What is best practice when it comes to facilitating young children’s learning? Stephanie Mathivet, curriculum and standards manager for the Pre-school Learning Alliance, discusses this issue

The Early Years Foundation Stage requires all settings to carry out formative assessment from when a child first starts to attend a setting outside of the home, until the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Those responsible for curriculum leadership will need to focus their priorities towards developing sound assessment processes in order to assess and plan for each child. A clear vision is required on the part of the curriculum leader as to what will comprise the setting’s approach. All practitioners need to be part of that vision and feel that they have the skills and experience to contribute as well as be willing to learn.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: For a complete guide to establishing and running high-quality, sustainable early years provision with provides good outcomes for children and meets the needs of parents and carers, have a look at our Early Years Handbook.

Every practitioner, in their role as a child’s key person, will need to be able to carry out assessment to the required standard; this may be daunting for those who are less qualified, so a team approach is supportive to all and makes the most of everyone’s skills. In settings where there is a wide range of training and qualification levels, this is a challenging task and it is important to find ways of developing staff skills that keep everyone on board.

Seeing the early years setting as an informed community of practice (Anning and Edwards, 2003) will help to develop a whole-setting approach to assessment methodology that recognises the strengths, the knowledge and experience that each person contributes.

Practitioner teams, supported by the curriculum leader, will need time to discuss assessment processes in order to reflect on the children’s learning in a systematic way, considering also what they, the practitioners, are learning. A good case should be made for funding for cover to release staff for this vital aspect of skills development.

Anning and Edwards (2003) make the direct link between children’s learning and adult’s learning:

‘… children learn to love learning through being with adults who also love to learn, and are themselves in context that encourage their learning.’

The early childhood setting, when seen as a community of learners, is built on a shared understanding of practice, developed through reflection and enquiry. Getting to grips with the key themes and commitments of the EYFS, including that of assessment, would benefit from this kind of approach. Increasingly, the focus on quality improvement approaches is also based on reflective enquiry as a means to develop and improve, so it would seem advisable that training resources are focused in this direction.

Developing good practice in observing children
The EYFS places emphasis on the emotional and relational aspects of learning. From this starting point effective observation can begin that will lead to effective planning and support for children’s individual developmental pathways. Those taking the lead for curriculum development need to ensure practitioners understand the key person role and form sensitive and attuned attachment relationships with children, especially babies. Practitioners need to be able to tune into babies and children on multi-sensory levels, just as babies and young children are tuning in to their carers on these levels too, developing relationships that have a strong emotional and empathetic quality to them.

Practitioners are involved with the children they observe. They share spaces with them on daily basis and in this sense they are ‘participant observers’, rather than objective bystanders, in that they bring knowledge of the child as a person and knowledge of context to that observation. In observing a child, the practitioner’s intent is to ‘construct a shared understanding of children’s ways of interacting with the environment, of entering into relationships with other adults and other children and of constructing their knowledge’ (Gandini and Goldhaber, 2001).

Practitioners also bring themselves to the analysis of that observation, so the reflective process is crucial in developing the practitioner’s awareness of being non-judgemental. This reflective subjectivity is as important as having a strong knowledge of child development to draw on in order to understand what is being observed. In this way, real insights into how children are thinking and learning can grow.

Parents, dialogue, and documentation
Parents know their children deeply and intimately and the home environment is where the earliest learning takes place. This is of prime importance in understanding formative individual learning pathways, with practitioners building on a child’s early experiences. When settling a child into a setting, time needs to be made to allow the observation of the parent-child relationship, and the sharing of information that enables the relational triangle to develop between parent, child and key person. In Reggio settings, this process is known as ‘inserimento’ – the ‘opening of oneself to others’ (Bove, 2001), and is seen as vital to understanding and supporting children’s development and learning. Creating time and space for regular and ongoing sharing of information with parents is essential and needs to be part of everyday practice as it plays a vital part in the ongoing assessment process.

The written aspects of observing children include the note-taking of significant moments or achievements, as well as longer planned observations. These are important tools for practitioners and many curriculum leaders will attest that this is sometimes the skill that needs significant input and support to enable less-experienced staff get to grips with it.

