The Famly Interview: Stella Louis on Improving Observations in the Early Years

Here's what we can do to really understand the importance of children's behaviour.
June 17, 2020
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That one stuck with me. Those are the words of Dr. Stella Louis, who has built a career on understanding play, and understanding how we can use observations to better understand the meaning behind children’s behaviour.

Stella is an early years consultant, trainer and author who works with nursery settings, charities and local authorities across the UK. She’s worked as a nursery worker and a researcher — that is to say, she comes to this conversation with a wide and detailed understanding of children’s learning and development. Her work is particularly focused on the importance of observations, and how we can use them to improve our daily practice.

At this year’s Nursery World Show, Stella and I had a conversation about what’s going on with observations in the Early Years sector right now, and how we can learn to use them to better support children.

You can check out snippets from the interview and read key takeaways below, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full 15 minute interview.

The big ideas

Stella Louis: The 5 key interview takeaways
  • According to Stella, observations are being diluted in the Early Years sector. They’re a critical tool to help us understand what we need to teach, and how children are absorbing their lessons — but right now, too many practitioners have got it the other way around, only making observations that match their checklist of learning goals.
  • Observations should be responsive, and require practitioners to ask questions. Why might a child be doing what they’re doing? What’s their goal? Even seemingly minute aspects of children’s behaviour can be meaningful, and practitioners need to know what to look for.
  • Stella sees room for growth in the Development Matters program. It can be useful, but its present form focuses too strongly on meeting curriculum-oriented outcomes, rather than understanding and supporting children’s own progress. To improve this practice, Stella believes, Development Matters should offer more resources for new practitioners to learn about child behaviour and development.
  • A good starting point for improving observations is understanding the importance of play. Play is children’s work, Stella says — it’s how they process new ideas, explore ideas and feelings, get stronger and develop relationships and social skills.
  • Stella points to Froebelian pedagogy as hugely influential to her own growth as an educator. Froebel was the creator of the kindergarten concept and an early proponent for children’s individual needs and capabilities, and for Stella, a major influence in her children-focused attitude toward observations.

What’s happening to observations in the Early Years?

Observations are critical for the Early Years sector. They’re a major tool for understanding children’s development — they show us how children are learning, and what we need to focus on. But according to Stella, the Early Years sector is diluting their use of observations.

Stella believes too many practitioners match their observations to fit curriculum goals, which makes them more of a superficial checklist, with less focus on children’s individual growth.

How do we use observations to their fullest extent?

Observations should be a responsive tool, not just filling out a log book. When you’re watching children, you need to be curious and reflective — why might a child be doing what they’re doing? What’s their goal? Practitioners need to condition themselves to see the meaning in behaviours they might think are innocuous.

This is where a better understanding of child development comes into play. Stella believes practitioners, especially those new to the sector, need more resources to help them understand how to make meaningful observations. If you can’t tell what a child is doing or you think their actions are not important, that’s not the child’s fault, she says.

The matter with Development Matters — and what we can do about it

In the full interview below (from around the 3:45 mark), Stella explains why she thinks Development Matters is useful, but why it’s also important practitioners don’t rely on it alone.

It’s outcome-based, not process-based, she says — it incentivises practitioners to look for how children’s behaviours match an existing rubric, rather than understanding the children on their own terms. She believes we should take a less linear approach to growth, swapping out “school readiness” for her preferred term, “intellectual readiness”.

Practitioners will always have commitments to curriculum, but we can work to make that relationship better. A first step, Stella says, is focusing more on educating new practitioners about child development. She believes Development Matters should give practitioners more resources to study and learn about child development, so they have a stronger knowledge base for supporting the children in their care. That, she says, trumps a national interest in meeting curriculum goals.

Our path to making better child observations

So how do we help practitioners understand the deep nature of child observations?
A good start is recognising that observations aren’t a one-size-fits-all affair — different folks, different strokes, as Stella says. She believes the sector can be more proactive in helping practitioners come together to share knowledge and pool resources, so new practitioners can get a deeper understanding of child development and behaviour.

Practitioners already know their children so well — the next step is giving them the resources to record what they’re seeing, and recognising important behaviours. In other words, Stella says, better observations need a better knowledge base. We need Early Years practitioners to read, learn and study to better understand how children learn and develop.

Starting by rethinking play

If we’re looking for a specific place to start rethinking observations, Stella recommends play.
Play is a huge part of children’s growth — it’s how they learn about themselves, their friends and relationships, and the world around them. She points to Tina Bruce’s Features of Play to help us understand the structure and value of play in children’s worlds.

Knowing those features, Stella says, helps us know what to look for as we make observations. If you don’t see certain features in play, maybe you need to help out, to offer structure and encouragement. This models stronger observations — reading children’s behaviour on their terms, and using it to inform our response as teachers and practitioners.

Learning from Froebelian pedagogy

At 13:45 in the full interview below, you can hear why the work of German pedagogue Friedrich Froebel has been one of Stella’s strongest inspirations. Froebel was one of the first prominent voices to advocate for children’s unique needs and capabilities, and helped model a more individually-focused approach toward early education.

For Stella, Froebelian pedagogy has been an influence on her work for decades, helping shape her approach to educational policy and practice. And Froebel’s principles are particularly relevant in the context of observations, she says. It’s about meeting children where they’re at, and connecting with what they know.

The full Stella Louis interview

Here’s the full interview with Stella Louis, where she and I discuss:

  • Why observations are so important to understanding children’s developments
  • How to rethink observations to put children first
  • What happens when observations focus on matching a rubric, rather than children’s own needs and growth
  • What the Development Matters curriculum gets right, and how we can improve it
  • Why we need to give new practitioners more resources to learn about child behaviour and development
  • What we can do to build a healthier approach to observations in the Early Years, both tomorrow and in the long-term future
  • Why play matters so much to children’s growth and learning, and how we as practitioners can best support it
  • How we can learn from Friedrich Froebel in our attitude towards observations
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