Observations can occur from the first greeting of the day until the last goodbye. Observations should be planned and unplanned, while always being careful to ensure proper supervision in the classroom. It is essential to get holistic snapshots of the whole child throughout various times of the day. Additionally, observations should happen in both teacher-directed situations as well as child-directed situations. It is also important to observe during structured and unstructured learning periods both indoors and outdoors. Teachers can also observe relationships: those between children and staff, children and their families, and children engaged in play with children.
When planning for observations, the teacher or caregiver should be prepared to conduct informal and formal observations both at planned and unplanned times. In this way, the observer can experience authentic representations of the child's skills, knowledge, and behaviors. When conducting observations at varying times and different tools (such as running records, brief notes, anecdotal notes, video/photography, creation of portfolio pages) in natural and comfortable surroundings; the observer can better view authentic representation of the child's knowledge, skills and behaviors in an authentic manner. These tools will be discussed later in the chapter.
It is essential to use tools that provide useful rating scales and documentation methods to observe a child's development level and milestones. There are many methods that can be used to document (or record) your observations. In the next section of the chapter, we will explore some of the more common types of records used in early learning environments as well as the language to use when documenting observations.
It is important to remember when writing any records of any kind to avoid “red flag” words or words that are subjective rather than objective. Subjective (or red flag) words are words that might have a strong emotional meaning to you but are not objectively written that describe the situation. An example of a subjective observation statement is “George and Joshua, two little stinkers in the class, were playing in the block area when George knocked over Joshua amazing tower that he had built”. The same scenario written more objectively is “George, four-years-old and Joshua, three years old were in the block area and George kicked over the tower Joshua had built that was five blocks high”. This type of descriptive language allows the reader to identify who the children were in the scenario, what they were doing, and gives some indication about the skills of the child building the tower. It is specific and non-biased.
Figure 6.1 illustrates some examples of objective vs. subjective statements.
Can you identify the “red flag” words in these two sentences?
“Sally seemed happy while she was playing because she had a beaming smile on her pretty face”
“Antonia has on such a beautiful dress this morning that I noticed as she came into the classroom, however she is sad because she was frowning”.
Often influenced by personal past events, experiences or opinions. Can be biased based on our own cultural experiences
Based on what is observed using our senses. Recording what is seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled.
Based on our opinions, assumptions, personal beliefs, feelings, rumors or guesses
Based on facts that are gathered. If it is not seen, don’t document it. Only write details and provide vivid descriptions
Results are inconsistent and vary child to child
Results are likely to be valid and reliable child to child
Avoid words like: always, never, can’t, happy, smart, helpful, pretty, angry, shy, likes, hates, loves, sad
Include phrases like “seems to be; “appears to”
Types of documentation
There are many reasons why teachers should document observations, and many uses for the documentation that is collected in early learning classrooms. Through documentation, teachers can not only show developmental growth, but they can also provide accountability to families, communities, and administrators extend the learning for children and become more confident in their own teaching. Just as there are many reasons why teachers document, there are many ways to record observations.
The most common way to record developmental milestones is done through anecdotal notes. Anecdotal notes are short notes taken by teachers capturing observations. They can be taken on a formal document or shortened form (such as post it notes or index cards). These types of observations can be written after an event and often focus on specific developmental domains. An example of an anecdotal note form is shown in the appendix to this chapter.
Another popular method of documenting development is using running records. A running record is a documentation method that has sequentially details of the child’s behavior while the observation is taking place and is written in present tense. Running records often require periods of time where the teacher is primarily focused on the activity at hand and is not always an effective way to observe and document while managing groups of children. An example of a running record format can be found in the appendix to this chapter, and there are many ways teachers might choose to adapt or modify the form.
Another method is the use of samples of child work sometimes called a portfolio. Child work is a collection of the work samples of the child. These can be writing samples, paintings or other art projects, examples of fine motor work such as cutting samples, and can also include photos of the child at play, such as a child building in the block center, or engaged in a science activity. Many teachers believe that portfolios are the best type of authentic assessment displaying exactly what a child can do and is reflective of their development at a particular point in time. These can be shared with families and is a good way to document growth over time.