However, in themselves, written observations carry only half the picture. Julie Fisher talks about the need to also have conversations – with children, with parents and other adults, as these provide practitioners with a ‘range of perspectives on each child and these perspectives help to form a rounded, balanced picture of the child’ (Fisher, 2002).

Parents’ ongoing contribution to the assessment process is vital. The Parents, Early Years and Learning (PEAL) project encourages settings to develop creative and inclusive ways of involving parents in their child’s early education, based on sharing and listening. To this end, they stress that in order for practitioners to engage in ‘regular two-way conversations about learning, sharing observations and planning with parents, they need to develop confidence and strong communication skills’ (DfES, 2006).

Creating a picture of learning
There are many ways to gather information about children’s learning and these have developed to incorporate methods that add depth and vision to the observation and recording aspects of assessment. The Reggio Approach uses the term ‘making learning visible’. Once we can see a picture of learning that is both visual and written we have a basis for a dialogue about that learning.

In recent years the use of digital cameras and videos has grown to provide a means of making learning visible that can be shared and discussed by all. What children say, the responses of other children and of staff, should be included when observing learning. Tape recordings, as well as video recordings, capture dialogue more accurately than the busy note-taking of the practitioner. However, this does not mean that there is no place for the Post-it note-type jottings, or detailed written observations. In fact, these complement each other, just as sketches or diagrams also help illustrate what is going on.

Considerable emphasis is placed on collecting ‘samples of children’s work’ – their drawings, mark-making and writing and, to be sure, these tell us a lot, especially when viewed over time. But development is not always sequential and a painting is not a product separate from the painting event. The finished picture may not show the stages that led to the completion of the piece as the early stages are no longer visible. The observation of the event, either on camera or in writing, illuminates that event, so any piece selected for an assessment folder is best served by accompanying it with the observation of the process.

Much is made of the need to chart individual achievement, but, for everything that we know about the social nature of learning, we still make little effort to really examine individual learning in the social context in which it is taking place. When curriculum leaders encourage practitioners, as they do in settings in Reggio Emilia, to document and reflect on the learning that takes place when children work and play together in groups, they can develop an understanding of ‘the ways in which groups develop ideas, theories, and understandings [that] is fundamental to the meta-cognitive activity that is critical to the learning of individuals as well as groups’ (Giudici et al, 2001).

Mapping the learning journey
Called learning stories or learning journeys, those wonderful scrapbooks full of images and traces of learning, contributed to by practitioners, parents, childminders and the child, are important documents that create a narrative of the child’s learning thus far. Perhaps now accompanied by a CD-Rom/DVD, these records can be celebrated at home, with grandparents in India or an auntie in Germany.

It is of vital importance that these documents belong to families and that our approach to assessment keeps in mind the value of these records for parents. These are still the most effective means of celebrating learning and achievement and are of far greater value than the document that looks like a school report.

Formative assessment gives the current picture and a trace of processes thus far – but practitioners also need to consider what next. Margaret Carr points out that ‘assessment that includes planning for progress will acknowledge that we don’t always know the direction of development and learning… Stories and narratives can capture moments of that development come to the surface, but the direction will be difficult to predict’ (Carr, 2003). Planning flexibly on a day-to-day basis acknowledges this unpredictability of learning, allowing the learning journey to unfold. Next steps in learning should only be traced as possible directions and not as linear, pre-defined targets; hence the importance of dialogue and sharing between all concerned, including the perspective of the child.

Considerations of summative assessment
Settings need to create summaries of learning, whether to track progress or to share with a new key person or provider at transition points along the way. A narrative summary of learning and development across the six areas of learning, alongside appropriate possible next steps, is sufficient and forms part of the learning journey record. Vicky Hutchin recommends nursery to reception transition records that are similarly constructed by local authorities, with personalised information about a child added to ‘make it come alive’ (Hutchin, 2007). She is critical of methods that previously used the ‘Stepping Stones’ of the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage as a tracking document and warns that the Development Matters section of the Early Years Foundation Stage should not to be used to develop scale point based transition checklists.

