Turning your observations into insightful assessments

Nail your Early Years observations and assessments with these tips.
turning observations into insightful assessments
July 4, 2024
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In a rush? Here’s a quick rundown:

  • You will learn everything you need to know about observations and assessments, such as the purpose of observations and assessments and different types of observations.
  • You will get tips to help you write meaningful and effective observations and assessments, and more.
  • We know there are some common challenges that Early Years staff confront when writing observations and assessments. We’ll share ways to help you get through them.
  • Of course, we’ll also talk about Ofsted and what they have to say about observations and assessments.

As an Early Years educator, you have the privilege of witnessing the amazing growth and development of children daily. From the small wins to the big ones, it’s pretty cool to watch it all unfold.

Children rely on adults to guide them through the challenges and adventures of life. Every child possesses a unique temperament, opinions, and preferences, which influence their individual learning and development.

This is where observations and assessments come in.

In a diverse group of children, understanding and addressing individual needs is super important to fostering holistic development. Rather than following a rigid checklist of expected developmental milestones, observations and assessments empower educators to tailor learning experiences, track progress, and ultimately, unlock the full potential of every child, while encouraging each child to develop into their unique self.

So if you’re in need of a few tips and tricks to improve your observations and assessments, you’re in luck. We've got you covered.

In this article, we'll explore how to use observations to create insightful assessments. Inspired by the EYFS principles, we'll show you how to make smart decisions and give each child the personalised education they deserve.

teacher smiling with child

What are the main principles of EYFS?

First things first, so that we are all on the same page let's get clear on the 4 main principles the EYFS is based on:

  • Children are resilient and capable: Children are constantly learning. They are resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.
  • Positive relationships: Children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships.
  • Enabling, nurturing environments: Children learn and develop the best in supportive and nurturing environments. A supportive environment responds to each child’s individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and carers.
  • Every child is unique: Children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates.

What are observations and assessments in the Early Years?

Observation and assessment in the Early Years sector involve actively capturing and interpreting children's behaviours, interactions, and developmental milestones.


Observations require keen attention to detail, objectivity, and effective communication skills.

There are a variety of ways to write observations - which we will dive into below - but the method or medium isn't too important. The point is to use whatever method will offer the most clear and objective details that will be easy for you and other staff to understand and turn into an assessment. Observations are intended to capture the facts from an objective point of view.

"Observing children as they play and learn is the best way to get to know them."  

Dr. Julian Grenier


After recording observations, the next step is assessment. This is where educators more critically analyse observations. Observations are the data (images, written notes, videos, etc.) that help Early Years educators understand what stage a child is at in their development and how to support their learning journey moving forward.

Simply, assessments enable appropriate planning. With the insights gathered from observations and assessments, educators have all the right information to plan for the next steps in children's development and learning.

What is the purpose of observations and assessments in the Early Years?

  • Boosting learning outcomes: By keeping a close eye on how children are progressing, educators can be proactive and fine-tune learning experiences to help every child learn and develop at their own pace - and hit those important milestones.
  • Early intervention: By watching children's behaviour and interactions closely, educators can spot talents, challenges, and neurodiversity such as autism early on. This means getting the right help and support in place sooner, leading to better outcomes for children.
  • Strengthening parent-teacher partnerships: Observations are like a bridge that connects teachers and parents. Sharing insights and inviting parents' input helps teachers understand each child's interests, strengths, and growth areas. This partnership builds trust and creates a strong support system, enhancing the child's learning journey both at home and in their educational setting.
  • Boosting children's self-esteem: Observations are also key to building children’s self-confidence. By celebrating their achievements and milestones, educators help children feel proud and accomplished. This positive reinforcement encourages children to tackle new challenges with enthusiasm, fostering a resilient mindset and a love for learning that lasts a lifetime.

Ok, now that we’ve gotten a brief overview of what observations and assessments are, and why they are important, let’s talk about tips and tricks to make them the best.

teacher reading a book to children

Tips to make impactful observations and assessments

With these couple of tips, your observations will be even more effective and insightful.

