How do we decide what progress a child has made?

One of the most crucial aspects of our work with young children is to make sure that the decisions we make about children’s progress, our assessments, are as accurate, honest and respectful as they can be.   That they really reflect what the child has shown us through their play, as we have observed them in their true state of development, as they become engrossed explorers, active learners and creative and critical thinkers.

If we can say that our starting points for making these decisions are based on the following questions then we are going to be in a strong position to make objective, professionally informed decisions (judgements) about children’s progress.

Asking the right questions for accurate and informed assessment of young children include;

What did I see here?

What is happening?

What is/are the child/children telling me about what they know and understand?

Ferre Laevers (2015) would want to know if we are ‘grasping the essence of what children are doing and getting into the position of the child’.  He also says that we should be ‘Keeping an open-mind, taking a holistic view and actively thinking about what we are seeing’ as this will help us to draw considered and effective conclusions about children’s development and progress.

However, I am not sure that we are keeping an ‘open-mind’ or ‘grasping the essence’ in fact we seem to have gone down a road of assessing children using narrow, often superficial statements which do not fully acknowledge the breadth or depth of children’s development, thinking or learning. In doing so we seem to have lost sight of young children as the competent and capable thinkers and learners they are and we run the danger of underestimating their progress.

Development does Matter

One of the reasons assessment has become so narrow is the way in which Development Matters has been used as a developmental shopping list.  This isn’t really the fault of Development Matters as it was never intended to be used in this way.  Nancy Stewart, one of the original authors of the document, has written an excellent paper on this called ‘Development Matters: A landscape of possibilities, not a road map’ – it’s really worth a read and sharing with other colleagues.  She highlights one of the main drawbacks as;

When used as a tick list of descriptors of what children must achieve, it can sadly limit both children’s development and the professional awareness and skills of practitioners.

In a previous Blog   Why create the Development Map?  I listed my concerns about the way in which Development Matters is being used and the risks to our understanding of children’s development and learning if we constantly use tick lists and highlighters;

  • Underestimating the developmental potential of young children – if what they do, say and think is not in the list where is it acknowledged as part of their progress?
  • Becoming a profession of ‘list checkers’ always looking for something to tick off rather than focussing on what children are actually involved in, often at quite a deep level.
  • Looking for the superficial rather than the complex nature of HOW children are learning and deeper levels of engagement (think Characteristics of Effective Learning here)
  • Minimising our own professional knowledge of children’s early development, thinking and learning and making informed decisions about their progress and next steps…(early years professionals often know far more about children’s development than what is on the tick list!)

Development Matters does help us in many ways and is an accepted, though not statutory, part of early years philosophy and practice – it is part of the EYFS Themes and Principles.  It sets the context of children’s development within the EYFS through the following equation

Development Matters Equation page 2


The Unique Child is recognised from the outset and described as ‘Every child is a unique child who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured’ (p2). The development statements are there as an aide memoir of ‘of common examples of how children might develop and give a general picture of progression, but they are by no means the whole story’ (Stewart. N – See above).

If we think of children’s development in the form of an ice-berg what we are seeing in the  Development Matters statements is just the tip,  equivalent to  just 10% of their learning potential.  Which means that there is a vast expanse  (90%) of children’s potential that is not included in Development Matters!   The danger is that using Development Matters as a list of assessment descriptors or hurdles to be jumped and the Early Learning Goals as a final destination means that children’s full potential is not recognised or valued.   Where is the full potential of the competent and capable child recorded in our assessments if we only ever use a few statements to inform our judgements?

What can we do to make sure that we see the full potential of children’s development?

Development Matters is one tool of our assessment for learning repertoire but we could say, using the ice berg metaphor, that it is only 10%. There is much more to think about as we make our decisions about a child’s progress and many more ‘tools’ we can use to inform and strengthen or triangulate the judgements we make.

There are other tools we can add to our observation and assessment tool kit which support   us to make professionally informed judgement about children’s progress. They include;

A good knowledge of child development; having a wide knowledge of child development which covers the holistic ways in which children learn and progress.  Hopefully this has been a key part of initial and on-going training at all levels. The best way to keep your knowledge finely tuned is to observe children in their child-initiated play and activities. The more you observe, document and talk about this with others the more finely tuned your child development skills will become. Watching children is one of our best sources of learning.

