Assessment is dependent upon our observations of the children. Anne O’Brien, an experienced teacher and headteacher of young children, explores how we can use the observations we have made to inform the next stage of our planning.

Assessment includes

  • Observing the children as they play and learn
  • Talking with children and finding out what they know, can do and how they feel
  • Analysing and interpreting what you see and hear.

Assessment does not stand alone. It transcends all teaching and learning opportunities. It is an important starting point. When you know what the children can do and know, you can decide what they need next.

Assessment can enable you to improve your own professional skills. As you assess the children you will discover what is successful and what doesn’t work. You will be able to identify tasks, which allowed real growth and development of skills, and through analysis you will be able to identify the factors, which contributed to this success – and use them again to inform future planning. You will become a more skilled professional.

Three key questions to keep in mind are:

  • Why do we need it?
  • What can it tell us?
  • How can we use it?
  • supports children’s learning
  • affects future planning
  • contributes to professional development
  • amend your short term planning
  • inform your medium term and long term plans
  • adapt activities to suit the needs of individual children
  • modify tasks to match children’s known abilities
  • provide children with positive and specific feedback as they work and play.

The rest of this article provides a route into how effective observation within your setting can raise the level of professionalism amongst your staff. Staff need to be trained in how to observe, how to interpret
their observations and how to use the information they have acquired to inform their future planning and activities. 

We all know about the importance of observing children as they play, learn and interact with others. We see how they learn as we watch them. We notice the way they approach a problem. We can identify those who methodically try different ways or repeat their actions after a failed attempt. We identify those who give up on the first attempt if it’s not successful or those who are unwilling to try something new.

We see what they learn. We can spot steps towards the learning of skills and knowledge. We can see aspects that are proving too tricky at this moment.

So what! If your observations stop there, it has all been a waste of your time.

‘Observations are not an end in themselves but a tool for gathering information about a child.’ (Kay 2005, p90)

What happens to your observations?

Are they planned, or are your staff simply looking around and chancing upon a child achieving or struggling? If observations are recorded, how is that information then used? Here are some questions, which will help you to focus on what is happening in your setting. They could be a starting point for discussion with your team as you develop your assessment practice.

Are observations recorded as soon as possible?

  • Carry a notebook in your pocket and jot down your observations ready to be recorded later onto your formal documents
  • Keep a card index file – one child per card – in your room and jot down notes
  • Carry Post-it notes to jot down observations to be transferred to formal documents later

How often do you observe each child?

  • Put the names of the children for whom you are the key worker in your notebook, one per page, at the start of each day. Choose two or three of your children per day and observe them all on a rota system.
  • Allocate one member of the team per session to carry out observations of all of the children at a particular activity, and share the information later.
  • Put an agreed number of cards in the front of a file index box at the start of each day, and observe those for whom you are the key worker, returning their cards to the back of the box at the end of the day.
  • Make a weekly check to ensure all children are being observed regularly.

Do you observe children at a variety of activities over time?

  • Focus on one activity per session, having set up a specific activity for this.
  • Change the focus activity each session so that you cover child-led, adult-led, free and organised, indoor and outdoor, individual and group activities over the week.

Are all staff members involved in observations, discussion and planning?

  • Observations, planning and learning will be more effective if all members of your team are involved.

Do you discuss your observations with your colleagues?

  • Think about your plans: at the end of the week look through your observations together and evaluate the planned activities in relation to your observations. Did the activities allow the children to gain the skills or the knowledge that you intended? As you plan the next week’s activities use the information you have gathered about the children to inform these activities. Add comments to your planning documents. A tick or a cross next to an activity can be sufficient. If there are crosses, talk about how you can improve this next time. A quick note against an activity that worked particularly well can be useful for further discussion: why was it effective, can we use the same format again?

How do the children respond?

  • Are any children achieving too easily – they need additional challenges. Are any children struggling – they need opportunities to revisit activities or a different approach altogether. How can you involve children who are reluctant to join in? Has there been a marked change in any child’s behaviour, emotional state? Decide who/how you will respond

Did you include discussion on theory and pedagogy as you discussed your observations with your colleagues?

  • Do you make links between your observations of children’s learning or behaviour with your knowledge of child development?
  • Do you introduce discussions about up-to-date research findings, or new approaches to learning, as you plan to react/respond to your observations?

Did you change any plans or activities as a result of your observations?

  • If you did this is a sign that you are a reflective practitioner – thinking about what you do, what you offer the children and how you respond to the children
  • If you didn’t, you might need to consider – are your children getting an appropriate curriculum, is their learning and experience as good as it might be?

Kay J (2005) Good Practice in the Early Years. London: continuum