Observing and assessing children’s development

3.1 Observing and Recording

How do teachers know if the materials in the activity centres are of interest to children? How do they know if the activities are meeting the needs of children? How can teachers share information with parents in a way that accurately describes how their children are spending their time? How do teachers document a concern that they have about a child’s behavior? How do teachers individualize an activity?

These are some of the questions that teachers should ask themselves as they plan activities, adapt the environment, and interact with children.

One method that teachers have found useful is to observe children in their natural environments – home, classroom, and outdoors – and to record their observations. In this way, they have concrete information that they can share with parents and other members of the teaching team.

Observation is the process of watching a child at work or play without interfering in the activity.

Recording is the process of documenting the observed activity or behavior. Although many teachers do this naturally a systematic approach helps ensure that children are observed participating in many different activities over time.

Teachers’ observations must be sensitive and detailed. Young children are often unable to express in words what they express in action. A child might express frustration by throwing the paper on the floor when he cannot cut with scissors. A big smile might be the only indication we have that a child has climbed to the top of the slide for the first time. As Cohen and Stern observe,

Children communicate with us through their eyes, the quality of their voices, their body postures, their gestures, their mannerisms, their smiles, their jumping up and down, their listlessness. They show us, by the way they do things, as well as by what they do, what is going on inside them. When we come to see children’s behavior through the eyes of its meaning to them, from the inside out, we shall be well on our way to understanding them. Recording their ways of communicating helps us to see them as they are. (Cohen and Stem, 1974).

By recording their observations, teachers document children’s work and the quality of that work or interaction. This information enables them to better evaluate and set goals for that child. Over time, observations of the child can reveal patterns of behavior, learning preferences, mastery of skills, and developmental progress.

3.1.1 Observation Guidelines

To function as an observer, the teacher must set aside the time to observe and have the right tools to record her observations. No teacher can be a totally objective observer. Teachers should try, however, to describe accurately the behaviours they record, without subjective interpretation or labelling. Objective observations do not include what the teacher thinks or feels happened; rather, they describe what the child actually did or said.

Objective observations are factual statements: “Jo picked up the block and threw it at Samuel,” or, “Marie spent her time outdoors sitting under the tree.”

Subjective observations are labels, judgments, or information recorded out of context: “Jo is aggressive” or, “Marie is lazy.” Labels do not convey information that helps in understanding a child’s development.

An observation should also be detailed and descriptive. For instance, recording “Adam chose to build with blocks in the block area,” gives information about the choice Adam made and the materials he worked with. It does not provide as much information as the following, more complete, anecdotal observation: “As soon as Adam came into the classroom, he announced to his friends, Mica and Sol that he wanted to ‘build the biggest house in the city.’ He invited them to join him. Together they used all the blocks available and built a house with seven rooms. Adam asked me to make a sign for his house, which I wrote out and he copied onto yellow paper. The sign said, ‘The Big House.’ Adam stayed in the block centre for fifty minutes.”

This record documents what Adam chose to work on? It illustrates that he had thought about and planned what he wanted to build prior to coming to school. It also indicates that he included others, shared his ideas, and expanded his block play into the area of literacy. Finally, he sustained attention for a long, uninterrupted period of time.

It did not take the teacher long to observe Adam and describe his activity in detail. When she reviews his records for planning, she will be able to encourage and expand upon his interests. She will also have an anecdote to share with his family.

Other types of observations can range from short notes jotted on a piece of paper to checklists that pinpoint specific activities.

3.1.2 Informal Observation Techniques

  • Anecdotal Records

These are brief accounts of specific incidents. They tell a picture in words. They should give factual information about what happened, when it happened, where it happened, the stimulus for the activity, the child’s reactions, and how the action ended. They can quote what the child said and describe the quality of behavior. The previous description of Adam is an example of an anecdotal observation.

  • Narratives or Diary Records

These are daily notes or impressions of group and individual activities that are recorded at the end of the day. They tend to be somewhat subjective and often capture a quick impression or mood. They are useful for tracing some of the successes and failures of the day’s events. For example:

The group activity of hide-and-seek did not go well today. The children were restless and quickly lost interest. They much preferred our nature walk and are looking forward to watching the salamander eggs hatch. Michelle was especially interested in exploring the stream today, examining the water with the magnifying glass and guessing what the squirming creatures were. She was reluctant to return to class, and I had to ask her to come three times.

