I have been thinking a lot recently about the role of observations in Early Years. Especially with the opportunity to ‘reset’ that this September brings.
This mini-series will be split into 3 parts (look out for parts 2 and 3 in August and September) where I will explore each of the following questions in more depth.
1. When to document an observation of a child?
2. Who are they really for?
3. Is there a ‘right’ number?
Part 1: When to document an observation?
There are so many things to consider when observing and assessing children in Early Years. One of the biggest challenges we face is what should you document and when.
I use the word ‘document’ purposely. This is because we observe the children constantly. Everything they say, everything they do. All of it is observed. As you interact with children you are observing them. Effective communication and effective teaching requires observation, you need to observe in order to respond. Whether this response is immediate or planned for a time in the future, all of it requires observation.
However, in Early Years sometimes it seems there is a belief that if it is not documented and assessed then it doesn’t count. As a result I often find myself contemplating how do I best focus on extending a child’s learning in my role as an educator whilst also ensuring I collect the evidence needed to observe and assess a child.
Now I ask you to reflect on your practice, when you are mid-interaction and see something that makes you think ‘wow this a teachable moment’ or ‘this is a wow moment’ or ‘this would be evidence for x, y or z’ from your framework of choice, what do you do?
· Do you always carry a notepad / tablet around with you so you are instantly able to make notes / take a photo to snapshot a child’s learning or when you see a ‘wow’ moment?
· Do you ask another adult to take a photo / video or to provide you with some paper / tablet, potentially taking them away from what they were doing at the time?
· Do you move away from the interaction to get it yourself?
· Do you stay fully engaged in the interaction in the moment and only when it has reached its conclusion do you document it and therefore potentially sacrifice the photo opportunities etc and make notes from memory?
It is quite the balancing act and I think all the possible answers have their own problems.
I believe first and foremost we have to ensure we continue to provide the high-quality child-adult interactions that children need. Therefore, in order to provide outstanding teaching and learning, to extend a child’s learning as much as possible and respond ‘in the moment’ to the best of our abilities we need to carefully develop an observation method which strikes the right balance.
Every adult will have a different method that works for them. Just like children we are all individuals and all work in different ways!
If you prefer to write an observation mid-interaction then it is important to examine what takes the most time and what you could do to navigate this.
If you usually write the full observation at the time, it is worth considering if it would be easier for you to take photographs in the moment and use these as prompts to verbalise what took place afterwards.
Another thing to consider to help ease any possible impact on the teaching and learning in the moment is assessment. The new EYFS framework, Development Matters and Birth to 5 Matters which are all effective from September 2021 are falling more in-line with the recent Ofsted narrative of trying to move away from the need to create lots of assessment. With this in mind it is definitely worth reflecting on whether every observation needs to be assessed and ensuring any assessments carried out are useful to help support a child’s development. Reflecting on both of these will help you to be more comfortable about this new way of thinking.
If you prefer to retrospectively document the observation when the interaction is over then there are some pointers that could help to ensure any observation is as accurate as possible.
As mentioned above you could use a notepad / post-it notes to make even the briefest of notes or ask another adult to take some photos as prompts. Or if you are going to do it completely from memory you should definitely write it up in full or at least make the notes immediately after. You can always revisit the assessment at a later date. As we all know a typical day in Early Years is so busy and full of so many teachable moments even the shortest delay could lead to key details being forgotten.
Both of these strategies are however, not without problems. If you don’t complete the full observation and assessment at the time it can be easy to get overwhelmed with half-finished observations and easily fall behind. It is also easy to feel you aren’t providing parents with the updates they want / need of their child’s development / well-being and this can be exacerbated by not including photos or the learning experience.
I would however argue that these cons are outweighed by the improved learning experience, improved adult-child interactions and the opportunity to extend a child’s learning to it’s fullest that can be achieved by making even small adaptations to the observation process, whichever method you choose!
Nonetheless it is important to understand there isn’t a blanket approach that works for all or a perfect solution. It is about finding what works for you as an educator, your setting and your children.
You can listen to a podcast we recorded with Adam here.
Recording learning, not tracking progress (Part 1) by Helen Edwards
Recording learning, not tracking progress (Part 2) by Helen Edwards
Recording learning not tracking progress (Part 3) by Helen Edwards
Planning in the Moment with Young Children: A Practical Guide for Early Years Practitioners and Parents by Anna Ephgrave
Part 2 Who are they really for?
Part 3 Is there a right number?