Portfolios and Observations

Assessing Young Children

by Dr. Cathy Grace

The measurement of young children’s growth is accomplished in a variety of ways. Using a yardstick and door facing, we can chart growth in height; with a set of scales, we can determine if a child has had a gain in weight from the last time she was weighed. Measurement tools range from a yardstick to a sample of a child’s work with numerous assessment strategies in between. The challenge facing early childhood educators is to stay the course and to use common sense in the decisions that are made with regard to the assessment of young children.

As high-stakes testing becomes a reality in more and more states, early childhood educators are often put in the awkward position of defending the belief that the progress young children make in all developmental areas is a continuous and ongoing assessment, and that other methods may be more accurate than the once-a-year testing event.

One of the most comprehensive on-going assessment techniques is the student portfolio. The portfolio is a system for the collection of authentic assessments. Authentic assessment is a term that conveys that students are given opportunities to work in the application of knowledge and skills in the same ways that they are used in the “real” world outside of school. Authentic work samples are products of children’s work that reflects real situations and problems addressed in the learning environment, rather than contrived instructional situations. The collection of these work samples along with the regularly recorded observations of children’s interactions and comments serve to show children’s progress over time and in a variety of situations. The key to the effective use of information collected through this approach is the teacher’s knowledge of child development and skill as a keen observer.

Prior to the collection of the work samples and observational records, teachers should establish the criteria to guide the decisions made in the selection of the work and the recording of observations. The criteria should be based on the goals of the educational program and research-based child development milestones. The method of collecting the work and recording the children’s behavior and responses varies. The method depends on the size of the class and the number of teachers observing and interacting with the children on a daily basis. All work collected and observations recorded must be dated and accompanied by brief statement to explain the context in which the work was done. This method of collection is critical in the development of a timeline of progress that this system promotes. Children’s successes are being monitored, not their failures. The observation and collection of work is to be viewed as part of the instructional process and not separate. It is this connection with the student that makes the assessment real and personal.

Teachers can conference with children as young as four years about the work they feel should be kept in the portfolio. This conferencing is a part of the instructional time as children are beginning to evaluate their work against a standard and to discuss the process they went through in completing the task. Teachers, in their use of questions and comments, can lead children, often slowly at first, to embrace the process of learning as well as the product of their work through the conferencing process. For children who want the work to go home and to remain in the portfolio, a copying machine easily solves the dilemma. Using photographs and constructing block structures to record projects provide a means to capture cooperative learning experiences as well as illustrations of progress in the use of various media and construction materials.

 Examples of authentic work samples are:

  • Children’s art work collected periodically throughout the year
  • Samples of children’s writing such as in journals or with the case of very young children, writing attempts such as writing their name on a picture or attempting to design a menu for the “restaurant” being constructed in the dramatic play area of the classroom
  • Photographs of a child’s block tower or snap block structure
  • Photographs of children’s cooperative work such as murals or the on-going record keeping and analysis of the temperature for a month
  • Portfolios are used as the center- piece of parental conferences. Children five years and older are encouraged to conference with their parents and the teacher to explain the work and why it is included in the collection. Pass along portfolios are those that move from grade to grade, following the child. At the conclusion of the school year, the parents and child determine the work that will be passed along and the work that will go home. Some teachers send the portfolios home at the end of the school year for parents to keep and reflect upon during the years to come.
  • Numerous on-going assessment systems for young children are now available. These assessments guide the teacher’s observations and offer a means to assess the curriculum to determine if children are being given opportunities to grow in all domains.
  • The following Web sites offer further information on some of the most widely used assessment systems:
  • National early childhood associations have convened researchers and practitioners to develop position statements around the issue of appropriate assessment for young children. To gain access to those statements go to http://southernearlychildhood.org/. These position statements can be used in discussions with parents and school administrators in explaining the reasons why on-going assessment is a responsible form of gathering real information on young children’s progress.
  • The assessment of young children is truly a celebration of their lives and advancements if teachers view it as such. Information gained in the assessment process can also be used in the planning of work that addresses the needs of the child as evidenced in the collection of work samples and teacher observations. And most importantly, it can be used as a tool in the sharing of progress with the child’s family and with the child herself.

