Under 2's

How to Observe and Assess Babies in Nursery Settings

In the concluding part of her series on the care of the under-twos, Ann Clare explains how practitioners can plan, observe and assess successfully…

It seems to me that one of the most natural things in the world is to observe babies and young children. Their growth and development is amazing, and if we do not observe then we miss out on countless opportunities to see the miraculous changes that take place. But if observing is a natural thing to do, why is it that so many practitioners look on this part of their job as burdensome and paper-laden?

The frequent argument against observing is that it takes the practitioner away from the babies and children in their care; and, it is true, I have witnessed settings whose demands far outweigh the expectations of both Ofsted and their local authorities. But if practitioners plan to observe and use systems that are not burdensome then observing becomes the natural thing that it should be.

So, why do we need to observe, and how can we observe in such a way that it becomes an enjoyable part of the process of caring for your children? Firstly, we need to observe in settings because we are responsible for the children in our care, especially those who are regarded as vulnerable: those children who have already been identified in the very earliest stages of their life of being in need of additional support to enable them to learn and develop at an age-appropriate rate. The reports of both Field (2010) and Allen (2011) have raised the awareness of government, and amongst practitioners, about the need to identify as early as possible any children who are not following the normal stages of development. As a result, the government has decided to make it a statutory duty for all those working with very young children to carry out an assessment of their learning and development in the EYFS‘s three prime areas (Personal, social and emotional development, Communication and language, and Physical development) through the progress check at age two. The government has also identified the need for practitioners working with babies to have qualifications and training that equip them to make the correct assessments of children at age two and be better able to support the learning and development of babies:

● At least one member of staff must hold a full and relevant Level 3 qualification, and must be suitably experienced in working with children under two;

● at least half of all staff must have received training that specifically addresses the care of babies.

But in order to assess, practitioners need to observe and they need to realise that there are many ways in which this can be done.

Talking with parents

The starting point for gathering any information to inform the planning for babies is to have long and detailed discussions with parents when their children first attend a setting and to ensure that this dialogue continues with updated information on a regular basis. After all, who knows their baby the best? Once the information from parents has been gathered the practitioner can begin to plan for that baby based on what they know they like to do and what they know they are interested in. Consider the following example:

Oscar’s mother tells us that he enjoys putting things behind and under the furniture. The practitioner needs to stop and think; could this be the sign of an enveloping schema? ‘If so then I need to give Oscar resources such as small bags, boxes, tins with lids, paper or boxes which he can cover in paint and fabrics so that he can envelop himself.’ Once these resources have been added to the environment then the practitioner needs to stand back and watch what he does with them.

Simply put, from an observation by a mother, the practitioner has made an assessment and has then planned activities for Oscar. As part of this process she has also planned to observe so that she can see what she needs to do next to challenge his thinking and move his learning forwards.

This all seems so simple, so where is the problem? Well, in any busy nursery setting, and especially in the baby room, the care needs of the children often impact on the time that the practitioner has to spend observing the babies and children in her care. It is important, therefore, that practitioners get the right balance between the routine care needs that they have to cater for and the time that they spend interacting with and observing.

The easiest way in which to obtain these observations is through the use of photographs and videos. I once worked with a teacher who conducted all of her observations in this manner; because of her in-depth knowledge of all of the children in her care, she was able to demonstrate a child’s learning journey through a photographic/video slide show, narrating what was happening and linking all of this to the development matters ages and stages. She reported to parents in this way, as well as giving them a formal written assessment of a child’s learning at certain times of the year. In this example, the crucial piece of information is that she knew her children well and that she also had an in-depth knowledge of how children learn and develop.

Interpreting observations

Once observations are made practitioners have to assess or interpret them if they are going to effectively plan for the babies and children in their care. There are excellent tools to assist in this assessment, but they must be used carefully. The revised EYFS Development Matters are invaluable if they are used correctly. These descriptions of what children may demonstrate in their learning are just that, descriptors. They do not show all of the learning that an experienced practitioner will observe. What they are is an overview of the learning and development that takes place at certain stages (not specific ages) in a child’s journey. These charts were never meant to be tick lists, and I worry whenever I visit a setting and see that they have been printed off and practitioners instructed to put dates next to them to indicate when a baby or child has ‘achieved’ them. These charts are meant to be used to give practitioners an idea of how a child is moving forwards and then for the practitioner to use them to assess in a ‘best fit’ manner.

Another resource which I have always found invaluable when looking at the language development of babies and children is the ECAT audit tool. This document, developed by speech and language therapists, gives indicators of where a child is in their speech development.

Nowadays, settings are being asked to track children to show that they are making progress over time. This entails doing an ‘on-entry assessment’ when a baby first starts so that his/her starting points can be identified. I would strongly advocate that this assessment is not done until after a period of about six weeks, once close observations have taken place and the baby is feeling settled, safe and secure. We all know that it takes a few weeks for babies and young children to be settled in their new environments, and to feel safe and secure enough to demonstrate their individual identities. ‘On entry’ should also include relevant information gathered from parents. After this time assessment should take place at regular intervals (I usually recommend twice a year) and be recorded as to whether a child is working towards, working within or secure in a particular stage of Development Matters.

Next steps

Once all the observations and assessments are secure, practitioners should be identifying next steps for learning, which should then be used to inform their planning. When it comes to planning for babies I always promote individual planning which identifies ways in which the practitioner can work with that particular baby within the continuous provision of the environment. When babies are young it is difficult to plan for group activities because their stages of development at the same chronological age can be so different, especially with regards to mobility and physical development. For this age I would suggest planning for group experiences which the babies can access during the day with support from their key person.

Once children are older, planning for individuals within groups can become a lot easier; but however you plan, it must always be about children and their learning and never what the adult ‘fancies’ doing that day! Getting the right system for planning, observation and assessment can take time but it is always important to remember why you are doing it. It should never be to tick the box of the local authority or Ofsted; it should be about you as a professional knowing the children in your care and giving them all the opportunity to progress – and, most importantly of all for both practitioner, baby and parent, about having fun and forming a real partnership.

Ann Clare is an early years consultant and the author of Creating a Learning Environment for Babies and Toddlers.