Using Observation to Guide Your Teaching
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As staff assessors for NAEYC’s Early Learning Programs team, we visit different programs across the country. Our goal is to connect with program staff, observe, and gather information about a setting to evaluate it for accreditation. The NAEYC “Early Learning Program Accreditation Standards and Assessment Items” guides our work: it outlines expectations for excellence, aiming to ensure that programs offer children and families continuously high-quality early childhood education and care.
There are 10 standards covering a range of topic areas. One of the most challenging for programs is Standard 4: Assessment of Child Progress. As we gather information for this standard, we look for evidence that early childhood educators are observing children—watching and listening with intention along with recording that information—then using their observations to do two things: adjust teaching strategies and design learning experiences.
In this article, we share details and examples about how to use observations to guide instruction. These are based on our work as early childhood educators and reflect our observations of and feedback to early learning programs as they go through the accreditation process.
Teachers as Observers
Observation is at the heart of early childhood assessment and is a key guide in how teachers support children. It includes gathering, recording, and reflecting on information about children’s progress. Quality observations communicate each child’s individuality and context: because every child has strengths, interests, and experiences connected to their unique home and community contexts, it makes sense that observations and other assessments should provide a comprehensive view of who each child is, what they know, and what they can do.
Effective teachers intentionally watch and listen to children—whether during a daily routine or a planned activity, on a particular day, and over time. Sometimes, we can tell a teacher is observing by what they say. During our visits, we often hear a teacher share things like
- “Jamal is starting to recognize the letters in his name. Today he pointed to an A in a book and said, ‘That’s MY letter.’”
- “Marisu has incredible balance. Did you see how long she stood on one foot today?!”
- “Jacintha made up another song while she was in the dramatic play center today. She comes up with the most wonderful melodies.”
Other times, we can tell a teacher is observing by their documentation. Teachers use anecdotal records, audio and video recordings, checklists and rating scales, and other means to document children’s learning and growth. Documentation can be reviewed, reflected on, and used to make decisions, including the next steps in planning for a group and for individual children.
Using Observations to Adjust Teaching Strategies
Ms. Jackson and Ms. Perez coteach in an early learning program. During shared outdoor time, the two observe a group of children trying to make a tower out of loose parts cut from a tree trunk. The children are having a difficult time because they’re using a few small blocks of wood as a base and stacking larger pieces on top. The tower keeps toppling.
Ms. Jackson approaches the children. “Put the big pieces on the bottom,” she says. It’s a strategy she has used in the past: in the block center earlier that week, she told children that big blocks should go at the bottom of a structure. Then, as now, the children stare at her.
Ms. Perez takes another approach. Responding to the children as active, engaged learners, she waits and observes rather than imposing a solution. Then she says, “I remember when you were building a tower inside the other day. What happened to that tower?” She listens and watches some more. When the outside tower falls again, she says, “Hmm, I wonder what else you could try?” to encourage the children to keep working. After several failed attempts, the children collect smaller pieces of wood and line them up to make a sturdier base. It works! The tower is tall and stable.
This is an example of using the results of observation to adjust teaching strategies. Based on her observations, Ms. Perez decided to ask questions and give a clue or hint. By intentionally observing and acting on what they see, teachers can select and adapt a range of developmentally appropriate strategies to promote children’s play and work.
What to Observe
If observation is new to you or if you’re looking to finetune your current practice, consider asking the following questions as you watch the children in your setting.
- What activities and materials does each child respond to (positively or negatively)?
- What are some questions and statements each child has said that stand out to you?
- What does each child talk about?
- How does each child play?
- Who does each child enjoy playing with?
- When is each child most successful?
- When does each child smile and laugh?
