My favourite section of the Statutory Framework for the EYFS is section 2, paragraph 2.2 which states:

Assessment should not entail prolonged breaks from interaction with children, nor require excessive paperwork.  Paperwork should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary to promote children’s successful learning and development.

When I was an Area SENCO, I sometimes visited settings where practitioners spent a great deal of time writing observations of children.  I had often been called into these settings due to concerns about children’s behaviour and when I sat on the floor, children swarmed towards me because they were thrilled that someone was going to play with them instead of writing.

Purposeful observation and assessment is about balance.  Interaction with children is what’s most important in our settings, so we need to think of ways that enable us to do this as well as monitor children’s progress.


1. Gather relevant information when a child starts at your setting

We know (quite rightly) that OFSTED are focusing on children’s starting points - what their level of development is when they arrive at your setting. The best way to accurately discover this is through parents as they are the experts on their child.  Consider completing the Every Child a Talker Monitoring Tool with parents as this will promote useful discussion.  It’s helpful to ask all parents to bring in their child’s child health book (commonly referred to as the red book) as this will give you information about health visitor developmental checks and any concerns.   It’s important not to raise parents’ anxiety but to explain why this information is useful and how you will use it to ensure you meet their child’s needs.  If parents choose not to show you the book that’s their choice but in my experience most parents will be happy to share it.

2. Observe the child’s play

The development of play is very closely linked to the development of a child’s understanding of language, which is why it’s so important to play alongside children. For example, a typically developing 18 – 24 month old should be able to recognise and play with miniature toys.  Before they reach this stage of development, they might try to stack doll’s house furniture or cars or line them up as they don’t realise what they represent.  36 months is when play becomes more imaginative and children will enjoy dressing up and becoming different characters. At 48 months, children will enjoy playing with others and their play is a delight to observe as it becomes more complex.

Rather than completing a long narrative observation as children play, write down their spontaneous speech over a 5 minute period.  This will provide you with evidence of their developing vocabulary, how they engage with the resources on offer and each other.

3. Collaborate

We all notice different aspects of a child’s development, so it can be beneficial to meet at least every two months with your colleagues to discuss each child’s progress.  Use the EYFS Early Years Outcomes or your Local Authority trackers but remember that every child is different and it’s important to take into account their previous experiences.  If you’re a childminder, meeting up with other childminders to share the information you gather is an effective way to develop your practice but remember the importance of confidentiality.

4. Focus

It’s vital to know why and what you’re observing.  What will the information tell you about this child that you don’t already know? Think about the best time to observe the child to find out the information you need. For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to observe a child during story time if you’ve got concerns about their fine motor skills.   If possible, ask for an additional member of staff to release you for a short period of time so you can focus on observing the child without any distractions.  Once you have the information, how will you use it to benefit the child and how will you share it with parents so everyone is working together?

Finally, remember the words of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper who famously said, “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is we’ve always done it this way.”  If your observation and assessment system isn’t working for you or your children then it needs to change.  I’m proud to be a member of NEYTCO (National Early Years Trainers and Consultants) which is a community interest company. They publish a list of providers who welcome visitors, so this could be a great way to develop your practice further.

About the author

Kathryn is a specialist early years teacher and trainer who has worked with children for nearly 25 years, including 10 years as an Area SENCO. She is a licensed Tutor for ICAN Talk Boost as well as an ELKLAN Speech and Language Trainer.  She regularly writes and delivers courses for early years practitioners on all aspects of SEN.  You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynstinton, find her on Facebook or visit her website for more information.

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