  • Daily Health Checks

Every morning as children enter the classroom the teacher should take note of their health status. Is the child’s nose running or stuffed? Does the child seem flushed or feverish? Is there a rash? Any bruises or lacerations? Are eyes tearful or running? Is the child scratching her head? Is the child hearing well, or might his ears be filled with fluid? Is the child limping? Does the child have diarrhoea? If the child is unwell, the teacher should let the parents know immediately and keep the child quiet and away from other children if possible. In addition to these daily health checks, routine vision and hearing screenings should be performed by the health department. A record of all required immunizations should be on file.

  • Teacher Observation Checklists

An observation checklist identifies specific behaviours to be observed. A developmental checklist structures the process of systematically collecting information on a child’s level of functioning in various areas. It typically lists skills that have been sequenced in the order that they are generally learned. The checklist may assess domains such as fine and gross motor, expressive and receptive language, intellectual, social-emotional, and self-help skills. These checklists provide information about what a child can and cannot do in each developmental area. Teachers can use this information to help set goals for a child and plan activities that help the child progress. An example of a developmental checklist, Observation Checklist for Teachers, is at the end of this chapter.

Other checklists provide teachers with a record of what learning centres the children choose, or which materials they use most often. They are helpful in assuring, for example, that children who spend most of their free time in the art area are encouraged to explore other activity centres. The teacher can help the child make this transition by setting up a favourite art activity in another part of the room, such as painting clouds and the sky for a castle that will be built with blocks and small boxes.

  • Frequency Counts and Time Samples

These techniques help a teacher keep track of the number of times a behavior occurs. A tally is kept for a specified time (“Sue hit another child five times during outdoor play today,”) or the length of time a behavior lasted (“Thomas cried for eight minutes when he was asked to wash up for lunch.”) These records can be used to help a child reduce or diminish a negative behavior. For example, if the teacher discovers that Thomas cries whenever there are transitions from one activity to the next, she may be able to help him by alerting and preparing him before the transition occurs. This method is effective only if the behavior is overt and frequent.

Portfolios or Work Samples

These are collections of work that a child does over time. They can include drawings, dictated stories, and attempts at writing words and numbers, and language samples, which are transcriptions of the exact words a child uses to express a thought or idea. In addition, a series of photographs can provide a visual picture of the child at work. Tape recordings of a child’s conversation can also be included. These are highly individualized collections.

Children enjoy reviewing their work with teachers and reminiscing about when they did it and what it means to them. They may also be interested in selecting work to put in their portfolios themselves. Family members are often surprised to see the diversity of their child’s work when teachers share the portfolios at conferences. Children should always be aware that teachers will share their portfolios with their parents.

  • Interviews and Conversations

Children are happy to discuss their thoughts, ideas, and work with adults if they trust that the adult is truly interested and respectful. When a teacher takes time to listen to a child describe an art project or talk about a favourite cousin, it makes the child feel valued and helps the teacher better understand that child. Open-ended questions, such as “Why are clouds in the sky?” or “How does an airplane fly?” provide insight into the level of the child’s understanding about the world. Teachers can probe further by asking for more information or by offering another question, such as, “How are birds and airplanes alike?”

Do not contradict children. Accept all answers. The purpose of this kind of inquiry is to learn more about a child’s thinking process.

Literacy interviews for five- and six-year-olds often give insight into their understanding of reading, writing, and speaking, as well as their readiness for more complex literacy experiences. A child who answers the question “How do you know how to read words?” with “Words are really lots of letters that each have a sound, and you move your tongue and lips in funny ways to make the sounds,” may be ready for rhymes and books with a strong use of phonics. A child who responds “Words are like pictures that grown-ups know,” shows that she thinks reading is an external process. She is not ready for more formal approaches toward literacy. That child should listen to stories, play with letters and numbers in a more concrete way, and see her words on paper.

These are methods of observing children and recording the observations. Teachers also need to decide when, where, and what they will observe. All children in the classroom should be observed in different areas of the room and outdoors, at different times of the day throughout the year.

3.1.3 Recording Techniques and Tools

Teachers use a number of techniques to record and organize their observations. One technique is to keep a pad of paper and pencil in a pocket at all times to catch a phrase or describe the key events in an interaction. Another is to keep scrap paper and pencils around the room to record information. At the end of the day, these short notes are transcribed in greater detail into a notebook or file. Some teachers spend time at the end of the day listing specific observations and general impressions into a diary. Other teachers create an individual file card for each student. By rotating the cards daily, the teacher can be sure to take notes on all the children. Checklists can be put on the walls around the classroom to keep track of the choices children make during the day. If a teacher wants to observe gross motor development, she can set up an obstacle course outside and use a developmental checklist to record the skills of all the children as they play on the balance beam, climb stairs, or bend and crawl under a board.

