Theory and practice

7 Tips for Better Peer Observations in the Early Years

Although they aren't required, we believe staff-to-staff observations - or peer observations - are pretty great
Peer observations in the Early Years
October 20, 2023
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In a rush? Here’s a quick breakdown.

  • Just like observations are essential to each child’s development, early years peer observations are also beneficial to your staff and their professional development.
  • Staff observations foster an environment that supports feedback, open communication and collaboration.
  • Ability to recognize each staff member’s strengths, but also potential areas for improvement, which can help make your trainings more effective and applicable
  • Staff observations allow practitioners and management to step back and ask why things are being done in a certain way.

Do peer observations even matter?

Peer observations. They might not be an Ofsted requirement. They might not be in the EYFS. But we still think they’re pretty important.

Why? Well, while they might not be required by Ofsted in the early years, there’s no doubt they can play a hugely important role in improving staff practice. And that is required to achieve the top grades.

What’s more, they’re a hugely valuable learning tool for both the practitioner observing and the practitioner being observed. Let’s take a closer look.

Supervision is an important part of running an outstanding early years setting. Under the ‘Teaching Learning and Assessment’ grading, Ofsted talks about the need to:

“Improve staff practice, teaching and learning through effective systems for supervision, rigorous performance management and appropriate professional development.”

Early Years Inspection Handbook, Page 30, Section 148

The big ideas

But where do peer observations fit in? For one, they’re a great example of reflective practice. They are typical of an open early years environment where discussions around best practice and how to improve are commonplace.

They also allow practitioners and management to step back and ask why things are being done in a certain way. It can make sure that you’re not getting stuck in poor practice just because it’s the way you’ve always done things.

Finally, these observations can inform your training directly. Find strengths and areas for improvement in your staff and target your training for that, rather than providing blanket training that might not help anyone.

What should peer observations include?

One thing that can help get started is to provide staff with prompts when they’re doing the observations. Many practitioners, particularly if they’re junior, are going to struggle unless they know what they’re meant to be observing.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Interactions with children
  • Appropriate language
  • Appropriate body language
  • Processing information and acting on it in a timely manner
  • Spontaneous scaffolding based on child’s interests
  • Allowing the child to take the initiative and lead learning
  • Using open-ended questions
  • Allowing the child time to answer
  • Responding to individual child needs
  • Introducing new vocabulary
  • Praising and reinforcing children
  • Adapting to each child’s ability
  • Providing challenges to all children

7 tips to help you get started with staff observations at your setting

Ready to go? Whether you’ve just started out with peer observations or been doing them for years, these 7 tips (and a few added extras at the end) could make a real difference at your early years setting.  

1. Truly peer-to-peer

When a manager or director is observing staff, that isn’t really peer-to-peer observation. Peer observations are more than that - they’re specifically about staff observing other staff.

The reason why these are more useful than manager-to-practitioner observations is because they are learning experiences for both the person observing and the observed person. The practitioner gets invaluable feedback and the observer gets the chance to reflect on and view best practice in action.

With junior members of staff, it might be useful to start with joint observations to begin with. This way they can learn how to observe and give feedback.

When you’re pairing up staff for peer observation, remember that there’s a benefit no matter the level of experience. So:

  • Junior to senior allows the junior observer to learn from an experienced practitioner.
  • Senior to junior allows the senior practitioner to give strong feedback based on their considerable knowledge.
  • Senior to senior allows even the most experienced practitioner to find room for improvement.

2. Try peer-to-manager observations

Sometimes, peer observations in early years can be tricky to implement because staff think the feedback is personal and don’t take it well.

Fixing this needs to come from the top. If you’re having this problem, why not let them observe you first. Ask for feedback on everything you do, and let your staff do it anonymously if you think it will give you a more honest overview.

That way, you can model how to accept and onboard feedback in a large staff meeting, taking their observations into account. Building trust is an important skill for any outstanding manager and if you can’t swallow your own pride and accept that you have areas to work on, how can you expect your team to?

3. Include positives and areas for development

Often, practitioners are too kind in their peer observations for fear of being ‘too mean’. This is why you need to make sure they understand the importance of including areas for development too.

This is where the prompts you give them can come in handy. If they understand the sort of areas to watch out for, they can more specifically see what an area for improvement might look like.

If in doubt, you can get the practitioners to use video as part of their peer observations. If they’re struggling to find any weaknesses, you can watch the video with them and suggest things yourself.

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4. Time to get specific

One thing that can make this task tricky for your staff is that they have too much to consider in one ten-minute observation.

If it’s all a bit overwhelming, why not try focusing on a specific area? Take language and communication, for example, and outline the various areas where practitioners can help to support their children’s development there.

If your cohort data is telling you that there’s a specific area that needs improvement, or you’ve observed a weaker area yourself, make that the focus.

5. The same thing won’t work for everyone

Often, managers will do these observations ‘once a term’ or ‘once every six weeks’. The truth is, that approach might not work for everyone.

If a practitioner needs more reminders because they’re junior or stuck in certain habits, you can make peer observations more habitual for them.

You should also get these people to do more observations too. They’ll learn by looking at other practitioners doing their thing, and assessing someone else is a great step towards looking more reflectively at your own early years practice.

6. Get your observation sheet right

An important part of getting value out of peer observations is having a watertight process in place. Many managers do this by using ‘proforma’ or guidance sheets, which can include the prompts we’ve already talked about alongside a framework so that staff know the sort of information they need to collect.

This shouldn’t be an endless list that overwhelms staff when they’re actually trying to make their peer observations, but it should give them some useful ideas to focus on during the process. This article has a great list of focus areas if you’re looking at language and communication specifically.

Another idea, is to use the language of Ofsted in this, in order to get practitioners more prepared for the sort of questions Ofsted might ask. You could even include the criteria for Outstanding within ‘Teaching, Learning, and Assessment’ on your proforma to give the practitioners a deeper understanding. It can also be more comforting to refer to something more concrete than their own opinions when they’re providing feedback.

7. Using ‘I’ not ‘You’

One way to ease any potential tension during the feedback is to encourage practitioners to use ‘I’ sentences rather than ‘you’ sentences.

For example, “You shouldn’t have stepped in and answered your own question before the child had a chance to answer.” becomes “I would have given that child a little longer to answer the open-ended questions. I struggle with it too, but I find it helps to just count to ten before I interject”.

It’s not only a good way to ease potential conflict in the feedback, but it’s a good tool to learn for anyone who works in the early years. That’s because it can also help to defuse conflict in difficult scenarios with children and parents.

A few final tips on staff observations

We wanted to leave you with a few extra tips that might make a difference to your peer observations:

  • Keep the observations short – they shouldn’t need to last longer than 10/15 minutes.
  • Get staff to give evidence for the judgements they’ve made in the feedback session.
  • Always give feedback in a private place.
  • Try an ‘observation week’ instead of a specific time slot. That way practitioners don’t necessarily know when they’re observed and won’t feel they have to ‘perform’.
  • Make sure staff are honest but sensitive. No one should be made to feel like they are doing a bad job.
  • Be a part of the feedback sessions if you think it will help staff to feel more comfortable.
  • Always allow practitioners time to respond to feedback. Perhaps there’s a reason for certain practice that the other staff member wasn’t aware of.
  • Be careful who you choose to pair up. You don’t want to worsen strained relationships by getting staff that don’t get on to observe one another.
  • Explain how peer observations help with their early years development and the children’s outcomes (this is a nice document to use). Staff may feel a little threatened by the concept but if they understand it’s about improvement, not punishment, they’ll be more comfortable.
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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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