  • Be respectful of privacy: First things first, make sure you have permission to make observations of the children at your setting from someone who has legal parental responsibility. Also, when recording observations, be respectful of the children’s wishes and personal space. Every child deserves to feel respected and valued. Observations will also be more accurate if the child feels safe and respected.
  • Be empathetic: It may seem like an obvious one, but empathy is important. When you're running around with a long list of tasks, it can be easy to forget that you’re dealing with little humans who require extra attention and empathy. The ability to understand and empathise with children's emotions and perspectives will help you make stronger observations and assessments.
  • Be aware of cultural differences: Being aware of, and sensitive to different cultures and backgrounds helps you interpret what you see through the right lens. It’s critical to avoid bias and make sure your observations fit the context of each unique child. This will also make your assessments more accurate and fair.
  • Practice reflection: Continuous reflection allows you to course correct as you go. By self-reflecting and continuing to prioritise your personal and professional development, you can continuously improve and refine your observation skills.
  • Think critically: When you dive deep into your observations, you'll uncover the motivations and learning processes behind children's actions. By analysing these moments thoughtfully, you can better understand and support each child's unique development.
  • Be attentive to details: A lot of times when working with the little ones, it's the little things that matter the most. By paying close attention to subtle nuances in their behaviours, you can capture a comprehensive picture of their development - and a bit more about their unique personalities! Those small details can often reveal big insights.
  • Communicate clearly: Sharing your findings clearly with colleagues and parents is essential. Good communication skills foster positive relationships and collaboration, ensuring that everyone is on the same page when it comes to supporting each child's growth.
  • Observing and assessing children's needs should involve multiple staff members, not just one. It's important to gather information from different perspectives for accurate decision-making. To paint a clear and holistic picture of a child’s development - and to remain objective - observations should be done systematically over time with the input of different members of staff. All progress, and especially concerns, should always be talked about with parents and colleagues to figure out if intervention might be needed.
  • Plan your observations: Before kicking off any observation at your setting it's important to have a clear understanding of what you want to get out of it. Take a moment to reflect on why you're conducting the observation will help you stay focused and ensure that you capture the most relevant and valuable information in the most effective way. Taking a moment to plan isn’t just about being organised—it’s about being intentional in how you observe and support each child’s learning journey.
  • Use this time to celebrate the child, and all the adults and carers: Observations not only serve to help children but also the adults in their lives. It’s easy to get swept up in the day-to-day of life and forget to stop and give yourself a pat on the back. Observation and assessments are great opportunities for reflection, helping practitioners appreciate their impact, and fostering commitment and staff retention at settings.
  • Also, for parents and carers, observations serve as a tool to empower and offer valuable insights into their child's development and guidance on supporting their learning journey at home. Additionally, observations provide parents with a clear view of their child's progress, allowing them to celebrate accomplishments and milestones together.
  • Stay attentive to the children: Don’t forget that while you are writing observations, your number one objective and responsibility is still attending to the children at your setting everything else comes second.

“If a child is struggling to do something and you’re ignoring them to write about it, it's not benefitting their wellbeing.”

Early Years Head Teacher Michele Barett

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Types of observations

When observing children, it's crucial to mix it up and use a variety of observation methods. This helps you get a complete picture of their interests, skills, abilities, and needs. Observing with a variety of techniques - like running records, learning stories, time sample observations, tracking, sociograms, photographs, and work samples - all play a part in understanding each child better.

By gathering a range of observations before you start interpreting and planning, you’ll get a well-rounded and holistic view of the child. This way, you can tailor your approach to suit each child's unique development journey.

Here are a few different types of observations:

Time sampling:

Time sampling involves short observations at regular intervals, typically every five minutes over an hour. It's helpful for tracking a child's engagement and preferences in different activities. While less structured, it needs consistent observations to spot patterns effectively.


Tracking observations map out a child's movements and activities within a setting. By documenting where they go and what they do, educators can uncover behaviour patterns and schemas, revealing underlying interests and developmental progress.


Sociograms focus on a child's social interactions within peer groups. This handy technique, often forgotten, gives great insights into a child's social skills and how they fit into the group. By checking out who they play with, how long they play, and their interactions, educators get a peek into their social world.

Documenting observations:

There are various ways you can document your observations. There are advantages to every method. Knowing which method works best for your goal can save you time and help you get the most from your observations. Remember, everyone processes information differently, so choose the documentation method that works best for you.

Let's go through the most common methods of observation, their benefits and which is best to use for your objective.

Written notes:

  • Ideal for capturing detailed descriptions of children's behaviours, responses, and interactions.
  • Provides a written record of significant experiences and milestones over time.
  • Allows practitioners to maintain objectivity and accuracy in their observations.
  • Best suited for narrative observations, time sample observations, and learning stories.


  • Effective for visually documenting children's activities, creativity, and physical development.
  • Offers a tangible and visual record of children's progress and achievements.
  • Can be used to supplement written observations and provide additional context.
  • Best suited for capturing magic moments and tracking observations.


  • Allows for the comprehensive recording of children's behaviours, interactions, and learning processes.
  • Gives you great video evidence that you can watch and break down in detail.
  • Offers a valuable tool for reflecting on children's development and planning future activities.
  • Best suited for in-depth observations, particularly for assessing social interactions, play skills, and problem-solving abilities.

Turning observation into assessments

Good observations help you create meaningful assessments. By carefully looking over the information you've gathered, you can spot patterns, strengths, and areas where a child might need some help. Think about not just what you see, but also the context, including the environment, social interactions, and individual differences.

Assessments should cover all areas of development: cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and language. Use these insights to plan and put in place tailored support strategies. This could involve changing activities, providing more resources, or collaborating with others to build a strong support system for the child.

