Observation is defined as the ability to watch someone or something from a non-biased, factual, and free from personal opinion for a period of time to gain purposeful information about that someone or something. Observations can be both formal and informal. Initially, one may think of observation as the act of watching someone or something. Nevertheless, a valid observation includes an additional actionable step of an analysis of what was observed and involves the practice of reflective thinking.
Not only is observing children a skill necessary for all teachers, but historically teachers have also believed that good observations conducted during the day can give them important information about a child’s development, strengths or challenges and can inform curriculum and activity plans in the classroom. Learning how to be a skilled observer who objectively documents child learning interactions honors the uniqueness that each child brings to the learning environment.
The Role of Observations in ECE
Observations can be conducted continually throughout the day over an extended period of time. Teachers who are experienced observers can screen for many things in the classroom including the safety of the learning environment equipment, the health of the child, the developmental milestones or skills of each child, behaviors that occur both inside and outside of the classroom, and each child's learning experience. For example, teachers can use the simplicity of a morning greeting, and a casual conversation with a child playing with building blocks as a way to do a daily health screen to ensure that a child is well enough to interact throughout the day.
Through intentional observations, teachers can also take formal and informal observations that can assist with and ensure accountability for the effectiveness of interactions and inform curriculum. In addition, observations of children can be prepared to share information with co-teachers and the child's family. The effects of intentional observations also include impacting effective learning, improving child guidance skills, supporting child-to-child and adult-to-child social development. In addition, observations assist teachers to provide effective learning, improve teacher-child guidance skills, and support child-to-child and adult-to-child development in many domains.
According to Piaget, “children require long uninterrupted periods of play and exploration so that they can discover things for themselves. If we truly believe that children are capable of socializing, problem-solving, and creating complex systems with rules, then we can successfully use random observations to capture a child's development as it unfolds naturally." (Peterson & Elam 2020) Observations during this free play time can yield important information that teachers can use to support the child to meet their potential.
It is important to remember that useful observation requires using the human senses by being able to watch, listen, and understand children in their learning environment from their perspective. Observations show an educator the fantastic milestones children meet as they grow in their abilities such as, but not limited to, their ability to use their executive functions, seek autonomy, self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, and more. Through observation, teachers can understand the child's unique needs and understand and honor each child’s culture.
Take a moment to think about your favorite restaurant. What are some of the observations you can make about the restaurant environment that make it your favorite? Could some of those same qualities (such as warm and inviting) apply to early learning classroom environments?
How Much Should Teachers Observe?
Although there is no industry “standard” about how often or how much teachers need to observe children, the average early childhood teacher spends about 45 minutes each day on documentation (www.Himama.com). There is no set amount of number of observations that teachers usually do. That will depend on the number of children enrolled in the childcare, the environment and the program philosophy and curriculum. The goal of observation should be to be sure that accurate documentation of each child is taken that prevents gaps in the records of that child. In other words, don’t wait too long or allow too much time to lapse between observations and the documentation of observations. Accurate progress should paint an accurate flowing story of each child’s development.
Some ways that can help with this is continuous process of observing and documenting is to carry a pack of sticky notes with you in your pocket or apron and set up a specific place in the classroom where you can leave the notes for later documentation and interpretation. It is also a good tip to have plenty of paper and writing tools all around the classroom so that there are always materials handy for you to jot down notes.
Learning to observe
The first step in learning to carefully observe children is to learn how to separate your feelings and reactions from what you are seeing to objectively state what is actually happening. It is important to remain objective because everyone has biases and preconceived notions about what they think they might be observing. It is also important to remember to include enough information that records or paints a picture of the child or scenario and doesn’t lack detail that may cause a reader to surmise or insert their own information. Just stick to the facts and think about the reader: they should be able to visually picture themselves in the classroom at that moment and “see” what you observed.
Thorough observations consist of three parts:
- Observing: gathering information about what you see and hear through careful watching and listening.
- Recording: documenting what you have observed.
- Interpreting: reflecting on what you have observed and written.
Often the three parts are referred to as the observation cycle. Each of the steps, combined with reflection on behalf of the teacher informs the curriculum that a teacher plans for the classroom and shares with families. This is explained more thoroughly later in this chapter.
For now, let us explore each of the steps more in-depth by focusing first on the observer themselves and then each of the parts that comprise the observation cycle.
The observer themselves
The most important part of the observation is the teacher's ability to be and remain present, intentional, and an active observer. Being fully present in the moment of observation allows the teacher to see the uniqueness of each child and their development. For example, the teacher can observe mannerisms, social and emotional abilities, executive functioning, personal preferences, and dislikes. The teacher can also observe talents, specific interests, or areas of challenge in addition to seeing the overall developmental level of different domains. Being present as an active observer means having the ability to block out any distractions that may be present. To do this, a teacher may have to initiate the help of other teachers to ensure the proper supervision in the classroom and they should try to clear their mind of any other invasive thinking to properly focus on what they are experiencing with the children.
Next, it is important for observers to be knowledgeable about early childhood theory and child development. This knowledge will help the observer set measurable, attainable, relevant, and culturally responsive goals for the child. The observation outcome should be shared with the child's family which will also help teachers to inform practice. In understanding the theories of development, teachers can implement the knowledge of developmental sequence in their observations and assessments. This allows teachers to connect domains of development and communicate those strengths and any areas of concern to families. Teachers should be authentically curious during observations and become learning and growth detectives: “the documenter is a researcher first, collecting as much information as possible to paint a picture of progress and outcomes” (Sietz, 2008).