How to Monitor Growth Over Time

The typical course of a lively day with preschoolers can make it very difficult to feel like you really have a handle on the skills that your children do or do not have.  Does the process of assessment feel overwhelming, and do you keep telling yourself you’ll get serious about it tomorrow?

How about if you were to just do a little bit at a time?

Assessment is not about finding that elusive 20 minutes to sit down with each child and test their skill levels. It is about documenting and putting together an ongoing picture of a child moving through his day over the course of days, weeks, and months.

  • It is a quick note about an amazing peer conversation over muffins and milk or a science activity that held a child’s attention for 10 solid minutes.
  • It is a photo of a block construction with pompom people or a pizza delivery receipt with a capital P written on it.
  • It is a photo with a description of a “cut and glue” creation.

The trick is finding a quick and easy way to get this down on paper.

Capturing the spontaneous is capturing a skill being used functionally.  This is where it really counts, and also allows children to have little awareness of being “assessed.” It is all just play to them.


Get a stack of sticky notes or file folder stickers to keep handy.  Remember to use words that are objective; just the factual things you see, not assumptions about how children feel or your own guesses at the reasons behind the facts. Documenting needs to be objective to be meaningful. It is like the classic lines from detective shows “just the facts, please.”

For instance:

  • Marco 1/22/16 – “Used five- to seven-word sentences when talking with a friend at snack time, smiled and laughed with eye contact, at what a friend said.”
  • Celine 2/1/16 – “Experimented with mixing colors. Used a strong pinch with an eye dropper. Very absorbed. Stated preference to do this alone. Ten minutes. Wow!”
  • Jacob 2/13/16- “Smiled and talked with peers at pretend play. Helped peers clean up toys without a fuss.”

Piecing everything together.

The next important step is connecting these functional examples of skills to the curriculum, and to the goals in the skill areas. Check to see what the “next step” goal is, and plan learning opportunities in the Zone of Proximal Development, that “sweet spot” that psychologist Lev Vgotsky emphasized.

Using assessment to impact your next step of facilitating growth is what makes assessment exciting and meaningful. Try not to think of assessment as a Sheriff hanging over you to make sure you are doing your job.  Think about assessment as looking through a microscope to see things unable to be seen by the naked eye. You will feel closer to your children by taking time to think about their strengths, their learning interests, and how you can use it all to guide a child’s process of learning to make progress on the continuum of development.

An understanding of the range of normal development helps to guide the planning and the assessment of children. The operative word is “range.” It is very important to understand that young children have tremendous variation in skill development and this is exactly as it should be.

  • An extremely intelligent child may be so immersed in enjoying the challenge of physical development, that learning to recognize letters has just not made it to the top of his or her “to-do” list.  
  • A child who is having difficulty following a classroom routine may have rarely had social outings or even trips to the grocery store prior to preschool and may need some adjustment time.

Authentic relationships and authentic assessment go hand-in-hand.

The goal of assessment is to impact planning. So, use the information you gain. Identify strengths to support areas that are not as well developed.  Encourage the artists to paint shapes, the socializers to make a group, the mover to jump 20 times and the thinker to create a puzzle.  Although all children have different interests, strengths and inclinations, it is our job to broaden experiences by playing to strengths, making it interesting, fun and challenging. Doing so allows children to find their own ways of engaging in multiple paths of learning as they explore and get to know themselves as learners.  Use assessment to create tailor-made opportunities.

So instead of a sit-down, one-time test:

  • Read a book with a child and naturally tap reading comprehension goals by inviting the child to retell the story. (Jot it quickly on a note and file it later.)
  • Play Hide-and-Seek on the playground and listen to how high each child counts. (Take a clipboard outside and jot it down.)
  • Set out multi-colored shapes and tape masking tape to the floor to create patterns. Observe what children do with this.  (ABA patterns sitting on a line?  Sorting colors onto chairs?  Use masking tape to rip and get creative with, and ignore the shapes?)  It is all good.

And don’t worry that you haven’t found time to test.

Every set of activity materials has many ways to connect to the Developmental Continuum or Goals. Get familiar with the set of benchmarks you work with in your curriculum.  Make friends with the goals and objectives by referring to them and using them regularly.  Let your curriculum help.

Create a folder or a colorful portfolio notebook for each child, set out those sticky notes and pens and keep a camera handy.  Parents will appreciate the real-life examples of their child’s learning.  It helps them to know that you recognize their child’s strengths and care enough to really see them.