Child Screening & Assessment

Child Observation: The Heart of Individualizing Responsive Care for Infants and Toddlers


Observation is a key element of an observation-based ongoing child assessment system.1 It informs the individualization of responsive care and teaching practices, learning experiences, environments, routines, and schedules. Individualization is the process of using observation information as part of the ongoing assessment cycle to tailor the curriculum to support each child's interests, skills, and needs.

Venn diagram illustrating the relationship between Prepare, Collect, Aggregate and Analyze, and Use and ShareObservation is the first step in providing the kind of individualized, responsive care for infants and toddlers that builds relationships, supports attachment, and promotes healthy brain development. Because individualization cannot happen without observation, this technical assistance paper focuses on the key elements of observation, including:

  • What it is
  • Why it is important
  • What to observe
  • How to observe and document
  • How to set up observation systems
  • Reviewing and reflecting on observation information

In the example below, Rosa, part of the Early Head Start education staff*, engages in an important process. She observes Jermiez.

For several days in a row, 23-month-old Jermiez spent much of his time outdoors moving back and forth between squatting and standing, all the while looking at the ground. His teacher, Rosa, became puzzled by Jermiez's behavior, especially because he did not participate in any other outdoor experiences.

One day, she decided to step back, observe him, and see if she could figure out what he was trying to do. After a while, she moved closer to him and saw what had fascinated him so—ants! Sitting very close to him, she said, "I see ants. Lots and lots of ants." He looked down, smiled, and said, "Ants." "I wonder where the ants are going?" mused Rosa. "We'll have to watch." Jermiez looked at Rosa and smiled again.

With Rosa on the ground, several other toddlers wandered over. Jermiez pointed at the ants and said, "Ants. Ants go home."

When Jermiez's father came to pick him up, Rosa told him about Jermiez's interest in ants. His father said, "We're having a terrible problem with ants at home. But my wife can't stand killing any living thing, so we spend a lot of time following them around and trying to close off the place they enter."

As Rosa cleaned up that day, she thought about Jermiez's interest in ants. She decided that she would read The Ants Go Marching to him and teach him the song. She considered adding large, plastic ants to the sand table, if his interest continued, and maybe bringing a magnifying glass outside and inviting Jermiez to use it to see ants up close.

When Rosa shares her observation with Jermiez's father, she receives further valuable input. She reflects on what she learned through observation and uses the information to plan meaningful experiences for Jermiez. In short, Rosa uses observation to provide individualized, responsive care.

Although it focuses on observing infants and toddlers, the information in this paper is also useful for programs serving preschoolers.

*In this paper, education staff refers to teachers, home visitors, and family child care providers.

1U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, Ongoing Child Assessment: A Guide for Program Leaders, (Washington, DC, 2019).

Last Updated: December 30, 2019