The characteristics of development and learning; knowing HOW children think and learn is a crucial part of the jigsaw. It’s all about understanding the ways in which children Play and Explore (Engaged) and become Active Learners (Motivated) leading to Creative and Critical Thinking (Thinkers). These are the tools or dispositions for becoming a life-long learner, they tell us a great deal about what they know, understand and have mastered in their learning.

Children’s Schema and threads of thinking; are the inherent patterns of thinking that children instinctively show from birth. They are their earliest and most natural interests which drive child-initiated play and activities – we can see this in very young babies.  Schema are the foundations of conceptual development underpinning later  learning in maths including shape, space and measures, science and many other aspects of later development

Children’s interests and fascinations; are our window into their lives cognitively, socially and emotionally.  Observing children in child-initiated play and activities lets us really see what they know and understand; what they have truly mastered and their emotional well-being.  We can see how well they make connections with their previous learning and use this to forge new ideas and thinking.  We can also see how they collaborate and relate to others, growing their personal and social skills and using language to build relationships and thinking.

Levels of Involvement and Well-Being; in themselves the involvement and well-being scales are used in many countries as a measure of children’s progress; it is called a Process orientated child monitoring system or POMS for short.  They have been created by Ferre Laevers to not only identify how well children are progressing but also to evaluate the quality of provision and practice.  Understanding the philosophy and practice of the Involvement and Well-Being scales will significantly strengthen the professionally informed judgements you make about progress from birth to the end of the Foundation Stage

Development of Speech, language and communication; is a critical and central part of children’s development and progress. The more we know and understand about the development of young children’s communication, speech, language and literacy the more we can understand children’s development and progress particularly in the first 3 years of life.  There have been many initiatives which have focused on developing practitioner/teacher understanding including ECAT (Every Child a Talker), the Communication Trust  and ican

SEND; understanding the wide and varied nature of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities will be a significant contribution to your knowledge and understanding of children’s development and progress

Developing your Observation and Assessment tool kit hopefully began with your initial training and has continued to develop through further opportunities for your professional development, adding to your professionally informed knowledge of children’s development.  The more you can call on these tools the better and more robust your decisions will be about children’s progress. You will see so much more than just the Development Matters statements and be able to justify and triangulate the decisions you make about where you have placed  a child on the continuum of development – ages and stages bands.   Not only that, you will have as Nancy Stewart said, ‘developed your professional awareness and skills’.

The Development Map  has been created as a way of capturing and mapping children’s progress using your observation and assessment tool kit to inform where you place a child on the progress board.  The intention is not to use the Development Matters statements as a tick list but to make a much more professionally informed decision about a child’s development, based on the way you and your colleagues have asked the questions at the beginning of this Blog, and looked at all the information and evidence you have to hand including that of the parents and the child. Then making a professionally informed, best -fit, summative judgement;

The summative judgement, however, must be as true as we can make it, and basing it on whether or not a child has matched every statement in an age/stage band is not a valid approach.  There may well be statements missing, and statements demonstrated across two or three bands.  The best-fit approach answers the problem by acknowledging that although not every child will have moved along in the same way, there is a typical movement.  Identifying the band which most closely describes the child, based on what you know and have observed  whether or not it has been recorded,  will enable you to describe the child’s development in terms of whether or not it is typical for their age in the various areas of the EYFS. (Stewart. N)

 Observation and Assessment Tool Kit self-evaluation

The Development Map will include an Observation and Assessment Tool Kit self-evaluation  which will enable you to reflect on and consider the ‘tools’ you already have and ones you may wish to add in the future.  It will support your professional development and identify aspects that you can work on and develop with your colleagues.  It will be free for all Development Map partners.


For more information about the Development Map please follow this link or go to the WatchMeGrow website

Forth-coming Blogs;

  • An example of using the Development Map in practice
  • Mapping the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) and Responsible Pedagogy