Using Observations to Design Learning Experiences
While teachers have many opportunities to make spontaneous observations (as in the vignette), they can also plan when to observe and tie what they see to specific learning goals or objectives. For example, Ms. Patel was interested in learning more about what each child in her setting already knew about the alphabet. As children engaged in the literacy center over the next few weeks, she intentionally observed and asked questions as they played. She noticed that Jack named all the letters in the alphabet and used scribbles to represent letters on paper. Ms. Patel documented these observations by taking pictures and writing anecdotal records. After reviewing and reflecting on these pieces, she created more print-rich materials by adding laminated cards with words related to the weekly theme and by putting labels on toy shelves. She also made a class book with photos of each child beside their names. That helped Jack start making connections and move from scribbles to letter-like forms and letters.
In addition, teachers can draw on their observations of children’s interests as they plan related learning experiences. For example, if Ms. Patel observes that Jack is interested in reptiles, she can add sand and plastic lizards to the sensory table, encouraging Jack to use his fingers or the lizards’ tails to draw letters in the sand. She can introduce playdough rolled into long “snakes” and encourage Jack to make letter shapes with them. This is one of many examples we observed in the field of teachers using observation to design activities or learning experiences.
Questions to Help Use What You Observe
As assessors, we are trained to look for evidence that educators are using what they observe to guide teaching and inform decision making about each and every child. As you think about how you use observations in your setting, consider the following questions:
- When do I typically watch and listen to children?
- Are there other times I could be observing?
- What types of activities or experiences do I tend to watch and listen to closely?
- When else might I want to start observing?
- How do I use information from my observations?
- What is one new or different way I can use this information to guide my teaching?
Bringing It Together: Using Observations to Individualize Instruction
When teachers make the most of their observations, they can adjust their teaching approaches and design activities that are responsive to each learner in their setting. Looking back at the opening examples, here is how the teacher in each situation did just that.
Observation: “Jamal is starting to recognize the letters in his name. Today he pointed to an A in a book and said, ‘That’s MY letter.’”
Adjusted teaching strategies: Jamal’s teacher, Mr. Blanca, starts pointing out letters around the room that are in Jamal’s name. He places books in the classroom library about celebrating one’s name (such as Your Name is a Song, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Luisa Uribe, and Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes). He intentionally spends time in that area, acknowledging, giving feedback, and using other strategies as Jamal engages with these books.
Designed learning experiences: Next week, Mr. Blanca plans an activity where children will use tools like stencils, foam brushes, or their fingers to paint the letters in their names. He makes sure to draw Jamal’s attention to the art center and the opportunity to paint his name and other things about himself.
Observation: “Marisu has incredible balance. Did you see how long she stood on one foot today?!”
Adjusted teaching strategies: When the group sings during music time, Marisu’s teacher, Ms. Deepti, prompts children to add movements like hopping and standing on one foot.
Designed learning experiences: With support from Ms. Deepti, the children make an obstacle course with a balance beam. They keep the course up for a few weeks, and Ms. Deepti encourages Marisu to try this activity during that time.
Observation: “Jacintha made up another song while she was in the dramatic play center today. She comes up with the most
Adjusted teaching strategies: Jacintha’s teacher, Ms. Brahma, sings clean-up time directions to the melody Jacintha was singing.
Designed learning experiences: Ms. Brahma plans to introduce an instructional unit on melodies in children’s songs. She will gather ideas from the children, from collections at the local library, and from families. She anticipates making melody maps (posters with different shapes that visually show a melody) and talking about high and low sounds. She also plans to incorporate different genres or styles of music from various cultures into the class’s daily routines.
Photographs: © Getty Images
Copyright © 2022 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See permissions and reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
This article supports the following NAEYC Early Learning Programs standards and topics
Standard 4: Assessment of Child Progress
4C: Identifying Children’s Interests and Needs and Describing Children’s Progress
4D: Adapting Curriculum, Individualizing Teaching, and Informing Program Development
Dawn Petitpas has been an assessor at NAEYC for 20 years and has observed in thousands of early childhood classrooms. She has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood and child care leadership from Leslie University and a master’s degree in school administration from Wheelock.
Teresa K. Buchanan, PhD, started assessing programs for NAEYC in 2021. She was an early childhood teacher educator for 20 years and earned her doctorate in child and family studies with a focus on early childhood education from Purdue University.