Such a simple term but when using this term in early childhood settings it can become a little confusing as to what is really expected when we talk about ‘observing children’. Observing is obviously the act of looking and watching but in our profession we need to take that one step further. It also encompasses the skills of listening, questioning, reflecting and documenting what we actually see and then interpreting succinctly in order to identify and support a child’s strengths, needs, interests and development.
When writing observations keep in mind that you cannot know exactly what a child is feeling so you should be writing or noting what you see and hear…not how you think he/she is feeling. Be factual, it might help to remember the two words below as I go into further detail about observation styles.
Subjective — writing what you think the child feels
You also want to be aware of ‘setting the environment’ because you know you want to do an observation on a child. To be able to observe the authentic child and associated play you need to be unobtrusive and observing the play in your usual setting. As adults we feel uncomfortable when we know someone is following us around with a clipboard and pen as they observe….consider that a child will feel the same way!As well as gathering information on a child’s development you are also aiming to gather information on a child’s emerging skills
Let’s break that down….or in training speak ‘unpack it’!
You are basically gathering information about a child to inform your programming and ensure you are planning appropriate activities, strategies and experiences for each individual child and also the whole group. You are aiming to foster their development.
- First watch and observe….look for significant moments…not just moments to meet this week’s observation quota – that is a waste of your time and does nothing to extend a child’s learning journey. It needs to be authentic to be useful as an observation.
- Listen to what the children and other staff are saying
- Record what you see and what you hear using the format/template/style that suits the situation, the time you have to observe, but also your particular skill and comfort level.
- Incorporate visual or audio tools into your observation if you are comfortable doing so and it helps to build your overall picture or story.
- Briefly reflect and interpret what you have just observed…identify strengths, interests, needs, developmental skill, emotional state, potential. Recall and reflect upon the EYLF learning outcomes as well as the primary developmental areas of social, emotional, physical, cognitive, language and creative (don’t worry, more about this below!)
- Use your reflection/evaluation summary to now plan your experiences, environments and focus activities. Some might call this ‘Forward Planning’
So we OBSERVE, RECORD, REFLECT & INTERPRET then use all of that to PLAN our PROGRAM.
When you add an activity/environment or experience to your plan that has evolved from an observation you make a note of that in your programming(more on how to do that below) and you have then ‘linked’. Told you it was simple!
But now I hear you saying “But what about the EYLF outcomes?” It tells us we need to do observations in a certain way and I don’t understand it, it’s too much work”. Going to stop you right there and gently prod you toward re reading your Early Years Learning Framework because there is a lot of incorrect information out there regarding what you need to do to meet the new requirements.
I’m going to bust a few myths for you right now….although as always keep in mind that this blog is purely my own interpretation and reflection based on my own reading of the document and service practice.
Before you try to answer that keep in mind that you don’t need to just settle on using one format….remember you can combine a few different methods or you can just stick with one until you are confident with that approach. It really is about your ‘system’ as a whole. Yes I know I keep saying that in all these programming posts but that should be telling you something! If you do not approach your observing and programming systematically it becomes easy to miss parts of the cycle or certain children and that is when it becomes easy to get overwhelmed or frustrated.
Let’s explore a few of the more popular formats…there are more but these are the ones I am most familiar with and have used over the years so that’s what you are getting! The key is to try a variety of styles to build a picture of the child, a group of children and whole of service to inform and support your planning.
Keep in mind that no matter the style you use you should always include the following information if possible…
- Name of child
- Time of observation
- Setting of observation
- Date of Observation
Anecdotal records are similar to running records except they are written in the past tense. Anecdotes describe what happened in a factual, objective manner, telling how it happened, when and where it happened, and what was said and done. You can therefore write these observations up after the event occurred making them a little more user friendly for busy educators. You might like to jot a few notes in your diary or on a sticky note or two to give you little prompts for later when you are able to sit down to write up the observation.
