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Carrying out Early Years Observations

Before we can fully understand how to carry out an observation or an assessment we must first understand what each definition really means.

So, let us look closely at what we mean when we say the words ‘observation’ and ‘assessment’.  Simple enough that it is to explain what the words mean do we really understand the impact on everything we do within the childcare setting?

To observe a child we need to:-

  • Watch them closely
  • Listen to them carefully
  • Attend to their needs at the time
  • Record your findings accurately

To assess a child we need to:-

  • Get to know the child well as an individual, know their likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, fears and achievements
  • Be aware of the child’s needs
  • Be aware of the child’s interests- what do they like? What motivates them?
  • Know the child’s present stage of development and consider the ways you can support and challenge them


ASSESSMENT  – This involves the child/young person, the parents/carers and the practitioners.  It is the process of understanding the child’s existing development and knowing what interests and motivates them.  It is the process of collecting information which tells us what the child enjoys.

ASSESSMENT FOR LEARNING – This involves using the information we have gained through assessment to plan for the child’s next steps.

OBSERVATION – This involves watching and listening to children and young people and recording your findings.

Early Years Observations

There are a number of important issues the manager must take into account when assessing the development of a child or young person and these are:-

  • The consent of the child or young person’s parent or carer
  • The wishes and feelings of the child or young person
  • The ethnic, cultural and linguistic background of the child or young person
  • The ability of the child or young person

Although the above four factors appear to be self-explanatory it is important that practitioners remember to adhere to them at all times when carrying out observations and assessments of a child or young person and we will therefore look at them in closer detail as it will be the job of the nursery manager to answer any questions and ensure that the staff are confident and capable of carrying out effective observations and assessments.

The consent of the child or young person’s parent or carer

Before beginning to carry out any observations or assessments on a child or young person it is important that you gain the consent of their parents/carers.  Although vital information can be collated when carrying out observations and assessments this information can only be shared with other professionals with the express consent of the child or young person’s parent or carer and this consent must be gained in a formal, written manner with a signature.  The only time when an exception may be made with regard to parental consent is in the case of a child or young person being at risk should the information gained be shared with the parent or carer.

Confidentiality is paramount and all information must be securely stored.  Practitioners and students in the setting should be made aware of the importance of respecting confidentiality and should refrain, at all times, from discussing sensitive information either amongst themselves in the workplace or away from the setting.

The wishes and feelings of the child or young person

All children and young people have rights and these rights must be respected.  Although it is relatively simple to gain the consent of an adult through discussion and the request of a signature the same cannot be said in the case of young children and you must therefore be aware of the signs which might show that a child is unhappy or intrigued by what you are doing and seek to address these issues in a sensitive manner if and when they arise.

When carrying out an observation or assessment on a child and you think that they are looking uncomfortable or distressed then you should stop immediately.  You may well be able to carry on with the observation a little later or, in the case of extreme distress you should abandon the observation and think of a less distressing method which will ensure the child is comfortable.  Remember, carrying out an observation on a child who is clearly uncomfortable is a fruitless operation.  You may well have a written ‘observation’ but it will most definitely not be a true or accurate account of what the child can or cannot do simply because they were distressed at the time and therefore not acting in the usual manner.  It is quite easy to spot the tell tale signs of when a child is not comfortable and, for practitioners who know the children in their setting well, this should be easy to spot:

  • If the child suddenly goes quiet
  • If the child appears to be inhibited when playing
  • If the child keeps looking at you rather than concentrating on their play
  • If the child avoids close contact with you, moving away when you get near
  • If the child’s words, or in the case of a very young child, body language indicate that they do not want you to watch them

Older children, although not appearing to be distressed or uncomfortable, might ask questions and you should be honest with them at all times.  Explain that you are watching the child or young person play so that you can make notes to help you understand what they enjoy.

