An overview of ECEC observations
The Sector > Quality > Professional development > Observations – understanding different styles, and finding the best fit

Observations – understanding different styles, and finding the best fit

by Freya Lucas

May 15, 2024

Taking observations of children’s learning is a vital aspect of working in early childhood education and care (ECEC), offering important insights to further growth and development of children’s learning, and sharing a window to their life whilst in care for parents and families. 


Observational methods are important tools that guide educators in understanding each child’s unique behavioural patterns and developmental stages. Through high quality observations ECEC professionals are able to customise each child’s educational experience suited to individual growth and learning needs. 


In the piece below we explore six types of observation styles, and how they can impact both educators and families. 


Event sampling 


Event sampling observations involve recording all instances or occurrences of a particular behaviour or type of event within a set period of time. 


For example, in a room where two year olds are educated and cared for, event sampling might be used to explore patterns of behaviour for a child who is biting others. 


The aim of event sampling is to learn more about the triggers and outcomes for the child who is biting, and what happens afterwards. In analysing both the triggers and the outcome, educators can develop more effective responses. 


Repeated over time, event sampling can also help educators understand why behaviour is more heightened or repeated in one circumstance and not another. 


Using the biting example above, through event sampling, educators might learn that the child who is biting has challenging behaviour more often in an indoor environment at times of transition, offering more support to help the child be successful. 


Time sampling 


Similar to event sampling, time sampling is a structured strategy to observe and record children’s behaviour at predetermined times throughout the day or week. 


In time sampling observations educators are able to get a broad overview of how children spend their time, and also to understand patterns of behaviour. 


Educators in a preschool room might make a note of what a child is doing every 10 minutes in a two hour block to get insights and information about their engagement with the activities and opportunities offered. 


These periodic checks are particularly useful in tracking changes and trends over time, to demonstrate to families and others that children are able to increase their independent play, or progress in their relational play with others. 


Time sampling can also support other allied health professionals in instances where children may need additional support or targeted intervention. 




Socio-grams are an observation method that detail a child’s interactions and friendships.


They are able to be conducted in a variety of age groups and settings, and give educators a way to reflect the social interaction patterns of a child, giving insights into how often they interact with others, who chooses to interact with them, and who they choose to interact with. 


Socio-grams can also highlight the way a child moves between experiences within the program and whether any assistance is required to support social interactions or engagement in the program. 


Running records 


Often used in school based contexts, running records are detailed, sequential accounts of everything observed for a set period, offering a comprehensive view of a child’s activity. 


Unlike some other types of observation in ECEC settings, during running records, it is especially important for educators to remain as factual as possible, avoiding any personal interpretations. 


For example, a running record may state: 


9:30am to 9:33 am – Ben puts his bag away and begins running towards the play area. Ben greets Michelle with a hug. Michelle asks for a high five, Ben high fives Michelle. Michelle says “Good job!” and Ben laughs.


Running records are especially useful for capturing complex behaviours, interactions or learning sequences that require a nuanced understanding. Educators may use this method during a conflict resolution session to document each child’s actions and verbal responses. These can later be analysed to better understand social dynamics and conflict management skills among young learners.


Learning stories 


Learning stories are a narrative way of sharing the ‘magic moments’ of significant learning for a child. 


Having the child’s voice at the centre of the learning story is an integral part of this approach, and this style of observation encourages educators and teachers to consider a bigger picture and to think about how each child is experiencing their world. 


Learning stories can focus on an individual child or a group of children. It is important to remember that this form of observation aims to present a story of a child’s learning over a period of time and to highlight specific skills, interests and dispositions for learning – making the learning visible to the reader in the context of the relevant early learning curriculum.


Learning stories not only describe actions they also make feelings, thoughts and the interpretations of those writing or telling the story visible.


According to Gowrie NSW, there are six aspects to consider in writing a learning story:


  • It takes place over time
  • It provides a link in the chain of a child’s learning.
  • It must contain meaningful details of the child or group’s play or learning experience.
  • There must be attention on context and background
  • It will read like a good holistic story rather than a fragmented report.
  • How will the child’s voice be acknowledged and or included?


Developmental checklists


While children’s learning is not always predictable and linear, in some instances developmental checklists can support educators, families and allied health professionals to plot the emotional, social, physical and cognitive development of a child in relation to expected outcomes for a child of their age. 


Developmental checklists consist of predefined criteria that describe specific milestones against which educators can assess the child’s current state. 


This organised approach ensures that no significant aspects of a child’s development are overlooked and allows for a clear evaluation of progress over time. For example, a checklist for a toddler may include:


Physical Development

  • Walks independently and starts to run
  • Climbs onto and down from furniture without help

Cognitive Development

  • Can follow simple two-step instructions
  • Begins to sort objects by shapes and colours

Social/Emotional Development

  • Begins to exhibit more independence
  • Plays alongside other children (parallel play)


It is important to consider developmental checklists against the broader context of a child’s circumstance, such as recent life events, having additional needs, cultural and social contexts, and other aspects. 


The Developmental Milestones resource may support educators who choose this type of observation. 


To learn more about observations in ECEC settings please see here

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