommended by Fonagy (2004), and to always be keen on the child’s state of mind.

I also had to make ethical considerations in non-interaction. Being a teacher, I am used to maintaining a considerable distance as required of an observer so that I can have greater interaction with the child’s identity and experiences. One of the aspects of the observation that presented a challenge to me was the ability to avoid engagements with other children in the room. It was quite difficult to relinquish my professional and personal identities by not engaging with the children – not giving them a smile or a simple comment was challenging.

As noted by Watson et al (2012), many observers mention a feeling of awkwardness and tension while conducting the observations, especially as a result of the unnatural inaction. But according to Alcock (2016), the tension and awkwardness are often eased by a reciprocal smile, which acts as a social releaser. Despite my ethical fears that the child would feel ignored due to my inaction, my observations revealed these fears as kind of unfounded because the child still enjoyed being closely attended to.

In some situations, the observer might find themselves in some situations that present a more serious ethical dilemma whenever they are engaging with the infant. An infant might begin crying while their parents are away, presenting the observer with the challenge of a baby crying for a sustained period alone. Another observation might present with a highly emotional mealtime, which might be uncomfortable for the observer. Such a scenario might involve parental disagreement, forceful feeding, crying and shouting at the mother. According to Alcock (2016), such situations present a significant level of dilemma and anxiety for the observer, who is also faced with the responsibility of making truthful observations. However, Fonagy (2004) observes that it is such situations that also present a learning opportunity for the observers, understanding their emotions and anxieties.

When using the A-TOM observation method, various issues of the observer’s ability to validly make and recall all the observations arise (Music, 2017). however, in some cases, as noted by Fonagy (2004), the observer might not find any issue with this despite the disruptions that they might experience when writing up the report. As highlighted before, the A-TOM method of observation emphasizes what is seen and felt during the observation. But a challenge that the observer might struggle with is their personal and perhaps, professional identity and observational habits. For instance, their observational habits might tend to focus on what is happening while not giving good attention to the emotional impact of my responses during the observation. However, the struggle to relinquish their identity does not mean one observation may be more valid than the other, instead, the nature observations might just differ (Miller, 2002).

An account of what the observations say about infant communication

Through my observations, I increasingly understood communication as an important developmental aspect in a child’s life and how this impacts their emotional well-being. It felt to me that both Leo and Charlie used both verbal and communication as a collaborative process between two or more individuals that share and connect around thoughts, feelings and ideas. I have also learned that children communicate in a variety of ways including gestures, picture symbols, and sign language. For example, in the initial stages of interaction with Leo, I noticed how he oriented himself to strangers by looking at them and smiling.

He is sitting up independently. He looks at me and smiles. It is one of those big smiles that really crinkle the nose and corners of the eyes. I smile back.

His smile was so infectious that I could hardly resist smiling back, let I go against the rules of observation. He was so successful in using a smile to orient himself to me that I kept smiling back and fighting the urge to initiate full conversation like I would normally do. The same observations were made on Charlie, who welcomes me with a big smile and even after congratulating her for walking, he smiles back at me. Therefore, as is common with infants, both Charlie and Leo communicated through various forms of expressions including vocalizations, touch, and gesture before they can use sentences or words.

My observation of both Charlie and Leo revealed communication as a way in which infants receive, makes sense or comprehend a given situation. Both Charlie and Leo did this by engaging with their parents through looking, listening and attempting to understand the language. For instance, Leo Made a straining sound as if he is trying to communicate something

She waves the bobble hat then holds it still in front of him. ‘Pop!’ she says and gently tickles his nose with it. Leo scrunches up his face, lips turned up, mouth open in that crinkly smile again. He focuses on it and then reaches out with the hand that does not have the teether in it. He grabs it and puts it in his mouth.

Charlie’s mum asks him if he wants milk, Charlie looks at me with a big smile, it seems that he understood the question

In my observation, I noticed that speech is an important aspect of a involve the articulation of sounds and combining those sounds into words through a process that involves placement of tongue, teeth, and lips. It also involves voice control and intonation to effectively speak and make their speech understood. For instance, as I stayed on the sofa, nodded an smiled at Leo, he turned to his mum and waved the teether. He then started making aaaa, aaaa aaa sounds. His mum picked him up and held his hands. His face still seems happy but continues to make the aaa aaa aa noise. Similarly, in my observation with Charlie, he holds a bar of cereal and smiles whenever he receives a bite. He seems to be enjoying his interaction with his mum and keeps looking at his mum while smiling and making Dadada noises. At some point, Charlie giggles and makes sounds of Dadada and her mom responds in a baby talk: Dadada is coming dada.

Clearly, I noted that children’s ability to use sounds in words is a gradual process that starts at birth and is influenced by sounds that they hear other people speak in their environment. They start to experiment with making sounds from their early infantry and subsequently learn to refine and articulate sound combinations into words as they interact with others in their early years.