The ethical, cultural and linguistic background of the child or young person

It is very important that practitioners are aware of a child’s background and home life and whenever possible, we should be looking for ways to involve parents in the setting so that we can embrace families from different walks of life, cultures and backgrounds.  The information provided by parents is very important when getting to know children and young people and we should be making enquiries which will help us to settle the child into the setting as quickly and easily as possible.  For example, a child whose first language is not English may have difficulty understanding what is expected of them in the setting if they are not fluent in the language being spoken.  Although we cannot reasonably expect every nursery to employ practitioners who are fluent in several languages it is vital that we ask parents to share with us the basic words which the child will understand such as food, drink, toilet.  Being able to correspond on a basic level with the child should help them to settle more easily and feel less isolated.  Often children who do not understand English very well or those who come from different cultural backgrounds appear withdrawn and, even if they do speak fluent English, they can sometimes appear to be non- vocal.  By using sensitivity and involving the parents these problems should be quickly resolved.

The Early Years Foundation Stage states that providers must take ‘reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home’.  It is paramount that children are given sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard of English language in order for them to be ready for school.  Practitioners should work closely with parents in order to explore the child’s skills in the home language to enable assessment of the child’s communication, language and literacy skills in order that any concerns are highlighted and monitored.

Language in different cultures

The ability of the child or young person

As with ethnicity and cultural differences, disability can be a huge barrier for some children and it is the job of the practitioner to ensure that this barrier is removed.  Children may need additional support in some areas depending on their disability however observations can be carried out successfully on all children with a little patience and sensitivity.

Avoiding bias

It is extremely important, when carrying out observations on children and young people, that these are done fairly and accurately in order to gain a clear picture of what the child can and cannot do.  You must always work with facts and record exactly what you see and hear and not what you think or hope to see and hear.  The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) can, and has, been accused of trying to ‘standardise’ a child’s learning and development instead of looking at children individually however it is important to accept that different cultures and backgrounds influence a child’s development and these factors should be accepted and embraced.

In order to avoid being biased when observing and assessing children and young people you should try to follow a few simple rules:-

  • Always focus on what the child or young person is telling you
  • Always focus on what the child or young person is doing
  • Always involve the children and young people – ask for their opinions and ideas
  • Take the time to find out about other cultures and backgrounds, ask questions and remain open minded
  • Involve parents or carers whenever possible. Show an interest in the child or young person’s home life and, if possible, invite family members into the setting to share ideas and information which can be useful to everyone

Although it is important that practitioners avoid being biased they must not be frightened of making ‘judgements’ as judgements are the whole reason for carrying out observations and without using our judgements we will not be able to ascertain which children are experiencing difficulties and might require additional support.


ANTI-BIAS – This involves ensuring that you actively oppose all forms of discrimination and prejudice in your work

Child exploring play

In short, the main reasons for observing a child or young person whilst engaged in play is to:-

  • Gain an insight into their approach to play and learning. What do they enjoy playing with? How involved are they? How tolerant are they of others? Do they become annoyed or frustrated, if so when?
  • Gauge the rate of progress a child is making with regard to their development. Are they making satisfactory progress and meeting the goals set for them or do they require additional support?

Under the heading Enabling Environments in the Early Years Foundation Stage is a commitment ‘observation, assessment and planning’ and this requires all practitioners to:

  • Make systematic observations and assessments of every child’s achievements, interest and learning styles
  • Use these observations and assessments to identify learning priorities and plan relevant and motivating learning experiences for every child
  • Match their observations to the expectations of the Early Learning Goals
  • Closely observe children in order to assess their progress (in the case of the frameworks for early years education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Observation based assessment is promoted by the Early Years Foundation Stage in educational and care settings. These observations are then assessed using the Development Matters document of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile.  It is also necessary to include other documents in order to help to assess specific areas of development such as the Every Child a Talker programme (ECaT).  As technology evolves practitioners are faced with more and more methods of recording observations of children and young people and these might take the form of:-

  • Videos
  • Photographs
  • Audio recordings

The method of recording chosen will be dependent on the area of development of the child you are interested in observing.  For example the use of audio equipment would be beneficial if you wish to share information with a child’s parent or carer regarding their speech and language development.  A piece of artwork or a carefully constructed junk model will be ideally recorded with the use of a photograph. Although there are a lot of advantages with regard to the use of equipment for recording children’s development there are also disadvantages which need to be considered and addressed for example:

  • Children may be shy in front of a camera or, alternatively they may ‘play up’ therefore a true record will be hard to achieve
  • Background noise in a busy nursery can be a problem when using audio equipment
  • Equipment can be expensive to buy and easily broken in a busy nursery setting
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