It's the first week of school, and you notice that Marissa and Pedro are playing in the dramatic-play area. Marissa has been reluctant to participate during group time. You wonder how verbal she'll be in this situation. Marissa says to Pedro, "You'll be the customer, and I'll be the server. We have spaghetti, pizza, and salad today. Are you hungry?" "Yes, I will eat some pizza today," replies Pedro. You quickly position yourself to get closer to the action. You want to listen to the entire conversation between Marissa and Pedro so you can understand more about what interests Marissa, get a better sense of Marissa and Pedro's learning styles, and learn more about the way they both use language and socialize with each other.

Observation provides the insight you need into children's strengths, challenges, interests, abilities, and temperaments to guide your program plans.

As the school year begins, teachers, children, and families enter into new relationships. Observation provides the insight into children's strengths, challenges, interests, developmental abilities, temperament, and problem-solving skills. This understanding will guide your program planning. Observation and reflection by teachers and families together contribute to a strong learning environment and form the basis for curriculum development.

Creating Space to Reflect

Catherine, a first-year teacher, looks forward to the first day of preschool with both excitement and anxiety. She feels fortunate to have a big, open room where she can provide many play choices for the children. She has carefully arranged interesting learning centers, including a water table, blocks, dramatic-play area, painting easel, and shelves with Duplos, trains, and many more manipulatives. The children arrive, and the morning is hectic. During free play, Catherine ends up rushing from one learning center to another, showing children how to use the materials. She notices children running through the room, pulling out toy after toy. They use them for a short time and then get busy with something else. Her plans to observe the children and get to know them better seem like an impossible dream. There must be a better way...

The first step in preparing to observe children as individual learners is to carefully plan your classroom space. As the school year begins, ask yourself:

  • Is this a room that children feel comfortable in and that helps them make a smooth transition from home to school?
  • Is it a place where I can easily observe children as they interact or pursue independent activities?
  • Is my room a welcoming place for adults and other members of the classroom community?

As you get to know the children you teach and their families, you will want to organize your classroom in ways that provide opportunities for collaboration, interaction, and discovery.

Take a Second Look

Use the following ideas to help make your classroom one where children can make the most of the learning experiences you offer and where you can easily observe and reflect on children's behaviors and activities:

  • At the start of the school year, limit the number of learning center choices to areas children are likely to have experienced before. For instance, provide food items in the dramatic-play area, puzzles with a few large pieces in the manipulatives area, paper and crayons in the art area, and small blocks. This will keep children from feeling overwhelmed by too many choices and limit the amount of teacher supervision needed.
  • Introduce a new center every few days. Provide an explanation of how to use the materials and put them away, allowing a chance for children to practice, with guidance.
  • In year-round programs, new children can learn from their peers how the centers work and how to take care of them. Help children who need extra support by assigning them a partner. When children can play and learn independently, they feel more capable and competent. This will give you many more opportunities to observe.
  • Take a good look at the design of your room to see if it accommodates your needs. Ask yourself: Am I able to observe children over the bookcases and shelves arranged in my room? Is there enough space for children to explore and work together? Is there a clear pathway from one learning center to another? Have I distinctly labeled areas and materials? Have I created a daily schedule that builds in time not only for teachers to observe and reflect but for children to have an opportunity to be reflective about their work as well?
  • Take notes on how children are using the space. You can do this using a checklist of centers or by asking a parent volunteer to come in and videotape how particular areas are being used. Find a quiet time to view the video and then assess how well the environment is working for this group of children.
  • Ask yourself: Does the environment meet the diverse needs and interests of the children in my group? As you get to know your children, you will want to offer centers that match the ways they learn. Sensory materials can be offered in water, art, and science discovery areas. Mathematical interests can be explored in block and manipulatives areas. Language and literacy experiences can happen in the library, dramatic-play, listening, and writing areas
  • Provide a quiet area for children who need a place to go that is peaceful or who just need to rest.
  • Respond to children's special needs by considering ways to adapt your classroom design, centers, and routines to support each child. Confer with families to create the best plan. The Web site for the Americans With Disabilities Act ( offers lots of ideas and resources for this.

Watch and Plan

As the teacher approaches group time, she realizes she has to make accommodations for two children in the group with very different temperaments: Ricky, who is active and always moving, and Brianna, who is shy and inhibited about speaking in a group. The teacher hands Ricky a squeezy ball so be can stay focused and satisfy his need to move. She offers Brianna an opportunity to speak during large-group time but knows she may need to check in later with the child individually if she is reluctant to speak up. The teacher is sensitive to the children's temperaments because she has had the opportunity to observe their learning styles and personalities.

