Through my own preschool and the experiences of the staff who work with me and also in meeting early years practitioners from all areas of childcare in their own settings and at the Early Years Education show it is apparent that there is a lot of confusion and apprehension over what makes for good observations and assessment in early years care.
I will try and shine a light on what works for me, my staff and the practitioners who are now using The Observation Toolkit.
In my opinion the staff/child ratios we are allocated do not allow for the type of in depth observation documented in Aistear, Regulation 5 or the NCCA. So we must do what we can, make it count, make it work and ultimately make sure it is worthwhile and benefits the child.
It really is not possible to do in depth, continuous observations on every child in a preschool room when you have a ratio of 1:11 (ECCE). Considering preschool staff must also provide a stimulating and engaging curriculum, snack time, tidy up time, a positive and hygienic environment, change wet or soiled clothes, console an upset child and deal with conflict in the classroom, speak with parents and also fulfil all other paperwork obligations. It is no wonder practitioners are panicking and feeling overwhelmed. On reading through observation guidelines detailed in any of the frameworks listed above you are left reeling at the sheer scale of what is involved. I know we would all love to have the time and resources to sit and observe a child painting for twenty minutes and document it with photos, written notes and parent feedback but this is just not realistic without extra staff and lower ratios and further funding for non contact time.
It is time to get back to basics. Remember that you are always assessing the children in your care, you are always observing and making mental notes. A qualified, experienced childcare worker never stops monitoring and guiding the children in their care and adapting the curriculum to their needs and interests.
Why observe and assess? What can we learn? What is the point and how will it benefit the children in our care? The answers to these questions will guide us in how we observe and what to do with the information. Answer these questions and you can condense observations down to what is most important - the child and their learning journey. Check lists, questionnaires, tests and tick boxes hold very little value in early childhood observations. For Irish practitioners we need a knowledge of Regulation 5 relating to the health, welfare and development of the child and this should be used as a guide in our observations.
Our assessments are continuous and active in our daily interactions with the children, if we can remember this then the task can seem less daunting and less overwhelming. More formal observations can take place over the course of a year - one per child per month is sufficient and these can be used as a reference point and a guiding tool for areas in which the child is progressing and areas in which they may need extra guidance.
Remember that our observations are not solely to pinpoint difficulties - they are an insight into the child's learning journey, a story of their interests, their achievements and their experiences.
The best way to carry out observations, in my experience, is a combination of a learning journal and a more formal observation record sheet. The learning journal should be an anecdotal story of the child's time in preschool including photos, craft, drawings, stories of their friends, their likes and dislikes and things they have said and done. The record sheet is a quick and easy tool enabling you to document one aspect of the child's story - just one thing - what are they doing right now? Are they cutting with scissors, putting on their coat, crying because dad has just left - whatever it may be it can be observed, assessed, linked to Aistear and a note made for future reference - where can we go with this information, how can we enhance this child's personal preschool experience and learning journey using the information we have just gathered.
Remember that in linking our observations to Aistear (or indeed any framework for early learning) we do not need to get bogged down in creating too many strands of detail - almost everything a child does can be related back to every aim of early learning. Look instead at which aim or theme jumps out at you and then use that as a guide for further learning.
So we can see it is not just necessary but vital to have some formal documentation of each child's progress and journey but make it work for you, keep it simple, clear and non judgemental and it will benefit both you and the children in your care.
Early learning is complex and dynamic, a child's experiences are not isolated but always interlinked and interrelated, so everything they do, every experience we provide, every interaction gives a rich opportunity for learning and observation.