Child Screening & Assessment

Writing Objective and Accurate Observation Notes

Written observations about infants and toddlers should be factual and objective to be useful and meaningful1. This means education staff should write only what they see and hear (e.g., the facts) and avoid using words that:

  • Communicate judgment about a child's feelings, intentions, and motivations
  • Are ambiguous and open to interpretation
  • Describe an opinion

One way in which staff may think about their own objectivity is to ask themselves, "Am I describing this child's behaviors and interactions in the same or a similar way that someone else observing this child would describe them?"2 Consider the following observation notes about 8-month-old Umar:

Note 1: 11/29, 8 a.m., arrival
Umar has a hard time when his mom brings him into the room. He doesn't like being put down on the floor. Ignores her when she tries to read a book to him. Crawls over to Lettie, takes ball from her hands; gets upset when mom kisses him, says goodbye, and leaves the room.

Note 2: 11/29, 8 a.m., arrival
Umar's mom carries him into the room, sets him down on floor next to book bin. Umar makes whimpering sounds (no tears). Mom sits down next to him, picks a book from the bin, shows cover to Umar, begins to read. Umar turns his head away, sees Lettie (child) holding and shaking a ball with a bell inside, holds his arms out to her, crawls over and sits next to her, takes ball from her hands, shakes it. Mom goes to Umar, kisses him, says goodbye, walks out. Umar starts to cry (tears).

Both observation notes describe how Umar separates from his mother, but the first note contains the teacher's assumptions about and interpretations of Umar's behavior. Someone reading this note may have different ideas about what happened because words such as "hard time," "doesn't like," "ignores," and "gets upset" are open to interpretation. The second note describes rather than interprets Umar's behaviors. It provides a much clearer picture about what Umar actually does and says during the arrival routine. 

Objective, factual written observations include the following:

  • Descriptions of actions
  • Descriptions of children's vocalizations
  • Direct quotes of children's language
  • Descriptions of facial expressions and gestures
  • Descriptions of creations (e.g., stacked blocks, scribble drawings, finger-painted pictures)

The following words are often found in written observation notes.3 However, these and other similar words can be interpreted in many ways and express judgment. They should be avoided.

  • Intelligence: smart, slow
    • Lyle completes the two-piece shape puzzle correctly. He is such a smart baby!
  • Feelings: angry, mad, sad, upset, happy
    • Jorge gets angry and splashes water from the water table on the floor.
  • Intentions and preferences: wants, likes, loves, "because"
    • Sonia hits Andre when he picks up the doll she dropped because she wants her doll back.
  • Labels: bored, distracted, cooperative, aggressive, hyperactive, helpful, withdrawn, shy, outgoing, fussy, bad, good, silly, cute, beautiful
    • Inette was distracted when I tried to feed her. She kept turning her head away.
  • Evaluations: good job, bad job
    • Oliver does a good job putting the toys away.
  • Time and amounts: always, never, a lot, long time, short time
    • It took a long time for Hannah to settle down and stop crying after her grandfather left the room.

Interpreting the meaning of children's behaviors and interactions is important. Impressions, feelings, and insights about children are extremely valuable to the individualizing process. However, staff first need accurate, factual information to draw conclusions later on about children's skills, behavior, interests, and needs.

1National Infant & Toddler Child Care Initiative, Infant/Toddler Development, Screening, and Assessment (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010), 22.

2Laura J. Colker, A Trainer’s Guide to Observing Young Children: Learning to Look, Looking to Learn (Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, 1995), 7.

3Ibid, 7; Derry G. Koralek, Amy Laura Dombro, and Diane Trister Dodge, Caring for Infants & Toddlers, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, 2005), 372.