EYFS: 5 steps to effective child observations

Observing pupils in early years is key, but it doesn’t have to be a time-drain or tick-box exercise, says Nicky Clements

early years children playing

Observing is a fundamental part of how we teach young children in the early years.

The cycle begins with the look, listen and note approach, in order to assess where children are in their learning journey before planning the next steps in that journey.

These observations can come in many formats –  just as learning journeys can – and it is up to individuals to decide how best to approach them. There are no prescribed formats or time requirements, although there are guidelines to make the process as purposeful as possible.


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The Statutory Framework for EYFS states that teachers should observe children to “understand their level of achievement, interests and learning styles, and to then shape learning experiences for each child reflecting those observations”, adding that they should  “respond to their own day-to-day observations about children’s progress and observations that parents and carers share”.

Early years: pupil observations

It goes on to say that these assessments “should not entail prolonged breaks from interaction with children, nor require excessive paperwork”.

The idea of not entailing prolonged breaks from interaction with children while also not requiring excessive paperwork seems to be at odds for some.

How do staff record what they are seeing and hearing without removing themselves from the interaction with the child? And how do staff who are paid an hourly rate related to their contact with children complete these? (Those who are not qualified teachers may find themselves writing up observations in their own time.)

Then there are the myths that pop up around the process (one teacher recently tweeted, for example, that they’d heard that 10 observations were required per early learning goal in order to make a judgement).

Ofsted has been vocal about myth-busting, reinforcing that there is “no prescribed way of conducting or recording assessments, as long as it is effective and helps children’s learning, development and progress”.

early years paintingSo how can we make this crucial process as succinct and purposeful as possible? Here are some ideas:

  1. Ensure all staff have a good understanding of what to observe and why we observe. Use the Statutory Framework statements as a starting point and look at examples of how others observe, dedicating CPD time to working on this skill.

  2. Decide what is a workable expectation regarding quantity. It is much better to have fewer, high-quality observations than numerous box-ticking exercises that reveal little about the learning that is happening (it is difficult to spend enough time interacting with a child to know them fully if you are constantly writing on a clipboard). During formal moderation, the adult’s dialogue about the child will usually be given greater weight than copious amounts of written evidence.

  3. Look at the timetable to see if there are any points in the day or week where staff can complete observations if the children are settled and fewer staff are required.

  4. Keep the narrative simple and note-like, avoiding lengthy descriptions of activities. Use "learnish" to succinctly describe how the child is learning instead, for example persevering, thinking critically, maintaining focus, making links, taking a risk, noticing, can-do attitude, pride. Refrain from lengthy paraphrasing and stick to the child’s voice.

  5. If you are using an online journal, it’s fine to create a quick photo and note, which can be added to later if needs be. Be as cross-curricular or multi-layered as is appropriate; most observations will include some aspect of listening, speaking, understanding and personal social and emotional development. Urge staff not to waste time describing adult-led activities where all observations may look the same.

Nicky Clements is head of EYFS at Victoria Academies Trust. She tweets @nickyclements71

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