Children have a variety of learning styles, rates of development, energy levels, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and it's important that you document these differences to help you plan your curriculum. To accurately monitor children's progress, it is also necessary to have knowledge of developmentally appropriate milestones. Once you have this framework, you can choose which behaviors you want to observe. What can he do? How does he learn? What skills does he have that he is building on? What does he want to know and how can you build on his learning and interests? You might want to watch a child play with a group of children to assess his social development or count pegs in a pegboard to assess his cognitive skills.

You may decide to purchase an observation system or use one you have designed yourself. The most important consideration is to select a system that you can easily use on a regular basis to document children's progress in the domains of motor, cognitive, social-emotional, and language and communication.

Choose from a wide array of assessment tools to accurately determine children's progress as they work in different learning areas around the room.

Methods of Assessment

There are several types of assessment tools you can use to accurately assess children's progress. When using any assessment instrument, record and date a child's ongoing development throughout the school year. Here are some tools to choose from:

  • Anecdotal records are short written descriptions of behaviors or events. You can take anecdotes on reading and writing behaviors, playing with peers, or solving mathematical problems. With some anecdotal records, you might be recording information on three children in a learning area. While watching, jot down enough information to get the basic story and the most significant details. It's important to keep information factual rather than subjective. Describe only what children do or say: "Michelle used her left hand to pick up a unit block. She counted five blocks to build an enclosure." Separate your interpretations or opinions. Write your interpretations on the back of the page or put them in parentheses.
  • Photographs communicate to children, parents, and administrators the process of how knowledge is constructed. They also let children know you value their play and learning by providing a sense of permanence to their creativity. You can use digital photos and images and send them to parents via email.
  • Audiotaping children's verbal communication will provide you with information about their language skills as well as their development as cooperative players and problem solvers. It is helpful to use sound recordings while taking anecdotal notes.
  • Videotaping allows you to assess action and emotion and look closely at children engaged in events in your program. You can capture physical development indoors and outdoors or social and language development while creating a puppet show.
  • Work samples are the most authentic form of documentation of learning. They are products of what children learn every day in all learning areas. You can save originals and make photocopies of children's writing and artwork. It is important to remember to date each work sample.
  • Checklists are quick, efficient tools that enable you to record children's behaviors and abilities easily. Be sure the checklists are age-appropriate for the children you're observing.
  • Portfolios are organized collections of children's work throughout the school year. They may include photos, audio and video recordings, checklists, anecdotes, and work samples. At the beginning of the year, determine the type of information you need to collect. A summary sheet is usually written twice a year to evaluate the information collected in each child's portfolio.

Build on Interests

When you combine knowledge about the developmental stages of the children in your group with your observations of their personalities, learning styles, and current interests, you can create "negotiated learning" experiences. Start with topics the children are excited about, then look for opportunities to expand their thinking. Here is one example:

In February, Karen, a teacher of threes and fours, feels the children are ready to take on the responsibility of having a classroom pet. At group time, she tells the children that two rabbits will be coming to live in the classroom. This announcement creates a great deal of interest and generates many questions.

Karen writes down their questions and theories about rabbits on chart paper (pre-assessment). She might later use a graphic organizer software program for young children to create a map of their ideas. This image guides the development of a long-term project about rabbits and documents their ideas so they can be clearly seen and revisited by children and adults (post-assessment). At the end of the project, children can appreciate the knowledge they have gained when they look back at their earlier ideas.

The rabbit project provides a range of learning opportunities. Children who love to move enjoy the rabbit ears added to the dramatic-play area. Drawings of rabbits using markers, paints, and computer drawing software together with children's dictated stories provide creative opportunities for learning in many domains. And when "guest" rabbits visit the classroom, children relate to them in ways consistent with the way they learn: Some children notice different attributes such as whether the rabbits hold their ears up or down, others cuddle and stroke the rabbits, and some are more interested in facts and answers to their questions. A celebration, including a dramatization of a rabbit folk tale, marks the end of the project and showcases children's work for families and friends.

Professional teaching decisions are possible only when early childhood educators understand the diverse ways in which children develop and learn. With that understanding, and ongoing observation and assessment procedures in place, you can create a program that meets the needs of each child in your classroom. Try using assessment techniques each day as you watch children grow and learn.