I use this type of observation when I want to record a little more detail about a significant learning event. I usually also like to include a few photos to add to the text. When using this format I try to use the language and context of the EYLF so that correlations can easily be made to the outcomes. In previous training (or the ‘olden days’ ) we were taught to focus more on the developmental learning or achievments taking place, I still focus on this but I also incorporate elements of the EYLF and identifying current strengths. It’s really not hard, just a shift in thinking and language.
This is the format I currently use for recording anecdotal records for individual children. I file them in the children’s computer folder portfolio.
First let me say I am not a huge fan of learning stories but I know many are and they do play a valuable role in many programs so I thought I should give them a mention.
This is pretty self explanatory but don’t underestimate the power of photos or audio snippets of the child’s voice!
Many people now like to compile a collage of photos relating to a specific experience or activity accompanied by short blocks of text further detailing the learning or journey taking place. You can make them simple with few words therefore allowing the photos to tell the story or you can add more text if you see the need to tell the story in more detail.This format also makes it easy to include ‘the children’s voice’ which immediately sets the context of learning. I like this method because I can take photos of significant moments as we play, no need for notes and clipboards!
Here’s a few examples of how I do mine…..obviously I write text in the blank spaces. Sometimes I fill a space, sometimes I just add some brief dot points and let the photos tell the story.
I know many people also use apps on their phones or programs on their computer which can be very helpful for those who embrace these methods and find they save time. I prefer to make my own templates and use photo programs such as picmonkey.com to put together the collages. You can just insert some photos into a word document though, add a little text and it will be just as useful!
Another thing I love about using photos is that they are an instant record but I don’t need to put them together into a document until I have the time to do so. The photos act as a prompt and sometimes I don’t get to them until a week or so later but I immediately remember the significant moment I wanted to record when I see the photos.
Visual Displays of Work
I like to send the majority of the children’s craft and artwork home as it is important to them and to me that they share their hard work and tell the story of their learning to their family at the time it happens. But with their permission and involvement I often put together some visual displays so they can share their journey with friends and family within the care environment. Parents really enjoy spending some time looking through the displays and making the connections to learning.
Artwork samples with the children’s voice included
Just because I send the majority of artwork home doesn’t mean I don’t keep a record of it and the process and learning that was involved! Again, photos are a valuable resource here and I often compile photos of the children’s work and accompany with some very brief anecdotal text of what was happening or even just the children’s voices which goes toward displaying the children’s progress as they travel the path of their learning journey.
The samples might be individual or group projects. I then save these in the children’s computer portfolio folder as well as my own children’s files.
Daily journals or reflections
You can use your daily reflections and journal jottings to provide observational evidence. You don’t need reams of paper to tell a story. I often refer to my ‘our day’ forms in my forward planning and it comes together over time to tell a story.
I also use the weekly reflections on my program which I complete at the end of each week (obviously) 😉 As I said in my previous post, there is no reason why one document or form can’t meet a number of goals and therefore make your job a little easier.
Everyone will reflect in different ways and it would take to long to go into detail here but just know that you can use these reflections to form part of your evaluation and ongoing planning. I’ll be following up with a post about reflective practice soon.
If you are looking for some simple templates like this to use you will find the editable PDF versions of the ones above and much more in my Essential Templates Toolkit for educators HERE.
Developmental checklists are often seen as ‘old school’ but they can still be incorporated into today’s programming guided by the EYLF and NQS. I think it always helps to draw up your own checklists based on your knowledge of developmental milestones and age appropriate behaviour (I really hope they are still teaching the milestones to students today!)
This way you can include the milestones you want to check or observe and also include a space for a brief comment…this allows you to put the abilities or deficits of learning into context. You would also add the date each particular milestone or goal was met.
Checklists aren’t as popular as an observation tool as they used to be but I still believe they have their place and can easily be modified to embrace the elements of the EYLF. There is no reason why you can’t use checklists to identify both strengths and weaknesses and use them to form part of your evaluation of a child’s learning.
Learning stories involve educators detailing the general learning of the child which is occurring in an observation but it is presented in a more creative way, often accompanied my photos to provide further evidence of a child’s learning. They are usually also a little easier for parents to understand as they aren’t too technical but they do take more time to read and time poor parents often prefer more visual examples of their child’s progress (in my experience).
