Using What You Learn from Observation: A Form of Assessment

The environment can affect a child's learning process. Head Start staff and parents can develop and practice specific strategies to help them accurately observe a child's learning pattern within the classroom or home environment.

The following is an excerpt from...
Head Start Bulletin

by Judy Jablon and Amy Dombro

Assessing to Find Answers About Individual Children
Assessing to Inform Decisions About Programming and Teaching
Assessing to Understand Challenging Behavior
Assessing to Foster Each Child's Competence and Success

Every decision you make about the environment, daily routines, and learning opportunities in your classroom affects children's learning. By assessing children's learning through ongoing observation, you gain insights into children's strengths, knowledge, interests, and skills.You discover barriers that may be inhibiting their success. You reflect on daily life in your program and make adaptations that enable children to overcome obstacles and build on what they know and do well. By using what you learn from observation, you can foster each child's competence and success and create and maintain a high-quality program for children and families.

Some people think of assessment as an end point: something you do to prepare a report for families or to meet a program's requirements. Actually, assessment should be used as an ongoing process to answer questions about children's growth and learning, and to find ways of supporting their development.

Assessing to Find Answers About Individual Children

There is always something new to learn about a child-even children you think you know well. If you make a habit of asking questions, you will get to know who a child is and can keep track of who that child is becoming. Asking specific questions can provide a focus for observations and lead to solutions. You have repeated opportunities to witness children practicing skills, demonstrating knowledge, and exhibiting behaviors in a familiar and comfortable environment. Not only can you observe what children know, but also how they think and solve problems. By collecting observations, you can find answers to your questions and build a picture of children's performance and progress without interfering with their daily activities or usual behavior.

For example, when Laura, an infant caregiver, senses something amiss with five-month-old Kara's fine motor development, she refers to the observational checklist she uses to monitor children's development. Based on her observations, she realizes Kara is not bringing both hands to midline, while Taylor, another child the same age, does so frequently. Laura continues observing and decides to talk to the physical therapist who consults with the program to request activities to help Kara reach this milestone.

To assess four-year-old Kathy, the teacher photographed Kathy and Josie playing together in the block area. Several days later, he made some notes about the conversation Kathy was having with another preschooler. On yet a third occasion, he saved a painting Kathy made with Josie. When it is time to evaluate Kathy's performance and progress, her teacher's judgments about her growing ability to interact with her peers will be based on these and other observations.

These examples illustrate how day-to-day assessment of young children can help monitor their development and learning and help you make meaningful decisions about how to support their continued progress.

What are some of your questions about the children in your care? Observing can help you learn about a child's:

  • Health and physical development. What kinds of large motor and small motor activities does the child prefer? How does the child manipulate scissors and crayons? Does the family have concerns about the child's health?

  • Temperament. Can a child generally be described as flexible? Slow to warm up or fearful? Feisty or intense?

  • Skills and abilities. What does the child do well? What does the child find challenging? What skills is the child trying
    to achieve?

  • Interests. What activities cause a child's eyes to light up? What does the child talk about? When given a choice, what
    does the child choose to do?

  • Culture and home life. How does the child express cultural or family traditions during play? How is discipline
    handled and affection expressed at home?

  • Approach to learning. How does the child approach a new activity? How would you describe the child's interaction
    with materials?

  • Use of verbal language. How much language does the child have? Does the child talk to other children? Other adults? What does the child talk about?

  • Use of body language. How does the child move? Does the child use gestures? Is the child physically expressive?

  • Social interactions with adults and peers. Does the child interact with other children? How does the child initiate
    interactions? How does the child handle conflicts?

  • Cognitive skills. Does the child show interest in books and other print material? Does the child notice similarities
    and differences?

Assessing to Inform Decisions About Programming and Teaching

Observing and reflecting lead to insights and interventions that work. You can apply what you learn from observations to modify your program in order to adapt your environment, daily routines, and teaching strategies. At the end of the day, Karlene, an infant caregiver, reflects on what she has seen this past week:

Over the past three days, Lynn, age 7 months, has been getting up on her hands and knees and rocking back and forth. Today, she put one hand in front of the other, moved a knee forward, rocked slightly back and then crawled for several feet.

We are always mindful of safety. Since we have a child starting to crawl, I will crawl around the floor and look for potential hazards. That way we'll be able to let Lynn freely explore the room.

Periodically observing daily routines ensures that they get the same attention and planning as all the other valuable learning experiences in your program. Jeff, a preschool teacher, observed rest time was becoming difficult especially with Nicholas, age 4 1/2. As Jeff writes at the end of the week:

Nicholas whines when I dim the lights and say it is time for a rest. He tells me, "I want to play, not sleep." On Tuesday, he laid down on his mat for a few minutes and began fidgeting. Soon he rolled off his mat and onto his neighbor's.

My solution has been to adapt rest time by letting Nicholas and other children who don't sleep or nap bring a quiet work activity with them to their mats, such as paper, crayons and books. This seems to be working.

By observing, you learn about children's interests, strengths, and experiences. You can use this information to individualize instruction for the children in your program. A preschool teacher notes:

Leticia, age 3, whose home language is Russian, rarely speaks in school. One day we were talking about pets and Leticia didn't say a word. But the next day, she and her mom came to school with Leticia's guinea pig from home.

