Step by step - monitoring progress

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Tracking the progress of a toddler requires methods which go beyond a simple reliance on words, says Jennie Lindon

Tracking the progress of a toddler requires methods which go beyond a simple reliance on words, says Jennie Lindon

If you are responsible for very young children, you need to keep track of how they are progressing just as you would with older children. However, your methods of following progress may be different and it is important to focus on what and how under-threes are learning.

Watch how they learn
You need to cover the full range of development of under-threes and use informal observation, as well as written records, to show young children's learning throughout the day, including the care routines.

Focus on the physical
Physical skills, growing control and co-ordination from the earlier months are of immense value to young children. It is interesting that some practitioners who work with older children are becoming aware of how much learning is mediated through physical skills and development.

Babies have a strong motivation to gain control of their body, hands and legs and to practise their current skills. Once they have a means of movement, they use the skill to expand their world. Any methods of monitoring need to reflect how children use their newly-gained skills and not simply that they can crawl or walk a few steps.

Watch out that care routines allow scope for learning and noting progress as well as playtime. It is useful to look for different sources of examples of the same or similar skill. For instance, hand-eye co-ordination may be shown with play materials such as posting boxes, but are also shown in a toddler's keenness to post letters through a real postbox, or to help with wiping the table after lunch.

Through an alertness to the physical skills, you may also notice the early signs of self reliance - toddlers who want to help in their own feeding or dressing - although they cannot yet complete a task fully.

Full communication
Early communication starts months before the first 'real' words and needs to be valued as much as spoken language when it emerges. So any monitoring methods need to pick up, and give examples, of babies' expressions and gestures before they say proper words, as well as logging some of those early words and phrases. Toddlers show understanding of many familiar events and requests. Descriptive anecdotes work well as examples to support your observation of 'I'm sure she understands...'

Under-threes are thinking
You can observe the development of thinking and making sense of the world through the behaviour of very young children before they express their insights through spoken comments and questions. Admittedly, there is always some uncertainty and adults need to be cautious with their guesses. Yet the actions of toddlers and young children will often show that they have planned a few actions forward, have remembered and drawn on past experience, and are using basic problem-solving skills. As the words come, then their spoken language is also a window to how they probably think about their world.

Making social contact
You can monitor in descriptive ways young children's social development, including the close relationship they make with one or two members of staff and growing friendships with other children. Watch young children and see how they greet each other and with whom they best like playing. Keep your expectations realistic, because young children take time to manage social skills that adults value, such as sharing.

Ways of monitoring
Effective monitoring of very young children in nurseries usually works through a combination of methods.

A developmental profile
Developmental profiles or record sheets are completed at regular intervals on young children and shared with parents. Useful profiles will need to cover all the broad areas of development mentioned earlier. The layout also needs to reflect a sense of continually moving progress of this individual child. Options such as 'rarely', 'sometimes' and 'usually' can be helpful. A profile contributes to your monitoring of children because you gain a clearer picture of what is easy for them now, what they can nearly manage and where they may need some help and encouragement.

Developmental profiles are sometimes weak on early intellectual development. Adults often have difficulties in thinking broadly about abstract concepts, or view this area in terms of what young children cannot yet do. Look carefully and you will be able to gather, for instance, examples of toddlers' thinking about basic cause and effect. Also, make sure that you have space to record any abstract concepts - avoid a narrow focus on early number, colour or shape. Listen carefully and you will hear and be able to note an individual child's move from using 'naming' and 'doing' words into the first words to describe ideas that are of interest to him or her.

Profiles only make full sense within your knowledge of child development. You need to be able to judge whether it is significant that a child cannot yet manage a particular skill - is there cause for concern? Sometimes, you may need to talk with parents because this pattern of development is unusual in some way, or perhaps you want to raise the possibility of a hearing or vision check.

Sometimes parents may want to discuss with you whether a child's pattern of skills is striking or worrying for her age. Their concerns may be premature, perhaps expecting clear spoken language from a young toddler. You can help by sharing more realistic expectations, and also tuning the parent into all the exciting events of early communication that are building the basis for the real words.

Diaries or logs
Profiles are not the only kind of record. A descriptive diary or daily log is the way to track events of importance to individual young children.

  • The log is an important record of a child's care and well-being, including feeding and nappy changes. 
  • But the most valuable logs also include examples of how babies or toddlers spent the day during those months when they cannot tell their parents what they did. 
  • Short descriptions may include, 'I enjoyed playing with...' followed by the names of other toddlers or particular play materials. There will be some days where the entry may be 'I was really interested in...' followed by a description of what caught this child's attention. 
  • This kind of monitoring shows that you value anecdotes about what engages children, perhaps how they enjoyed helping out within the nursery routines, and makes record-keeping personal to a child.

Logs work best when nurseries ensure that it passes between nursery and home on a regular, often a daily basis. The record is supplementary to and not instead of conversation with parents. A descriptive way of monitoring can often show clearly to parents how much you enjoy their child's individual approach to life. By showing you value personal examples, you can invite parents to share in return. Such communication may help to avoid a situation where parents fear that all the important learning steps are happening at nursery or that you are the expert and she or he is 'just the parent'.

Individual folders
Loose books or portfolios are a valuable extension of making monitoring a personal activity. Some nurseries keep a collection for each baby and toddler that documents their time in nursery, including items such as photos of the child in activities or outings or first drawings. The portfolio moves on with the child through the nursery and is given to the family when the child leaves. Such a collection is valued not only by parents but often also by children themselves, who cherish a record of 'me when I was little'.

Key issues
Alertness to how babies and toddlers learn is important if monitoring their progress is to value what they can do now, rather than push them too fast.

  • Make sure that you monitor fine steps and do not place undue emphasis on 'developmental milestones'. 
  • For a young child, new skills are exciting because of what can then be reached or handled. Practising a new skill is just as pleasurable, and important for development, as the first time it is managed. 
  • Use your monitoring and conversations with parents to ensure that you notice all the steps along the way. 
  • Beware of inappropriate pressure. Trying to do something too early is not useful and can block learning. NW
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