In early childhood contexts, we document information by writing down observations or interviews, marking and/or tallying forms related to our observations or tests, scoring evaluations and assessments, and/or by creating a permanent record (e.g., a video, audio recording, or photograph).
All too often, however, we try and hold data in our heads, thinking that we’ll remember the information and will be able to retrieve it at a later date. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the memory capacities we once did, and working with children presents layers upon layers of complexity that is hard for us to process and use at a later date.
In fact, a study by Taber-Doughty and Jasper (2012) found that “data recorded immediately after a behavior occurred were more accurate and reliable than data documented at the end of the school day or the start of the following school day…Furthermore, each teacher reported that it was beneficial to record data immediately after the target behavior occurred” (p. 168).
Despite the usefulness of recording data immediately, Sandall and colleagues (2004) found data collection was largely reported to be periodic and non-systematic. “Participants often trusted their own memories as a substitute for recorded data. One participant stated, for example, “I think that we have a pretty good idea of where the kids are, so we tend to rely on that [the team’s judgments] more than the data” (p. 166).
Thus, it becomes necessary to develop procedures for taking the information gathered, and documenting that information as soon as possible so that we can rely on accurate information to summarize and make decisions.
There are at least four broad methods for documenting:
- Written documentation (e.g., running records, anecdotal notes, and jottings
- Numerical documentation (e.g., raw scores, frequency counts, duration/time intervals, ratings)
- Symbolic documentation (e.g., tally marks, check marks, question marks, exclamation marks, emoticons, X’s)
- Artifact documentation (e.g., video recording, audio recording, photographs, drawing/painting)
Each method for documenting has its advantages and disadvantages. Thus, teachers need to carefully consider when to use each method so that the data documented are trustworthy, accurately illustrate a child’s abilities and/or a family’s priorities and concerns, and provide a comprehensive picture of development and learning.
Following a detective analogy, detectives use a variety of methods to document what they have learned. For example, they may take notes, measure things, and/or take pictures.
Next we will focus our discussion on suggestions and strategies for improving written documentation.
Written documentation includes a variety of methods used to document children’s observed behavior, such as running records, anecdotal notes, and jottings. Written documentation can vary in terms of focus and the amount of detail provided. Keep in mind that written documentation can be “typed” and/or hand-written. For example, information can be written on sticky notes, mailing labels, index cards, as text messages, or even through note recording in apps found on smart phones. When we document information in a written format, regardless of the method we use, we can refer to this information as a narrative statement.
Overall, it is important to remember that what is being documented (i.e., the child’s behavior) must be observable and measurable. Observable means that we can either see and/or hear the behavior. Measurable means that we can determine if there are changes in performance over time. Therefore, what is written must be objective, factual statements versus impressions, perceptions, or feelings. In other words, teachers should write and describe what the child’s actions were, what they said, what they did, and/or what they created.
Here are a few examples of narrative statements that would NOT be considered observable and therefore not measurable:
- Amy really liked the water table
- Sam enjoys playing in the block area
- Mary has trouble attending during story-time
- Sebastian knows his colors
- Reba is learning to play cooperatively with others
In an effort to “fix” these statements, we have to think about what we actually see or hear the child doing, and we have to define terms so that others will understand what we are saying. For example:
- We can fix “Amy really likes the water table” by writing instead: When given a choice between two different activities, Amy will pick the water table activity.
- We can fix “Sam enjoys playing in the block area” by writing instead: During choice time, Sam remains within the block area for at least 20 minutes, shares and exchanges materials with other children, and uses his hands to stack, align, and build structures using different sizes of wooden blocks.
- We can fix “Mary has trouble attending during story-time by writing instead: During story-time, Mary will join the group, but leave the story area every 30-60 seconds. Mary will respond by looking at the person who calls her name, but does not answer questions.
Other methods for documenting information gathered include numerical documentation, symbolic documentation, and artifact documentation.
Numerical documentation involves the use of numbers to represent the information that was gathered. Methods of numerical documentation include:
- Raw scores (or the score assigned to an individual assessment item, such as documenting a score of 1 for a specific skill on an assessment protocol)
- Frequency counts (or the number of times or how often something is observed or said, such as the number of times a child asks for help)
- Duration or time intervals (or how long something lasts, such as how long a tantrum lasts)
- Ratings (or the quantity and/or quality of a behavior or situation, such as rating how well a child performs a skill, or the accuracy of the skill)
Symbolic documentation involves the use of symbols to represent the information that was gathered. The most common symbols include :
- Tally marks
- Check marks
- “X marks the spot”; however, punctuation marks such as question marks and exclamation marks can also be used. For example, teachers may use a question mark to indicate something they are unsure about or want to explore further.
Artifact documentation is the final strategy for recording evidence that was gathered and tends to be lasting in nature. Artifacts include but are not limited to writing samples such as scribbling, pages colored in a coloring book, portfolios, pictures or shapes that are drawn, photographs of children’s work, audio recordings, and video recordings.
Of these different methods, some are more or less effective based upon what we want to know. Remember, the key factor in documenting evidence is to know why the information is being documented. In other words, we must be intentional in our efforts.
Regardless of the method used, when documenting observations, situational information, performance information, and summary information should be provided.
- Situational information includes who was observed (e.g., specific child or groups of children), who collected the data (e.g., teacher, dad, therapist), when the data were collected (e.g., date and time), and where the data were collected (e.g., the location such as the water table and the type of activity such as small group or free play).
- Performance information includes information about the actual behaviors demonstrated by the child or children, such as the number of correct responses, a sample of the child’s writing, a listing of the toys that the child played with, or even a picture of a building the child constructed.
- “Summary information can include the total amount of time observed, annotations of children’s work including written or dictated reflections, descriptions, remarks or assessments, average scores, or percentage correct.” (Grisham-Brown, Hemmeter, & Pretti-Frontczak, 2005, pp. 135, 138).
- Read, “Progress Versus Performance: Why The Words We Use Matter” [blog] and be sure to download the chapter from my book on blended practices. It provides additional examples of how to document using the methods describe in this post.
- Click here for an additional resource regarding best practices for all five steps of the data-driven decision-making process, which includes documenting. Be sure to read the last three pages that talk about tiered performance monitoring. It’s a game changer.
- Request access to a FREE online training series assessment, curricula, and standards. Part one goes into detail on how to gather, document, summarize, analyze, and interpret [link]
- Click here to read about authentic assessment activities – a strategy for gathering data during play.
- Download and use these sample data collection sheets:
Grisham Brown, J. L., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended practices for teaching young children in inclusive settings. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Sandall, S. R., Schwartz, I. S., & Lacroix, B. (2004). Interventionists perspectives about data collection in integrated early childhood classrooms. Journal of Early Intervention, 26(3), 161-174.
Taber-Doughty, T., & Jasper, A. D. (2012). Does latency in recording data make a difference? Confirming the accuracy of teachers’ data. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 27(3), 168-176.