The why and what of documentation in early years programs

Documentation serves an important purpose, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach about how to document.

There was a very interesting debate that I observed on LinkedIn recently resulting from a discussion post titled, Documentation – Too Much or Too Little. There was a wide diversity of opinions, as well as some general themes running throughout the comments. Ironically, I felt the online debate itself spoke directly to one of the most important reasons why documentation is so important – ongoing critical reflection of the status quo in early childhood education.

In the same way that early years directors, owners, consultants and trainers were debating about why we do documentation and the various approaches to documentation, we similarly need to debate about current approaches and practices in individual programs, and this can only be enabled with visual documentation of children’s learning that can be assessed and discussed.

While the views of this blog post are my own, I’ve done my best to summarize the common threads across the debate.

Why do we document in early years programs?

Reflect and learn as a practice – Any profession that aims to improve will document and reflect on their practice. Early childhood education should be no different if it seeks to evolve with the aim of improving overall outcomes for children.

Discuss and plan with your team – Documentation enables teams and colleagues to study, interpret and discuss in order to create and adjust learning plans for children and programs. Without organized documentation, this shared reflection would not be possible.

Communicate and share with families – Documentation is critical to engaging families, which is known to improve learning outcomes for children by creating a connection for the child between home and school. A partnership with families is essential, as families know their child best, while educators can use their knowledge and experience to educate families on their children’s development.

What is the best approach for documenting?

There’s no right amount of time – There’s no specifically suggested amount of time for an educator to spend on documentation. One director suggested 30 to 60 minutes per day for her preschool educators. Coincidentally, the data we collected for our 2013 report on Documentation in the Early Childhood Setting indicated that, on average, educators were spending 45 minutes per day on documentation, in line with this director’s expectations.

There’s no standard approach – There are a variety of tools, frameworks and technologies that were mentioned for aiding in documentation. There certainly isn’t a clear standard when it comes to the approach or process you should take for documentation, but rather, you should use what works for you while always assessing options to improve. What is critical to the process, however, is that documentation is reviewed and studied so that there is a purpose and, ideally, there are actions resulting from the documentation. Organizing information in child portfolios and developmental assessments will help with this process.

As with anything, balance is key – Despite the title of the original post (and perhaps this was the point), there is no easy answer to how much documentation is too much or too little. As with most anything in life, an appropriate balance is usually the right answer.

One overarching thought was that, ultimately, if the general consensus is that documentation is important (and this seems to be the case) then there is an inherent increase in the cost of child care to allow for documentation time. All the stakeholders involved are thus required to make the financial commitment to allow for this, including owners, directors, parents and governments. A reminder that with the expectation of quality, comes commitment of resources.

Although there’s no right answer about how to approach documentation and specifically how much documentation is too much or too little, it does seem clear that quality programs will document to reflect on their practice, plan their programs, and engage with their families. The question then becomes, what is the right approach for documentation in my program specifically based on the resources at my disposal.

Related Reference Papers

NAEYC, Trend Briefs – Strengthening Family Engagement, June 2014 No. 6

Ontario Ministry of Education, An Introduction to ‘How Does Learning Happen?’ For Leaders, 2014

Related HiMama Resources

Report on Documentation in the Early Childhood Setting, September 2013

How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.