A critical account of infant communication in theory

In the toddler years, a child’s language starts to develop, and they start to move from single sounds to single words (Hetherington, 2017). But, Margolis et al (2019) argues that parents do not have to teach their children how to talks because they will learn through everyday interactions, especially with the parents. , Moreover, when the parent is with the child, it is important to tune and notice what the child is interested in, then they can make a comment or ask a question – giving the child time to respond.

On the same note, Devouche & Gratier (2019) insisted that when sharing moments with the child, it is important to give the child time to find words for expressing their ideas by waiting to hear what the child says rather than trying to put words in their mouth. Similarly, Piazza et al (2020) wrote that when the child responds, it is important for the parent to show that they are really listening. This can be done by maintaining a eye contact with the child and saying things that demonstrate that what the chid is saying is important to them – just like Charli and Leo’s mothers did.

Meanwhile, it is also important to help toddlers turn their body language and feelings into words because toddlers often use body language when they lack words to express their feelings and ideas. It is a great opportunity to encourage the child to talk by repeating back what you think the child wants (Liszkowski, 2018). Similarly, according to Santapuram (2020), parents can help their children understand how feelings, words and body language go together by making connections and talking them.

To get toddlers effectively communicate, research suggested some practical ways including saying rhymes or singing songs with the child. According to Margolis et al (2019), this helps the child to understand different sounds and have fun in the process. Similarly, Margolis et al (2019) proposed that when playing with the kid, parents can use words and objects that describe what is happening. On the same note, West (2019) reconvened that parents can teach their toddlers how to effectively communicate by giving the child choices of words.

Parents can not only help their toddlers learn how to communicate by speaking words but also effectively communicate by understanding words. First, it is important to note that toddlers may not understand everything we say (Liszkowski, 2018). Instead, they might be puzzled by what the adults communicate, and this may hinder effective communication between the toddler and the adult. As such, Margolis et al (2019) suggested that parents help children to effectively understand what is being said by saying things in different ways. Similarly, toddlers can easily understand what is being communicated by using the same words to describe things. By repeating some words, the child will understand them better. Also, when making requests or giving instruction to the child, parents can enhance the communication by making them clear and limiting them to one or two steps.


From the observation, both Leo and Charlie did not have to be taught the language, but, rather, they learned their communication skills from the everyday interactions with their parents and how their parents tune in and responds to those communication. For instance, in my observation with Leo, I noted how his mum gently says something about him pushing out a poo, then he turns to his mother and waves the teather at her, before starting to make an aaa, aaa aaa sound. The same scenario was observed in the case of Charlie where he makes the daadadaaa sounds as the mother responds, suggesting that he is referring to his dad.

It was also interesting to note how both mothers tuned and responded to their children are interested in – by making comments or asking questions and giving them the time to respond. For instance, in the case of Leo, his mother comments ‘you are chatty!” Leo then waves his hands in an out like he is trying to initiate a conversation. His mother then gets a hat and attracts his attention by calling: “Leo, Leo” as a means of preventing the child from feeling ignored and distracting him. As Leo starts to make the aaa, aaa, aaa sounds again, her mom moves her face close to his hands and repeats the sound, making him smile and wobble his body as if to express happiness. An observation of Charlie also reveals the same actions, whereby as Charlie receives a bar of cereals and makes noises as if to be enjoying the snack, her mother replies with the question: “Do you like it?” “I bet you do!”

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Literature also suggest that to help the child to develop better communication skills, paeents should give the child time to find the right words or actions to express themselves rather than putting words in their mouth. In Leo’s case, her mother responds to him chewing his teether and asks him if that is a ‘rumble in his bumble?’. Without receiving any response to the question, her mother asks the same question again and waits for Leo to respond without putting words in his mouth. Leo responds with a louder sound of aaaa, aaaa, aaa. A similar observation was made in the case of Charlie, where his mom offers him a spoon and waits for his response. he does not seem to very keen on the spoon, refuses it and protests with moaning sound. This demonstrates how giving the chance a chance to respond or communicate back without putting words in thir mouth facilitates their effective communication.

It was also interesting to see how the two mothers turn ther children’s body language into words, even if the children were unable to watch speak or lack words to express their feelings or ideas. As highlighted in earlier reviewed literature, both parents encouraged their children to express themselves by repeating back what they think children have said or want, by talking to them and making connections with them. For example, the following observation demonstrates this feature of communication between Leo and his mother:

She pops him back down on the sofa, moves her face close to his and says ‘ma ma ma’ she laughs and says’ not dadada- mamama’ There is a pause and he moves his body closer to her, whilst his bottom stays on the spot, as though he is responding to her and he says what sounds more like ‘da da da’ or ‘ya ya ya

In conclusion, most children may not notice, or even mind being observed. Others also appear to acknowledge and like attention given to them. Nonetheless, the relationship between the observer and the observed within a psychoanalytical observation process can be likened to that between a container and the contained, whereby there is an immersive process that allows feelings and emotions to resonate, even though this depends on the observer’s capacity. Just as simple gestures by the child demonstrate means of communication between infants and adults, so do simple sounds and movements of the child.


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