Photographs and tape recorders provide long-lasting records of children. Gathering, recording, and organizing the observations of children leads to purposeful planning and individualizing of the curriculum.


3.2 What To Observe

3.2.1 Dimensions of the Individual

Accommodating the individual aspects of each learner is a cornerstone of effective teaching. It is important to respond to the individuality of each child and not judge or evaluate it. Understanding of the individual child requires that the teacher consider the following dimensions:

Family Culture and Diversity

The most salient characteristic of each family is its culture. Culture determines much about what individuals think and value and how they behave. Children are socialized in ways that are consistent with the culture of the family.

Home visits are essential, because they give teachers some insight into family and culture. Teachers should ask parents to discuss any important cultural considerations that can be accommodated in the classroom, such as dietary preferences (pork may be prohibited), religious practices (Hanukkah can be celebrated along with Christmas), language (the child may speak a different language at home), and time (some cultures view time as flexible). Teachers will also have a chance to observe how the family interacts with the children

Some families prefer that children be “seen and not heard,” while others include children in every aspect of activity and conversation. Some cultures consider it disrespectful for children to look adults directly in the eye. The insights gained through home visits will help teachers understand many of the behaviours that children exhibit at school and view them as culturally appropriate for an individual child.


Obviously, three-year-olds act and think differently than four- or five-year-olds. Familiarity with the stages of child development is paramount for teachers. For example, most five year old children can concentrate longer, communicate more effectively, engage in more interactive play and understand abstract concepts better than most three- and four-year-olds. Age is an important factor when determining what activities to provide, how to provide them, and for how long.

Developmental Level

Within any group of three-year-old children, there is great variance in ability and functioning. Some will function like two-year-olds and some like four year-olds; most will be somewhere in between. To further complicate matters, the development of children is often uneven: a child may be advanced in language and communication, but delayed in motor abilities. There is a variance of at least two years in the developmental level within most classrooms of children of the same chronological age. If there are particularly gifted or developmentally delayed children in the class, the variance will be even greater. It is, therefore, not enough to consider chronological age alone; to individualize each learning strategy, the teacher must also consider the child’s development level.

Personality and Temperament

There are many characteristics of personality and temperament and for each characteristic there is a continuum along which each child can be placed. These continuums include the following extremes:

  • Serious/Light-hearted
  • Energetic/ Calm
  • Extroverted/Introverted
  • Curious/Indifferent
  • Easy-going/Intense
  • Fastidious/Messy
  • Risk-taker/Cautious
  • Trusting/Skeptical

Teachers need to be aware that their own personalities and temperaments may clash or mesh with those of individual children. By understanding these differences and accepting them, teachers can improve the quality of life of children.

To learn well some children need to talk and interact with others, while other children learn best when they work quietly on their own. By weighing such factors the teacher makes sure that each child is choosing appropriately and not, for example, isolating herself because she fears being rejected by others or lacks the skills to interact effectively. This may be difficult to determine, because children who cannot do something often simply refuse to do it.


Gender difference is so obvious that it is often overlooked when teachers consider the dimensions of the individual. Teachers often witness gender based behavior, such as boys engaging in loud, physical, rough-and-tumble play and girls preferring language-based, social, and organized play. It is natural to allow children to select playmates and activities, even if these decisions are gender-based. It is equally important to encourage all children to expand their competencies.

Learning Style

Children learn at different rates. Learning rate is not necessarily an indication of intelligence, for some slow learners understand concepts more thoroughly than quick learners. Some children are highly dependent on others to learn well, while other children learn better on their own. Often a child has a primary sensory learning modality. This means that he may rely mostly on his visual sense to obtain information and to interpret the world. Another child may do the same with her keen auditory tactile, or feeling sense. Like personality and temperament, learning style characteristics exist on a continuum. These characteristics are particularly noticeable when a child is at the extremes of the continuum. When this is the case, teaching strategies must be adjusted accordingly.


Most children have at least one particular interest. Some are fascinated by trucks and machines, others by dinosaurs, a certain sport, or a particular activity in kindergarten. Using these interests, the teacher can incorporate activities from all areas of the curriculum. Sometimes children express and pursue their interests only at home, so it is necessary to ask parents about them.

Strengths and Needs

All children have strengths (what they do particularly well) and needs (what they require help with to do better). Sometimes strengths and needs are inextricably linked. Good teachers build on abilities and interests, which are often the same, to help children overcome their weaknesses.