When writing a learning story you don’t need to worry about using subjective terms or including your own interpretations when writing about the child’s actions which is why many educators like them.You can write in a storyteller (narrative) format to capture the meaningful elements you are observing within the learning process before you.
Learning stories usually focus on what the children can do rather than what they can’t whereas the running record and anecdotal records often focus on identifying gaps in development (which they actually don’t need to, it has just been the traditional way in years past). The idea is that you are recognising and describing the learning you see and writing about it in a story type format.
If you want more information about how to write learning stories this article explains the process in an easy to understand format. I will just say that if you choose to use learning stories then you should be aware of not spending too much time writing a lovely story but at the end not really have anything concrete to work with. I have seen some wonderful stories but struggle to understand the reason behind them or how they can be used to further support the ongoing journey of learning for the child. Just something to consider as they can be very time consuming. Some people love to do them though – it’s all about finding your own style!
Photos or audio of learning taking place
My advice if using checklists though is to not just rely on ticking and crossing off milestones…you want to add some details so that you get a clear picture of the learning or struggle that is taking place. Just something brief, a line or two. This is how you can then use checklists to document the progress of a child’s journey and help inform your future planning and therefore incorporate elements of the EYLF at the same time.
Reflections/Interpretation – What Does It Mean?
This is a question I have been asked a lot in the last few weeks. This blog post is already too long (again!) but I am going to try and explain quickly as it really shouldn’t be a difficult process for a trained educator. Perhaps it will help though to put it into simple terms.
You’ve written an observation and gee it’s good….but what does it mean and what purpose does it offer? To ensure you didn’t just waste your time you now need to reflect upon and evaluate your observation. Now you get to use your ninja early childhood skills (hmm, bit tired sorry) but you do!
Read over the observation, look at the photos, try to recall the moment as often you will not be completing your evaluation at the same time…well I rarely do as I like to break up things into blocks, you might be different. Either way, now you want to write down what is taking place.
Consider asking yourself what is happening, why, when and how? Evaluating children’s observations allows us to identify the children’s strengths, interests and opportunities for further development. Interpreting an observation is not just writing a summary of a child’s development, you are interpreting developmental skills, capabilities, potential, emerging interests and preferences. This is how you will then be able to plan future appropriate experiences, activities and environments.
When interpreting and evaluating a child’s learning and capabilities consider not only talking about the child’s development in the traditional main areas (i.e social, emotional, physical, cognitive etc) that were demonstrated but also using the Early Years Learning Framework. I believe both can play an important role in today’s evaluations and provide a more holistic picture of the child.
So you understand how to talk about the developmental learning taking place but not how to incorporate the framework principles as well? You could list the outcome numbers if you want, I know that many do but often a child’s demonstrated learning can overlap into a number of areas so I find it easier to just ‘use your words’ (yep, a little educator humour there…stick with me).
What I mean by that is finding the outcomes you feel correspond to the learning that you observed and write about it in that context without having to actually list the numbers and make it to formal.
Did you recognise the two framework outcomes the above phrases refer to? Let me know in the comments below! So you look at the outcomes and decide what might be important to note in your interpretation, then include some of that wording. I also try to include the language in my reflections and parent communication forms too if possible.
Interpreting just the important or significant events within an observation does take a little practice and at first you might find you write a fair bit so that it is clear in your mind and you might try to include everything you think is important. Over time though you will come to recognise the significant learning as you are observing instead of after and only need to add a short summary to outline the child’s learning and abilities.
It is important to remember that you are not rewriting the observation to tell a story but are just trying to highlight the area of skill or need that the child has demonstrated. You need to interpret then summarise the skills, development and behaviours which are included in the observations you have taken. There should be a direct link…not flowery wording of what you think *might* be important to add. This will then form a valuable part of your programming cycle or system and help your future planning for the child or group.
We then move to the final step in the observation/planning cycle and here you will tie it all together!
When you have evaluated your observation and confirmed where the child’s progress is, you can then think of their next steps. You don’t need to feel you have to write reams of next steps; if it is a short observation you may just add 1 activity or experience in your forward planning. If it was a detailed observation you might add a number of activities to do over a few weeks.
