Setting Up Systems for Ongoing Observations

a woman laying on the floor watches a baby on her back playingInfants and toddlers typically do not demonstrate what they know and can do "on demand" (i.e., when the observer wants them to). However, education staff can still be intentional about capturing and recording what children do and say by setting up a system for carrying out observations.

There is no one right way to do this. An observation system in a center-based classroom with two teachers may look differently from the system that a family child care provider who works alone uses. These systems will likely be different from those used by home visitors during home visits and socialization experiences. Also, observation systems are not static; they should be revisited as education staff become more proficient in observing children and as children grow and develop.

Here are some general strategies to consider when developing a system:1

Plan times to observe a child

To capture the depth and breadth of children's skills, abilities, and interests, observe at different times of the day and in different settings. For example, observe children:

  • Across settings (e.g., indoor and outdoor) and times of the day (e.g., morning and afternoon)
  • During routines (e.g., mealtimes, diapering and toileting, naptime, dressing, arrival, and departure)
  • As they engage in play experiences and move from one play experience to another
  • As they interact with other children and adults

Develop a plan to make sure each child is observed regularly (e.g., once a day or week) and that individual child goals, and program school readiness goals as appropriate, are addressed. When using an observation method that requires stepping back for a period of time to observe, such as a running record, coordinate that observation time with another adult. This ensures children are supervised and staff-child ratios are maintained.

Repeat observations over time. For many skills and behaviors—especially cognitive, social and emotional, language and literacy, and approaches to learning—a single observation does not provide enough information to fully determine what a child knows and can do. Children's behaviors are not always consistent. Many factors (e.g., illness, lack of sleep, hunger, changes at home, changes in the daily schedule, changes in staff, the developmental process) can influence what children do and say from day to day, and even from hour to hour. So, multiple observations are needed.

However, one observation can provide information about more than one area of development. For example, the following observation provides information related to gross motor, social and emotional, and language skills:

5/5, outdoor play space, 2:30 p.m.:
Jorge (13 months) on riding toy, holds steering handles, pushes it straight using his feet. Stops in front of Wendall (13 months), leans forward, pats Wendall's arm three times, says "Da, Da." Wendall moves. Jorge continues pushing riding toy with his feet and steers straight to far edge of pavement without bumping into anything or anybody.

Plan for spontaneous observation opportunities

Although this may sound like a contradiction, it is not. Often, infants and toddlers do and say things that are new and unexpected. These behaviors may occur during unplanned observation times. Staff can prepare for these moments by:

  • Putting note-taking materials (e.g., writing tools, index cards, sticky notes, mailing labels, note pads, clipboards, and paper) in strategic places around the room, in the pocket of a smock or apron, or in a home visitor bag
  • Making sure cameras and audio and video recording devices are in working order, are fully charged, and are easily accessible

Decide how observations will be organized and stored

There are many ways this can be done. Staff should choose what works best for them. For example:2

  • Folder for each child kept in hanging files in file cabinet, large box, or crate
  • Index cards in file box with a section for each child
  • Three-ring binder notebook for each child
  • Accordion folder for each child
  • Hanging shoe bag, with pockets labeled for each child
  • Online child assessment system

Many EHS and MSHS programs ask staff to create portfolios to support observation-based assessment. Portfolios are collections of children's work, notes and photographs from families, checklists and other print recording tools, and other items that document what children know and can do. Written observation notes, photos, and audio and video recordings may be included as part of the portfolio. Portfolios may be physical, virtual, or a combination of both. Some online assessment tools allow users to input observation notes and upload photos, videos, and audio files for each child. To be useful, portfolio items should:3

  • Be dated and filed in order
  • Represent various parts of the day (e.g., routines, play experiences, transitions)
  • Present a balanced view of the child's growth in all ELOF central domains

Over time, the portfolio collection serves as a concrete record of the child's progress toward individual goals, and program school readiness goals as appropriate. So, it should be reviewed regularly with families. Staff should explain what they include in the portfolio and why. They should also actively encourage families to contribute information and items to their child's portfolio.

Note that observation information and children's portfolios must be kept confidential. EHS and MSHS programs should follow their confidentiality policies regarding storage and who has access and permission to view the information. Families should have permission to see only their child's observation information and portfolio.

Find time to file observations

This could be at naptime, planning time, beginning or end of the day, or the end of each week. Do not wait too long; observations can quickly pile up or get lost during a busy day or week.

Decide how often to review observations

The more frequently staff review observations (e.g., daily, weekly, bimonthly), the sooner they have the information they need to respond appropriately to each infant and toddler, and plan accordingly. Very young children develop quickly, so staff may need to review observations more often.

EHS and MSHS management staff can support staff with filing and reviewing observations by ensuring there is dedicated time for these tasks.

Include families in the observation process

Consider the following story from a home visitor.

During a home visit, I watched Troy and Celeah try to get their daughter, Jasmine (18 months old), to play a game of matching similar objects (two yellow balls and one wooden yellow cylinder). The first time Troy held up a round, yellow ball and asked her to find one like it, Jasmine picked up the other yellow ball. Both Troy and Celeah clapped and said, "Good job, you found the ball!" Troy then put the ball down and asked Jasmine to put her ball down, too. Jasmine rolled the ball to Celeah. Celeah then picked up the ball and asked Jasmine to find one like it.

Instead of picking up the other ball, Jasmine laid the cylinder on its side and rolled it toward her mom. Celeah quickly said, "No, no. Find the ball that looks like mine. See, it's round and yellow." Jasmine sat for a moment and then crawled over to her mom, reached for the cylinder, and rolled it toward her dad. Troy looked at Jasmine. He shook his head, sighed, and said, "Oh, okay. You want to roll things. Okay. I'll roll the ball to you." For the next few minutes, Troy, Celeah, and Jasmine rolled the balls and cylinder back and forth to each other. I was delighted by this. It was the first time I had seen Troy and Celeah follow Jasmine's lead rather than fuss at her for not following their directions.

After the game was over, I shared my observation with them and asked what they had noticed about their interaction with Jasmine. Troy smiled and said, "Well, it was a lot easier than making her play the game and having her start crying and me feeling frustrated. I didn't know she could pay attention like that. I even had fun!" At the next home visit, Troy, Celeah, and Jasmine showed me other household objects that roll.

Talk with families about why and how observations are made in the program. Teach them observation strategies such as, "watch, ask, adapt." Provide relevant information—both verbally and written in the families' home languages—about child development so families have a clearer understanding of what they observe. Invite them to share what they observe about their children verbally, through pictures and photographs, or in writing (e.g., notes in journals that go back and forth between home and the program, email, or text exchanges as allowed by program communication policies).

1Koralek, Dombro, and Dodge, Caring for Infants & Toddlers, 374.

2Jablon, Dombro and Dichtelmiller, The Power of Observation, 88–90.

3Koralek, Dombro, and Dodge, Caring for Infants & Toddlers, 376, 378.