About the Author.  Dr. Cathy Grace is the Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University (http://www.educ.msstate.edu/cni/eci/). She was the former Executive Director of the Southern Early Childhood Association and co-authored The Portfolio Book: A Step-by-Step Guide for Teachers with Elizabeth F. Shores.  Published: December 2001.



Effective Observation Strategies

The NC Foundation of Early Learning and Development (Foundations) involves direct observation of children, using an instrument consisting of a common set of goals for children birth to kindergarten entry that will provide guidance for educators, administrators, and families as they provide quality experiences and opportunities resulting in successful school preparedness. Developmental assessment is designed to deepen understanding of a child’s strengths and to identify areas where a child may need additional support. Teachers and other child development professionals are encouraged to complete the developmental profiles through observation, a method of gathering information by carefully and systematically observing children in their early care and education environments.

Conducting Effective Observations

The process of systematically observing the development of children in the context of day-to–day family and early care and education activities is the initial step in finding and planning appropriate strategies to support the continuing development of children and families. Information gathered through observations can help child care providers in arranging the environment and in developing curricular plans and materials.

There are a variety of ways of gathering information through observations, including the following: video and voice recordings; photographs; portfolios; anecdotal records, diaries, and logs; activity lists; time sampling and event recording; and checklists and rating scales.

Effective observation of children requires training and practice on the part of observers. It also requires an environment that is conducive to documenting children’s activities and interactions with minimal effort or interruption to the natural flow of typical daily routines.


Using Observation

When observing, educators need to consider the following points:

  •  Use skilled observers. Observation is a complex, critical skill that can be developed through systematic training and practice. Observers must be the teacher or caregiver who is the most familiar with the child.  Observers must also do the following:
  • Be familiar with the tools, measures, and indicators for the developmental levels being observed.
  • Have an in-depth understanding of child development, including cultural variations expressed in children’s behavior.
  • Identify high-risk behavior or danger signals that may indicate possible disabilities or other detrimental circumstances.
  • Understand the child’s cultural context. Family and community cultures influence the child’s access to multiple approaches to literacy and are also related to expectations regarding a child’s educational accomplishments.
  • Consider the child’s experience. Is the child challenged by premature birth, a medical condition, or poverty? Is the child the product of a healthy, full-term delivery and living in an economically secure and supportive household that affords ample opportunities for play and discovery?
  • Be aware of how performance styles, motivational factors, and environmental variables influence the judgments made about children’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Refrain from labeling and avoid the tendency to place stereotypical expectations on children.

  • Be aware of a child’s total performance (across developmental domains), even when you are focusing on a single aspect of behavior.
  • Set up the environment to support effective observations of children. Observers can do the following to provide an appropriate environment:
  • Arrange activities so that the observers can watch from a place where they can hear children’s conversations.
  • Plan activities that do not require the full assistance of teachers or caregivers when they wish to observe a child.
  • Seat the observer unobtrusively near children’s activities.
  • Scatter “observation chairs” at strategic locations throughout the program, if possible.
  • Children who are accustomed to having observers present who are “writing” are more likely to behave naturally and allow the observer to take notes without interruption.
  • Carry a small notepad in a pocket. In several places on the wall, hang clipboards with lined paper and an attached pencil.
  • Keep a few specific points in mind.  Observers can do the following to improve their effectiveness:
  • Focus on observing exactly what the child does. Be as objective as possible. Do not let prior opinions or stereotypes influence your judgment.
  • Record your observations as soon as possible. Details may be important and can be easily forgotten.
  • Observe in a variety of settings and at different times during the day.
  • Be realistic in scheduling observations. Haphazard or incomplete observations will not present an accurate or comprehensive picture of the child’s behavior.
  • Focus on one child at a time. Assign staff to observe specific children so that those observers can concentrate on getting to know a few children very well.
  • Observe children during their natural daily routines. Avoid being obvious.
  • Ensure confidentiality at all times.
  • Plan ahead. Are there times when the availability of extra staff or the nature of the day’s activities seems better suited to observation?

From Prekindergarten Learning & Development Guidelines, California Department of Education. Sacramento, 2000.