For instance, Judith is an excellent artist who chooses to spend much of her time in the art area. She shows little interest or skill in mathematics. Her teacher helps Judith practice math concepts through art. She asks Judith how many colours of paint she wants to use at the easel, then has her mix the paints using a recipe of one half cup of powdered paint to one cup of water. Another day, she asks Judith to prepare balls of play dough for the children sitting at the art table. Judith counts the children and divides the play dough into five equal portions. Judith feels comfortable practicing math using materials that interest her.


Indicators of self-concept include how children perceive themselves, how realistically they know their own strengths and needs, and how they judge their own ability to undertake a particular task. All children come into the class with differing self-concepts. Some view themselves as incapable, others as extremely capable, and most fall somewhere between the two. Overconfidence, or overestimating one’s ability to accomplish a task is just as problematic as a lack of confidence. Teachers can help children develop a realistic sense of themselves and teach them to identify resources to solve problems (an important part of self-efficacy) if they are able to determine accurately that a particular task is too difficult for a child to do on his or her own. Increasing self-efficacy has a positive effect on self-concept.

3.2.2 Behaviours to Observe

The following list summarizes some of the classroom behaviours that teachers may want to focus on:

  • How a child responds to routines.


  • How a child manages transitions, quiet and active periods, group and individual work periods. Watch the children as they separate from their parents, during mealtimes, using the toilet, dressing, washing, and resting


  • How and what materials are used. Watch for the quality of use (Is the brush held securely?), the variety of materials (Does the child use all the art supplies or only the paints at the easel?), the imaginative use (Does the child invent new ways to use the small blocks or always stack them?), skill level (How many pieces are in the puzzles he puts together?), and concept understanding (How complex is the mathematical thinking that is demonstrated as the child uses attribute blocks?).


  • How a child interacts with other children. Does the child play with many children or only the same two children? Does the child share toys? Does the child initiate play or wait to be invited? What kinds of activities does he enjoy with others?


  • How a child interacts with teachers and other adults. Is the child able to ask for help? Does the child require a lot of attention or direction? Does the child ask for constant praise? Does the child enjoy talking with the teacher? Does the child spend time with adult visitors in the classroom?


  • Where the child plays in the classroom. Watch how the child moves about the classroom. Does he spend time in all the activity centres? Which one does he prefer to work in? Does she move easily from centre to centre or does she require help?


  • How a child uses language. Is the child easy to understand? Does she make her wishes known? What is the quality of his voice? Does she speak with both children and adults? How extensive is his vocabulary?


  • How a child moves. Watch the child outside. Does he climb, run, skip, and jump? How is his balance? Is she able to catch and throw? Is he sure or tentative in his movements? Does he enjoy soccer, kickball, dance, and movement activities?


  • Mood and temperament. Is the child easy-going or tense? Does he cry frequently? Does he laugh and smile? Is she able to express her feelings verbally? Can he negotiate with children and adults? Is he easily frustrated?


  • The roles the child takes within the group (for example, leader, follower, listener, and talker).

Teachers’ observations, assessment data, and information provided by family members can be used to understand and plan for each child.

3.2.3 Using Information Gathered Through Observation

Individual Adaptations

One of the major purposes of observing the child is to gather information that will enable the teacher to structure classroom experiences to better meet the child’s needs. The following techniques may be used to adapt classroom activities to needs identified through observation:

Building on Interests

For a child who is reluctant to take risks by expanding her repertoire of activities, the teacher can expand a familiar activity by integrating a new activity. For example:

Tal loves building with blocks but is reluctant to draw or write. The teacher adds markers, paper, and tape to the block area and asks Tal to make a traffic sign or a “Do Not Disturb” sign for his building.

Eva talks so softly that it is difficult to hear her in a group. The teacher gives puppets to Eva and a friend and asks that the puppets yell out a refrain in a song.

Pairing and Grouping Children

Piaget suggests that children learn best from each other. Pairing a child who does not grasp a concept with another child who has recently mastered it may facilitate understanding. For instance, a child who has not mastered one-to-one correspondence watches as his friend demonstrates and “teaches” him to play with dice and beads.

Modifying Activities

Teachers can have children play with various combinations of the same materials, depending on their knowledge or skill level. For instance, when children play with puzzles, the teacher can make sure that there are puzzles with different numbers of pieces available. While children playa group game, the teacher can ask one child to perform a harder task such as hopping on one foot, while another child jumps in place. Everyone participates in different ways.

Targeting Specific Needs

A teacher may provide opportunities for a child to practice mastering a specific skill or difficult task. If a teacher has observed that several children have difficulty using scissors, she may plan activities that use small muscles, such as fishing for objects with tongs or placing pegs in a board, then move to tearing paper and, finally, to using the scissors.