Types of documentation that support teachers in making decisions about a specific child or environment might include time or event sampling also known as structured observations. Deciding which type of sampling a teacher should do is dependent on what the teacher wants to learn about the child or classroom. For example, if a teacher wants to find out how often a particular behavior occurs such as biting or hitting, they might choose a time sample. However, if a teacher wants to understand the relationship between the biting behavior of a child and the context of the behavior, an event sample is a better documenting choice.
Checklists and rating scales are helpful when recording a child’s skills and knowledge. A checklist is usually written in a sequential order and offers the teacher the opportunity to check when a behavior or skill is first observed. Many programs create their own checklists based on the curriculum they are following in the classroom. Rating scales can be written in the same way, but often offer a continuum for rating a particular skill or behavior. Examples of both can be found in the appendix to this chapter.
Another observation tool that has become popular with early education teachers to assist with better understanding of behavior is an ABC Chart. ABC charts include a column titled “A” for antecedent: the event that occurs before the “B” behavior happens. “C” is the consequence, or event that immediately follows the behavior. This type of documentation gives the teacher information about the relationships that may exist between environments, curriculum or children’s peers that influence a behavior.
What are your thoughts about using electronic documentation in an early learning classroom?
Interpreting the Observation
The last part of the observation cycle is making interpretations of what you have observed and documented. This is when the skills of incorporating what teachers know about child development, developmentally appropriate practice, and the individuality of each child and family will intersect along with the reflective practice of teaching.
Part of what teachers consider when interpreting the information is taking into consideration the many factors that influence how a child acts including: the state of development, health of the child, culture and individual experiences that make each child unique. This is one of the reasons it is so important to use a variety of documentation for each child as well as varying the times, days and environments when gathering information. It is also helpful if a variety of individuals can not only provide documentation but also interpretation. What one teacher may observe, another teacher may not—we all notice different things and have different perspectives.
To illustrate this point, look at image 6.6 below. Some teachers might interpret the behavior one way, while another teacher may have an entirely different perspective or interpretation of the behaviors observed. Behavior is very complex and over time, teachers begin to develop skills interpreting what they see and making adjustments to the environment, the curriculum, or interactions.
After a teacher observes, documents, and interprets the observation, the final piece is to bring the information back to the parents and work with them to make sure that the child is supported at home and the connection between home and childcare is strengthened. Having meetings with families to discuss concerns and to plan together for the child can help the child to become successful in the classroom.
When Do Teachers Interpret Observations?
All teachers benefit from spending time to reflect on the observations and documentation that they have made in a classroom. However, many teachers question when they could possibly find time for this practice. One recommendation is to begin to find time that already exist within the day. This might include naptime, before families arrive for the day, after families depart, during staff meetings if allowed by administrators or during curriculum planning time. Reflection ties the entire process together and teachers need “a time to slow down, to see what can be learned and carefully look at and listen to ourselves, and those with whom we work” (Parlakian, 2001).
Ethics and Biases of Observations
To remain objective in documenting observations, teachers should always be aware of personal bias. This is done by self-reflecting on a person's implicit and explicit perspectives rooted in one's upbringing. Not being aware of bias, especially implicit bias, teachers can reflect their prejudice through their documentation. According to NAEYC Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education Position Statement:
All children have the right to equitable learning opportunities that help them achieve their full potential as engaged learners and valued members of society. Thus, all early childhood educators have a professional obligation to advance equity. They can do this best when they are effectively supported by the early learning settings in which they work. When they and their wider communities embrace diversity and full inclusion as strengths, uphold fundamental fairness and justice principles, and work to eliminate structural inequities that limit equitable learning opportunities.
To effectively practice advancing equity in observation and documentation, an educator must "consider how your own biases (implicit and explicit) may be contributing to your interactions and the messages you are sending children.
To remain objective in documenting observations, educators must be aware of personal bias and strive to eliminate these in the observation and in the analysis of observations. (NAEYC, 2020)
Teachers need to practice responsible documentation that adheres to ethical practices. In doing so, teachers should keep in mind:
Maintaining confidentiality and privacy of both the child and family in the documentation is critical.
Inform the family of the observations and documentation process and receive permission for any picture or video-based documentation.
Never force or punish a child into participating in an observation process.
Do not interfere with the child's natural learning.
Never lie to a child about what the observer is doing or use rewards like food to get them to comply.
Never share documentation in any other manner than it does not follow ethical guidelines.
Do you think that there any ethical implications when using electronic documentation in an early learning classroom?