Keep reflecting and updating your assessments based on new observations to make sure your interventions keep up with the child's needs. This flexible approach helps you provide better support for their learning and well-being.

teacher doing paperwork

Curriculum Planning

We haven’t yet covered curriculum planning but it's the missing piece to the puzzle. Assessments can be super helpful for planning fun engaging activities that match each child’s abilities and needs.

By getting to know each child, you can set personal goals for them. For example, if a child needs help with fine motor skills, you can include activities that improve their pincer grasp. This way, each child gets the support they need to thrive.

A quick checklist to help you put these tips into practice as you write your observations

Here are the key things you should be looking to have included when documenting observations.

  • Descriptions of actions.
  • Descriptions of children's vocalisations.
  • Direct quotes of children's language.
  • Descriptions of facial expressions and gestures.
  • Descriptions of creations (e.g., stacked blocks, scribble drawings, finger-painted pictures)
  1. Define your goals: Start by figuring out what you want to learn from your observations. Whether it’s how a child interacts with others, their language skills, etc. clear objectives will guide your observation.
  2. Plan your methods: Think about the best ways to gather information based on your goals. You might watch directly, chat with them, or set up activities. Choose methods that fit their age, interests, and stage of growth for the most accurate insights.
  3. Set the scene: Details matter! Describe where and when you’re observing and who’s there. It helps paint a picture of what’s happening.
  4. Reflect and assess: After observing, take time to think about what you saw. Evaluate the child’s progress and think about what to do next. Talk to parents or colleagues if you need more perspective. Reflecting regularly helps you understand how they’re growing and adjust your approach accordingly.

Navigating the challenges of observations and assessments

Working at an Early Years setting presents its own set of challenges when it comes to capturing and documenting observations. Let's talk about common challenges practitioners face and share tips on how to overcome them for better observations and assessments.

Here are some common challenges and tips on how to overcome them:

Time constraints:

Challenges: With your attention being pulled in every direction, a busy schedule can make it difficult to find the time to make observations.

Tip: Prioritise observation time by scheduling planned dedicated periods throughout the day. Even short, focused observations can yield valuable insights. Remember both spontaneous and planned observations can be beneficial.

Large group sizes:

Challenge: Focusing on one child at a time can be tricky when you’re a setting with larger numbers of children.

Tip: Rotate observation focus among staff members to ensure each child gets attention. Use group observation techniques when needed, such as focusing on specific activities or areas.


Challenge: We all come with different opinions and thoughts and it can be hard to leave our personal biases at the door.

Tip: Stay objective by using clear observation criteria and guidelines. Consider peer reviews or collaborative observations to stay objective.

Language and communication barriers:

Challenge: when dealing with little ones it can be easy for verbal and non-verbal cues to be misinterpreted.

Tip: create a supportive environment where children feel comfortable expressing themselves. Use visual aids, gestures, or translators to overcome communication barriers.

Consistency and reliability:

Challenge: Everyone works differently so it can be difficult to ensure some level of consistency and reliability across your setting.

Tip: Keep honing your team's observation skills with ongoing training and professional development. Make sure there are clear systems and standards in place for how observations are done and recorded.

early years practitioner outside with children

What Ofsted says about observations & assessment  

Ofsted makes clear the importance of meaningful observations and effective assessments in Early Years settings. Following their guidelines doesn't just boost education quality—it keeps children on the right developmental track.

Even though Ofsted probably won't peek at your observation documents, they will definitely ask you questions about each child’s development. So, being able to talk confidently about each child's journey is crucial, and detailed observations will help you.

Here are a few questions Ofsted inspectors may ask you where observations can support you.

  • What progress has the child made since starting with you?
  • What is the child working on/towards with your support (what are you doing in terms of teaching, resources, activities, and experiences)?
  • How did you establish the child’s starting points on entry?
  • How do you plan for the child’s future learning?
  • How do you know if the child is progressing typically for their age?
  • How do you communicate effectively with parents to share information?
  • How do you plan a curriculum that supports each child’s learning and developmental needs?

Things to remember before an Ofsted inspection:

  • Ofsted doesn’t want observations and assessments to take you away from attending to the children at your setting. Rather than looking at information about children, inspectors will want to understand your practical use of observations by discussing the progress children make with you.

  • There is no required way of carrying out observations or recording assessments, as long as the assessment is effective and positively impacts the children’s learning, development and progress.
  • Ofsted looks for settings that actively keep parents and carers informed about their child’s progress and development, fostering an open dialogue between parents and practitioners.
  • ​​Ofsted will not ask to look at written observations, tracking documents, learning journals etc. The only written learning and development document they may ask for are any relevant 2-year progress checks as these are statutory.

Collaborating with children

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12, says children have the right to share their opinions and have them taken seriously in anything that affects them. Sharing a child's progress and milestones in a way they can understand is a great way to celebrate their achievements and build trust and confidence. Getting children involved in their own development and learning is important, and ensuring that their voices are heard is crucial.

The big ideas

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

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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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