So let’s bring it home (I am meant to be bathing children and cooking dinner right now although even this is more interesting than that I admit).
The final frontier…..forward planning and linking this to your programming!
Forward Planning & Linking Effectively.
I know a lot of people struggle with this part but I actually find it the easiest part of the cycle so hopefully I can help. With your interpretation and summary complete, you can now think about which skills, capabilities, potential, interests and preferences you wish to focus your attention on for the sake of program planning. You can also look at a deeper level, linking the learning the child has completed in the documented observation to the EYLF which should be guiding your program planning.
When using your interpretations and summaries to devise experiences, activities and environments which will foster the child’s development, be sure to look closely at the skills the child is already showing and then plan for an activity, experience or environment which would further develop the demonstrated skills. Make sure you are offering different experiences in your forward planning, not just a extended version of the activity you observed previously. You need to plan from your interpretation and summary not just the observation.
This will ensure that the child, the group and you as an educator are not getting bored, that the experiences you continue to provide are varied and foster different skills. Planning is more than just the next activity on a program. Your future planning should be looking at resources, materials, people, routines, expectations and strategies .Try to think outside the box a little and also how you could incorporate the activities into group learning experiences and not just individual focus activities.
When you have listed the activities you want to plan, you then need to find a way to make sure you are linking that activity back to your original observation so that you can come back and reflect upon how the planned activity went. Did it meet expectations, challenge the child etc?
This is where a lot of people use initials, dots, colours, symbols etc as well. Personally they all do my head in so I added an area to my program where I add ‘focus children activities’ with the corresponding observation date. I then come back to my forward planning form when the activity is completed and write a brief summary of how the experience went and date when it occurred. If I have forgotten when that was I just look back at my ‘our day’ reflection forms from the week. It’s hard to explain so I am going to finish this novel by showing you my observation/forward planning cycle. But I developed this system because it suits my style and works efficiently as a system for me…it might not for you but you might be able to take something away from seeing it in action. If symbols etc work best for you then stick with it!
My Documentation System in Summary
1.Observe & Take Photos
First I observe using similar to one of the following styles……
2. Reflections & Parent Communication
I also use my individual “My Day” communication sheets as well as my group “Our Day” daily reflections record which are emailed to parents at the end of the day and also filed in the children’s digital portfolio folders on the computer.
3. Analysis of Learning & Forward Planning
I now use my individual analysis and forward planning record form to begin the process of interpretation, forward planning and evaluation.
You can see on the form that I have listed the above observation styles down the left side so when I come to use the form I just tick which method I used and add the date.
4. Evaluate & Forward Plan
I then add my interpretation or analysis of learning, jot down some future planning ideas and activities and then add a date corresponding to the program I will be adding them to (in the focus children activities box on the fortnightly plan)
When the activities are completed I come back to this form and write the date activity was observed and a brief evaluation of how the activity proceeded…not a story just a few notes, no need to go overboard, it’s really just logging another stepping stone in the child’s ongoing journey.
I am always updating and tweaking my weekly programming to suit my needs and the children currently in care (There is no rule that says you have to stick with the one style or template!).
Please keep in mind I am sharing the system that works for me, it might not for you but I do hope there is something here that you might be able to take away that makes your life a little easier when it comes to working out your own planning cycle. There are many more ways that I haven’t covered but there is only so much writing a gal can do on her weekend!
Want to download a free print friendly version of this article for further reflection and support?
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Finally, when considering your observation and reflection techniques perhaps ask yourself these 2 questions….
1.Am I gathering information on children’s learning and development using a range
2. How am I using this information to extend and enrich learning for each child?
By Marie Tree
Date Posted: December 15th
This article was written by Marie Tree in 2010 as a record of her child observation assignment for her post-qualifying Specialist Social Work Award course at Portsmouth University. When submitting it article Marie wrote remarked that when completing this assignment she was taken “back to my early days in the 1990’s when I did have what now seems the luxury of reflecting on my practice.”