I found out Leticia understands more English than I thought she did. I knew I had to build on this to help her feel more comfortable speaking at school. So, we wrote a story about Tiger, her guinea pig. Leticia worked on an illustration of what Tiger eats. I always have a camera on hand for moments like this so I took some photos of Leticia, her mom, and Tiger. I gave one photo to Leticia to take home and kept some in our class photo album. After this, Leticia began talking more to me and other children.

Assessing to Understand Challenging Behavior

Every teacher struggles with challenging behavior. Careful assessment of young children can give you the clues to address discipline issues. Asking questions, looking for strengths, and enlisting the support of families in positive ways can benefit everyone involved. This case study of Denise illustrates how one teacher used these strategies successfully.

Regina, an excellent classroom manager and usually quite resourceful in finding ways to support children, did not know how to respond to Denise, a preschooler in her classroom. She explains:

When we're sitting in circle, Denise doesn't seem to understand what is going on. She doesn't follow directions. I'm continually telling her to settle down and to stop talking.

I decided to begin recording mostly positive behaviors for myself and to share with Denise's grandmother, who has had more than her share of people complaining about Denise's behavior. I thought by building our relationship and strengthening the relationship between Denise and her grandmother, she would get the support she needs at home and in school.

At first Regina had to work hard and look carefully to find something to write about. Over time it became easier. Here are a few observations she recorded and sent home:

During a group discussion about favorite foods, Denise looked around and fidgeted as she waited for a turn to speak. At her turn, she said her favorite food was blueberry pancakes. She said she could eat 100 of them. She smiled when three other children agreed.

Denise's face tightened when another child crumpled the edge of her painting. She moved her hands as if to pinch him. Then she looked over and called me for help. I asked what happened. Paul explained he crumpled Denise's painting by accident when he hung his painting up on the drying line. He told her he was sorry. She smiled and said, "That's OK" to Paul.

Regina has used her observations not only to build her relationship with Denise, but also to strengthen Denise's relationship with her grandmother, turning grandmother into an ally supporting Denise at home and in school. Regina explains:

Denise is starting to feel better about herself. She beamed and told me her grandmother is proud of her. Denise's grandmother has called me to say how much she appreciates the positive notes. I have come to care for Denise and the way she grabs life so fully - even though that means she may disrupt circle time.

Assessing to Foster Each Child's Competence and Success

Assessment can help teachers make good decisions about how to intervene in ways that support each child's success as a learner. As you get to know children and your respect and appreciation for them grows, it is more likely your decisions about how and when to intervene will be based on their interests and needs. This is the essence of individualizing.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to support a child's learning is to step back to let the child experience something--even if that means the child will take a risk or make a mistake. Taking a few moments to observe a child at play or work may be just what you need to figure out if you should stay out of the action. When you do step in, rely on your observations to guide you. Ask the right questions, make the appropriate comments, or offer materials that will stimulate and stretch the child's thinking.

The chart on this page shows examples of decisions teachers might make based on their knowledge, appreciation, and respect for the children under their care. The next time you observe children, think of a question you can ask about a child or how you might intervene to support a child's success.


Child's Age: What You Observed

6-Month-Old Child: Babbles back when you talk with him

What You Might Decide To Do:

  • Note his language development and desire to communicate by describing to him what is happening during his daily routines, such as diaper changing and mealtimes.
  • Pause to let him respond through sounds and gestures.

Child's Age: What You Observed

22-Month-Old Child: Cries lately when her grandmother leaves in the morning.

What You Might Decide To Do:

  • Be available to support her when it is time for grandmother to say good-bye.
  • Show respect and let her know she can share her feelings with you by listening to and acknowledging her feelings.
  • Show her the picture of her family hanging on the wall.

Child's Age: What You Observed

3-Year-Old Child: Told about making dumplings with her parents over the weekend.

What You Might Decide To Do:

  • Provide cultural continuity by talking about foods children eat at home during lunchtime conversation.
  • Add books with pictures of foods from different cultures to the library corner.
  • Invite Baili's parent(s) to prepare dumplings or another favorite dish with the children.

Child's Age: What You Observed

4-Year-Old Child: Arguing with Edward about who is taller.

What You Might Decide To Do:

  • Observe if they can problem solve on their own. (In a few minutes, Sarah gets a ruler to measure Edward.)
  • Make a growth chart with the class to mark their changing heights.

Child's Age: What You Observed

5-Year-Old Child: Built a barn complete with stalls and a milking machine in the block area.

What You Might Decide To Do:

  • Ask him to talk about how he helps his older brother milk the cows in the barn.
  • Reinforce what he already knows by hanging up pictures of the interior and exterior of barns in the block area.

We encourage you to conduct ongoing assessments. Everyone will benefit. Your work will be much more satisfying as you ask and answer questions about teaching and learning. Your relationships with parents also will be enriched by the stories you share with them. Finally, you will encourage the development of the children in your care as you create an appropriate learning environment and nurture each child's individuality.

This article is adapted from the book, The Power of Observation, by Judy Jablon, Amy Dombro, and Margo Dichtelmiller (1999. Washington, D.C.: Teaching Strategies, Inc.).

Judy Jablon is an Early Childhood Curriculum and Assessment Specialist and a developer of the Work Sampling System.
T: 973-761-4118; E:

Amy Dombro is a consultant to infant/toddler and family day care programs and a trainer of Head Start and child care staff. T: 212-928-0545; E:

"Using What You Learn from Observation: A Form of Assessment." Jablon, Judy and Dombro, Amy. Screening & Assessment in Head Start. Head Start Bulletin #70. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2001. English.

Last Reviewed: January 2010

Last Updated: October 6, 2014