To summarise…
The process of developing effective practice for observation, record-keeping and planning must be considered from the perspective of a whole-team approach. This would be led and supported across the setting by the curriculum leader as a staff development process, linked to quality improvement and would involve practitioners, parents and children in learning about learning.

A range of ways of gathering information about children’s learning to build up the documentation toolkit, creating the traces of ‘learning made visible’ should be used. Learning must be seen from an individual, as well as a group, perspective, recognising that it is dynamic and unpredictable.

Planning should always be built on effective formative assessment that has been contributed to by all. Formative assessment records should be reviewed regularly and summaries created to ensure all aspects of learning are progressing.

These summaries form the basis of transition records shared with new key persons as well as new settings attended by the child; these too should be as personalised as possible rather than based on developmental checklists.

Curriculum leaders and practitioners need to be mindful of the power of assessment to shape the directions for children’s learning – not always in the best possible way. They should heed, as a final word from Bertram and Pascal (2002), the following caution: ‘Assessment regimes are not politically neutral, but, rather politically manipulative and ultimately coercive because they determine a child’s long term ability to make and shape the world in which they live.’

Effective assessment should, instead, be empowering for children, helping them discover for themselves what they need to learn and how they can best do that, celebrating their achievements along the way.

The Pre-school Learning Alliance’s preparation for the EYFS Stephanie Mathivet is curriculum and standards manager for the Pre-school Learning Alliance and leads its EYFS Implementation Group. To keep abreast of the EYFS, senior divisional staff attend the lead officers’ conferences organised by the National Strategies’ Foundation Stage Team. Senior staff from the Alliance’s National Centre also attend conferences led by Ofsted and use these channels to gather information for updating colleagues working at a local level. An important aspect of the EYFS Implementation Group’s work is to ensure all the Alliance publications are up to date. For some publications this may mean a ‘conversion’ insert, whereas others will be updated in a new edition or reprint .The Alliance has its own accreditation scheme, ‘Aiming for Quality’; this has been brought into line with the EYFS with a new conversion pack that supplements the existing materials. As the Alliance moves the direction of quality assurance towards a Quality Improvement approach, in line with national thinking, a new scheme will be launched in the future. Another major part of the Alliance’s work is the running of its accredited courses, in particular the Certificate and Diploma in Pre-school Practice. These will be revised in line with the developments arising from the work of the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC), particularly the revision of the National Occupational Standards and the endorsement of revised qualification programmes in the Integrated Qualifications Framework. The Alliance’s member settings have been kept informed about the changes that the EYFS will bring through a 10-part series of articles in its journal Under 5; these will also be made available as a separate leaflet. Training resources are currently being developed for settings to encourage a whole-setting approach to quality provision, training managers to act as mentors. This approach aims to promote the setting as a ‘community of learners’ developing a ‘knowledge community’. This will fully support the Alliance’s Quality Improvement approach to accreditation and will complement the revised Ofsted self evaluation form (SEF).



  • Anning, A and Edwards, A (2003)
  • Promoting Children’s Learning from Birth to Five. Open University Press, p145.
  • Bertram, T and Pascal, (2002) ‘Assessing What matters in the early years’ in The Foundations of Learning. Fisher, J (ed) Open University Press, p89.
  • Bove, C (2001) ‘Inserimento: A Strategy for Delicately Beginning Relationships and Communications’ in Gandini, L and Pope Edwards, C (eds) The Italian Approach to Infant Toddler Care. Teachers College Press, p114.
  • Carr, M (2003) Assessment in Early Childhood Settings – Learning Stories. Sage Publications, p 61.
  • DfES (2006) Parents, Early Years and Learning (PEAL) Resource Pack.
  • Fisher, J (2002) Starting from the Child. Second edition. Open University Press, p21.
  • Gandini, L and Goldhaber, J (2001) ‘Two Reflections about Documentation’ in Gandini, L and Pope Edwards, C (eds) Bambini: The Italian Approach to Infant Toddler Care. Teachers College Press, p125.
  • Giuidici, C, Rinaldi, C and Krechevsky, M (2001) Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners. Reggio Children srl, p16.
  • Hutchin, V (2007) Supporting Every Child’s Learning across the EYFS. Hodder Education, p112.