A Child Observation Assignment
by Marie Tree
“In childhood, everything was more vivid – the sun brighter, the smell of fields sharper, the thunder louder, the rain more abundant and the grass taller”.
The context for my observation was a local authority Children’s Centre which provides Ofsted registered care for babies and children between 0 months and 5 years. The Children’s Centre has been classed as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted since June 2006 and has been working with children with additional needs since the 1970’s.
The setting was a group of 12 children of mixed sexes, all of mixed abilities such as physical and learning difficulties. The group was well staffed (by women) with some children having one to one support. The setting is headed by a teacher and the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum guides the work, and the children learn through play.
The observations were based upon the Tavistock model (Bick 1964) and my remit was to observe a child for 1×4 hours and record my observations after the sessions. I also included my reflections, dilemmas and prejudices with my seminar group.
The staff at the Children’s Centre were aware of my role, and the purpose of my observations. A 2½ year old little girl was selected and I shall call her Anna (pseudonym). I had no contact with Anna’s parents, although the Children’s Centre informed them of my remit and they gave their written consent.
The first session took place after lunch and I placed myself at the back of the room, discreetly tucked into a corner hoping that my presence would not be noticed. How wrong I was!
The room was filled with an array of spontaneous discoveries, books, toys, computers, sand, paint and dressing up clothes and the clutter of noise and emotions reminded me of my own home where I have three young children, where exploring the world extends their nascent theories as to how the world works.
Initially, I found it very difficult to sit and focus on Anna solely, as I was used to talking and making eye contact with children, and not being able to engage or speak was difficult. For the first session, I watched Anna intently and I had to clear my head of any judgments of her which were purely based on bits of information I had picked up from staff. I had based assumptions of Anna’s background and life, which were purely speculative and ill informed.
It was this reflection that helped me focus between fact and feeling and challenging myself on how the information I had been given about Anna had given considerable weight in how I thought she might play and socialize with other children. I needed to separate these two contradictory parts (Goldstein, 1990).
I watched Anna carefully glide from one activity to the next, first playing with the sand letting it quickly sift through her fingers and making shapes and marks with the palms of her hands. She slowly toddled off when a young boy, eager to play more adventurously nudged her out of the way.
Watching Anna play, I did think of her goals and what she was trying to create through her thought and actions, and I did think of Piaget’s (1973) theory on children’s cognitive development. Again, I had to challenge my assumptions on stages of Piaget’s theory as they are not fixed and concrete in any child.
On several occasions, children came up to me bringing toys, books and requests to go to the toilet, and at one point, a young child stood in front of me for what seemed like a very long time. I replied only briefly to the children and avoided eye contact when possible.
My desire to become involved with the children was very strong, and it was difficult to refuse a simple request from a small child. However, remaining in a passive role allowed me to stand back and slow down and examine in detail the relationship with the child. (Bridge et al, 1996, p.113).
The method of sitting observing Anna was at times alien to me and having no prescriptive focus other than observe made me feel vulnerable. It felt like the anxieties that Segal (2003) identified in his work as ‘professionals giving up control and being open to what is emerging’. (Segal, 2003, p.16).
How I managed my feelings around observing Anna also reminded me of the work by Isabel Menzies Lyth (1989) who wrote about anxiety and how its experience, expression and sublimations are a major factor in determining personal and institutional behaviour.
I often refer to the work of Isabel Menzies Lyth when I am faced with uncertainties, and it is my acknowledgment and containment of these feelings that will impact on the overall work that I do with children and their families. In the room with Anna, I had to contain my feelings around the observation.
Anna continued throughout my observation to drift from one activity to the next. At one point, I observed her clasp the hand of a worker and pull her gently towards the book corner. The worker gently tapped the hand of Anna, letting her know she was aware of the request.
At that moment, I thought of how unique and complex children are as they do not have the language to explain how they think and explore the world that surrounds them. By slowing down and observing them, we have the advantage and a willingness to speculate. Ending the hour observation was less problematic than I thought and I quietly put my coat on and said goodbye with a few children holding gaze with me as I left the room.