Seeking Outside Consultation or Arranging Referrals

Occasionally, a teacher may find a worrisome pattern of behavior that does not seem to improve, even after individual adaptations have been made. The teacher may sense that there is an underlying problem. It is important to document any concerns and remediations and share them with the family. Together, teacher and family may decide to get more information. A physician, psychologist, or other health professional may need to evaluate the child and make recommendations about special interventions and supports. These recommendations can be used to set specific goals and plan individual activities for the child.

Formal screening tools and developmental assessments can provide additional information. They should be reliable and valid. Teachers should be trained before using these methods of assessment to ensure proper administration and interpretation. Some diagnostic tests should be administered only by personnel trained in a discipline, such as a special educator, psychologist, speech and language pathologist, or occupational and physical therapist.


3.3 Children with Disabilities

Including children with disabilities in preschool classrooms conveys a powerful message to society – that we value every human being. All young children are more alike than different, and with support from teachers and parents, children with disabilities can thrive in a classroom that values each child’s individuality and uniqueness. Typically developing children learn to reach out to their peers with special needs in friendship, play and work.

Staff who have not worked with children who have disabilities are often concerned about their ability to meet the child’s special needs. They need information on the characteristics of common disabilities as well as an opportunity to express their worries. Often parents are excellent sources of information on their child’s disability as well as specific techniques that can be used to meet their child’s special needs. They can also identify their child’s strengths and interests as well as needs.

With parental permission, specialists such as speech or physical therapists can observe a child with a disability in the classroom and make recommendations for adapting materials and activities for the child. Specialists can work individually with the child or include the child with a disability in a small group activity with other children in the classroom. Teachers can request help in developing individualized plans for the child with a disability.

The following techniques, adaptions, and modifications will help teachers meet the varied needs of children with disabilities:

  • Physical Disabilities The classroom may have to be modified to accommodate a wheelchair. A ramp can replace stairs; an easel can be raised; a water table put on blocks; bolsters may help a child sit or lay in comfortable position. Have fat crayons and pencils available; use tape to create a better grip on paint brushes; have puzzles with knobs on the pieces for easy removal; use adaptive utensils if available.


  • Language Delays Model appropriate language using simple sentences. Use visual clues such as pictures or real materials to accompany language. Repeat information and directions, and have the child repeat new information. Make sure that the listener/teacher is accepting and non-judgmental.


  • Hearing Impairments If the child uses sign language, have someone come to the classroom to teach everyone simple signs. Check hearing aid batteries. Use visual clues such as pictures, photos, or real objects. Get the child’s attention before telling a story or giving information. Demonstrate new activities and the use of materials.


  • Low Vision or Blindness Use materials that appeal to many senses: for example, use sandpaper letters and numbers, or glue textured fabric onto puzzles. Make sure that the classroom is safe for the child’s free mobility. Stay close or assign a peer to accompany the child in the classroom and outdoors. Use a bell to get the children’s attention. Play music and sing songs. Help the child feel new materials and equipment.

Mental Retardation Help the child feel successful by having appropriate materials and activities available. Learn how to break tasks down to their simplest parts. Give simple, clear directions and give feedback often. Help the child enter into play with other children.

Attentional Difficulties Use short sentences and give clear directions. Keep group times short. Use visual clues. Have the child sit next to a teacher during group events. Have a quiet area of the room that the child can use for work that requires concentration or for a place to rest.

  • Emotional or Behavioural Disturbances Help the child use words to express feelings and keep choices limited. Have a quiet place with soft pillows or cushions to which the child can retreat. Give positive feedback and set consistent rules and expectations. Use puppets, stuffed animals, and dolls to allow the child to express his thoughts and feelings. Help the other children set limits and feel safe without isolating the child. Allow withdrawn children to watch others before joining an activity and help them make a special friend.


3.4 Reporting Information to Families

3.4.1 Parent-Teacher Conferences

Much of the contact teachers have with families is informal. Informal contact is valuable and meets many needs of both families and staff. However, there are times when a formal conference is the preferred mode of communication. The purpose of such a conference is usually to allow teachers to discuss the child’s progress and give the parents an opportunity to share their observations, ideas, and concerns. Problems can be discussed and solutions generated by teachers and parents together. Individual goals can be set for children, and parents can provide information on strategies they use effectively at home. Conferences usually last from 30 to 45 minutes and are held between one and three times during the program year. The following guideline will help ensure successful parent/teacher conferences.

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