Using Authentic Observation and Child Assessment to Drive Instruction

By Holly Delgado

Sitting at a moon-shaped table during work time, Jackson, a three-year-old boy, balances a small red dinosaur on the handle of a kitchen spatula. “1, 2, 3, blast off!” he counts as he smacks his hand down onto the blade of the spatula and laughs as the dinosaur flies toward a white mixing bowl on the other side of the table. “Yay! Pool party!” he cheers, pumping his fist in the air as the red dinosaur joins others, landing in the bowl of water with a splash.

Done in a natural environment — as children engage in play with materials and people with whom they are familiar — authentic, observation-based assessment, like the anecdote above, provides teachers with an array of valuable information about children’s learning and development. Separately, each observation stands alone as a snapshot in time — a glimpse of learning from the child’s perspective at that particular moment. Compiled, a collection of evidence shows a more complete picture of child development. Authentic, observation-based assessment provides educators access to thought processes and problem-solving skills far beyond rote knowledge and “correct answers” often sought in traditional child evaluations. It provides us with a more “accurate picture of what children normally do and [is] likelier to reflect their true capabilities” (Epstein & Hohmann, 2012, p. 154).

Whether in the form of an anecdote, photograph, video clip, audio recording, or work sample, authentic observation is at the heart of the teaching and learning process. Authentic observation is how educators can measure and track progress over time and what determines the level of individual support educators provide to each child (Early Head Start National Resource Center, 2013). Objective observations, often referred to as child assessment data, provide educators the insight needed to teach with intention and purpose — individual levels of development and child interests.

When reflected upon daily, child assessment data serves as a guide for teachers as they intentionally set learning goals, plan activities, and determine adult-child interaction strategies. The use of assessment data in combination with a teacher’s own knowledge and understanding of child development facilitates more effective differentiation and support. Intentional teaching teams should spend time reflecting upon the collected assessment data, adding any details that further enhance the context of the observations, and connecting current anecdotes to what is already known about the child (Epstein & Hohmann, 2012, p. 131). Once teachers have thoroughly explored the learning already happening in the classroom, they can begin to plan learning experiences and associated support strategies for the next day.

Defined as “helpful, structured interactions between an adult and a child with the aim of helping the child achieve a specific goal,” scaffolding means meeting children at their current level of development and providing gentle extensions to move the child to the next level of development (McLeod, 2008, para. 27). In early childhood environments, scaffolding support strategies can include — but are not limited to — imitating children’s actions, using self and parallel talk, modeling specific skills, asking children to describe their actions or their thinking, and posing new challenges. The most effective scaffolding strategies are one’s in which “the support is matched to the needs of the learner” (McLeod, 2012, para. 21).


COR Advantage is a birth-to-kindergarten child assessment tool that assists teachers in supporting children at every development level.

During the planning process, teaching teams should ask themselves the following:

  • What did children do today?
  • What do the children’s actions tell me about…
    • Their developmental levels?
    • Their interests?
  • What learning experiences can I develop for children based on these observations?
  • What is the curricular content I want to introduce or learning outcome I want children to achieve during this experience?
  • During which part of the daily routine might this learning experience occur?
  • Which scaffolding strategies will I use to support and extend children’s play and learning in this content area?
    (Adapted from Marshall, Lockhart, & Fewson, 2016, p. 154)

Although this small-group time was developed around Jackson’s interests, he is not the only child in the small group; thus, while planning, teachers need to consider the developmental levels of all children in the small group and develop scaffolding strategies for each. When designing learning experiences, it is often helpful to place children in three broad categories based on curricular content: earlier, middle, and later stages of development. Anticipating what children may do or say helps facilitate adult-child interaction strategies.

It is important to remember that learning is a continuum of growth that occurs over time and at differing rates across the domains of development (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Thus, although a child may fall into the earlier stages of development in one content area, the same child may fall into later stages of development in another content area.

Using the anecdote from Jackson’s dinosaur pool party, here’s how this planning process can work:

Here is an example of scaffolding strategies in the curricular content area of Experimenting:


Whether experimenting with catapults, working with magnetic letters, or measuring how far a ball rolls, the role of an educator is to facilitate the learning process, rather than simply provide children with rote knowledge (McLeod, 2012). The learning process may look and sound different for each child; thus, it is imperative that teachers are responsive to the individual needs of children. Authentic, observation-based assessment is an instrumental component of recognizing children’s interests and their current levels of development. When assessment is used to drive instruction in early childhood classrooms, educators can feel confident they are providing intentional learning experiences that support the differentiated needs of each child.


Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children birth through age 8 (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Early Head Start National Resource Center. (2013). Observation: The heart of individualizing responsive care  (Technical Assistance Paper No. 15). Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Bureau.

Epstein, A. S., Gainsley, S., & Marshall, B. (2013). Key developmental indicator scaffolding charts. Ypsilanti, MI. HighScope Press.

Epstein, A. S., & Hohmann, M. (2012). The HighScope Preschool Curriculum. Ypsilanti, MI. HighScope Press.

Marshall, B., Lockhart, S., & Fewson, M. (2016). Lesson plans for the first 30 days: Getting started with HighScope (3rd ed.). Ypsilanti, MI. HighScope Press.

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Bruner. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of proximal development. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

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