In the next session with Anna, I felt more relaxed and in tune with what I was trying to do. It was much more comfortable not having to put any kind of theory into practice. I had the added luxury of not having paper and pens or an assessment to complete. It was a time to observe Anna and explore my own feelings.
Anna made eye contact with me on a few occasions and I would not be convinced that she knew that I was watching her; however, that is purely my interpretation. In this session, Anna lay dozing on and off on a bean bag, and although she already had had a nap earlier, she seemed somewhat tired and lethargic that day.
Beside Anna, on a separate beanbag, lay a child with cerebral palsy, and at that moment, I felt a gush of emotion run through me, and I was reminded of my own child with learning and mobility problems. Two children, side by side, one able bodied and the other, confined to a soft cushion. Rustin (2004) identifies this problem well and suggests that recognizing feelings and working with this is very important in the work that we do. I am aware as a practitioner, that we risk professional dangerousness if our roles and boundaries are not clearly defined. Our relationships with clients need to be based on objectivity and self awareness. This allows us to step outside our emotional needs and to be sensitive to the needs of others. (HMSO, 1988: Protecting Children). I believe for any effective intervention, the worker must remain quite distinct and separate, whole and intact.
It was good to be able to discuss my feelings with my seminar group and it is Erikson (1950) who talks about basic trust as the first stage of the eight stages of man. I believe that talking about observations was now similar to that described by Winnicott (1965) as holding and Bion (1962) as containing, and what emerged from the seminar group was a secure base where thoughts and feelings could be openly discussed amongst ourselves, and it was the first time that as a seminar group, that we spoke freely and openly about experiences during observations.
The remaining sessions observing Anna became enjoyable and watching her play was fascinating as her tiny hands grasped and touched the toys and objects around her. By observing her, I was to enter her world of self wonderment and capture moments by focusing solely on her.
I am aware of the importance of endings and although I had clearly given my remit to the staff, I said goodbye to the children and thanked them for allowing me to sit in their class. I think that they were more interested in circle time and the nursery rhymes to notice my quiet departure from the room.
Observing Anna had brought back the sense of refocusing on the child and their world. Being able to discuss feelings within the seminar group helped to contain hidden ideologies and prejudices within myself. Humphries (1988) puts this very well by describing ‘perspective transformation’ in which we can reflect and challenge our belief system, and through this, transformation occurs.
Having no social work task to do was a luxury. To sit and observe was a chance to explore the children’s lack of power, vulnerability and dependence on adults. So much of social work time is spent on the speed of completing assessments, ticking boxes, and only the neediest of children receive a service. In my view, much is lost to the benefits of observing children. Too often, only a snapshot of a child is all that a social worker can grasp when working with children and much is lost by not having a space for reflective and analytical practice which gives the worker a platform to critically evaluate and challenge their work.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of observing Anna, and my own criticism is not having more time spent on reflection with the seminar group.
Bick, Ester (1964) ‘Notes on Infant Observation in Psychoanalytic Training’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Bion, W (1962) Learning from Experience. Heinemann. London.
Bridge, G & Miles, G (eds) (1996) @On the Outside Looking in: Collected Essays on Young Child Observations’ in Social Work Training CCETSW.
Erikson, E (1950) Childhood and Society. New York Norton.
Goldstein, H (1990) ‘The Knowledge Base of Social Work Practice: Theory, Wisdom, Analogue or Art? Families in Society’: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, January, pp.32-43.
HMSO (1988) Protecting Children – A Guide for Social Workers. Undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment HMSO.
Humphries B (1988) ‘Adult Learning in Social Work Education: Towards Liberation of Domestication’ : Journal of Critical Social Policy, September, 8, 4-21
Menzies, Lyth, I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions. Selected Essays, Volume One, London : Free Association Books.
Piaget, J (1972) To Understand is to Invent New York : The Viking Press Inc.
Rustin M (2004) ‘Learning from the Victoria Climbie Enquiry’ : Journal of Social Work Practice. 18 (1): 9-18
Winnicott, D (1965) The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment London : Hogarth
Return to the Journal index here.