Virginia Commonwealth University
September 17, 2013
Bookmark and Share

Mary Tobin, M.Ed.

Ms. Julia teaches four-year-olds in a half-day preschool program. Recently, Ms. Julia noticed that Neil, one of the little boys in her class, has become more aggressive with the other children and increasingly uncooperative. His behaviors range from hitting and biting to pushing and grabbing toys from other children. These behaviors occur during center time and on the playground. During more structured times of the day, such as morning meeting, music, and story time, he participates and appears to be engaged. What’s more puzzling to her is that Neil’s behaviors are relatively new. Using Ms. Julia’s dilemma as an example, we will look at how the action research cycle helped her find a solution.

What is action research?


As teachers realize that action research is a process of being more intentional and purposeful, it will seem less daunting and more appealing as a way to engage in rich professional development.

Action research was first conceived by Kurt Lewin in the early 1900s as a way for industry to research more efficient ways of doing business. There were three steps in the action research cycle: discovery, intervention, and evaluation. There was also a distinction between the researcher and the persons being researched (Glesne, 1999, p.13). Today, action research uses similar steps: think, do, reflect, and evaluate. This problem-solving process is what makes action research ideal for early childhood teachers. Quality preschool classrooms are set up for hands-on exploration and inquiry. As early childhood teachers, we get to be a part of this trial-and-error culture and make discoveries with our students. The same is true for action research.

For many teachers, the idea of doing research can be intimidating. However, it is important to understand that “action research is not unlike what all good teachers do, sometimes without even realizing it” (Levin, 2006, p.32). We solve problems in the moment as a reaction to children’s behavioral, developmental, and learning challenges. We reflect on the data we collect, test out our theories, and take new action steps. Once teachers realize that action research is a process of being more intentional and purposeful, it will seem less daunting and more appealing as a way to engage in rich professional development.

How can Ms. Julia use action research?

The action research cycle identifies five steps which guide you through this process (see Figure 1). The first step for Ms. Julia is to decide what her research question will be. She knows she needs to better understand Neil’s behavior. Perhaps her research question could be: What changes have occurred in Neil’s learning environment to cause his behavior to become aggressive and uncooperative? Her question focuses on possible triggers for Neil’s inappropriate behavior. She also wonders if his family is seeing similar behavior at home. Her next step is to talk to Neil’s mother and find out what she has observed at home. After doing this, she discovered that they were both seeing the same aggression and noncompliance during unstructured times of the day.

Figure 1

Five steps of the action research cycle

  1. Identify what you would like to investigate and turn it into an answerable question.
  2. Develop a strategy for answering the question.
  3. Begin to collect information.
  4. Plan specific strategies that will influence the behavior or situation in question.
  5. Evaluate how the strategies work in an ongoing way.

Levin, D. (2004)

Based on her research question, Ms. Julia chooses several strategies for collecting data. First, she develops a behavioral scale so she can track his behavior throughout the morning rating his stimulation level from 1 to 5. A score of 1 represents calm and cooperative behaviors and a score of 5 represents overstimulated and undesired behaviors. Ms. Julia rated Neil’s behavior every 30 minutes to see if there is a pattern in his behavior. Next, she established a set time to reflect on the morning once her children left for the day. She uses this time to analyze the data she has collected. Ms. Julia uses the information she has gathered to review her lesson plans and develop strategies to support Neil.

The data that Ms. Julia has collected proved to be beneficial. She discovered that during times in the routine where there is less structure, Neil quickly becomes overstimulated and as a result becomes aggressive and uncooperative. The action she took as a result of the data, was to meet with Neil’s mother and share what she learned. Ms. Julia also spoke with an occupational therapist who visited her classroom to get ideas for activities that would provide frequent opportunities for Neil to do heavy work using his large muscles. These types of activities provide sensory input and may help reduce Neil’s overstimulation. She suggested putting out containers filled with sand for him to move around the playground, setting up opportunities for him to bare weight on his arms by such things as crab walking.

Now that Ms. Julia’s has an awareness of the impact her planning and the environment have on Neil, she is more intentional about what activities she plans and the level of support he needs to be successful. For Ms. Julia, the investigation draws to a conclusion after going through the research cycle once. However, for others it may require multiple cycles to get information that is useful.

Action research is beneficial for teachers and children alike. It helps “teachers develop a deeper understanding of their students, of the teacher-learning process, and their role in the educational lives of children.” (Borgia, 1996, p.1) Because teachers are active in the development and design of the investigation, they are often more committed to implementation of changes derived from the process.


Borgia, E.T., & Schuler, D.(1996). Action research in early childhood education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED401047). Retrieved from

Glesne, C. (1999). Becoming qualitative researchers an introduction. New York: Longman

Levin, D.E.. (2006) Action research: What is it? Why is it important? Retrived Feburary 26, 2013, from



booksT/TAC Library