As an educator, documenting the developmental progress of the children in your classroom is typically a daily occurrence. A lot of thought and planning goes into the activities, books, and lessons that you will teach each day. These lessons and activities are taught during large group and small group times throughout the day. I have found that these are the easiest times to gather documentation since all of the children are doing the same activity and the goals are already determined.
Clearly, small and large group times are the best and most effective ways to gather documentation. However, by only using those times to document, we miss the opportunity to let children show us what they know and can do without us asking. Using the classroom as an assessment tool gives children space to interact independently with their environment in a way that is meaningful to them. As teachers, we must develop the skill of reflecting so that we can capture these moments. Children typically have a lot to say about pretty much everything, so stepping into their world gives us great insight into a child’s thought processes and knowledge base.
For example, I have a child in my classroom who went to a college football game in the fall. The experience of the game really resonated with him. I know this because of how he played in the math center. When I looked over in the math center while he was playing, I noticed how he had arranged the small wooden blocks across the table. I walked over to him and asked him why he had arranged the blocks in such a particular way. He told me that he had created an entire football stadium. There were seats, players, a football, and even concession stands! He told me about his experience in such great detail that he even remembered the name of the teams who had competed against each other and the colors of their jerseys.
I immediately grabbed my IPad so I could snap a picture of his creation. The goals I associated with the picture were thinking symbolically, speaking clearly, talking about another time and place, focusing on a task without getting distracted, using an expressive vocabulary, and following the social rules of language. I gathered that much information just by sitting with him for less than 10 minutes and letting him tell me what he knew.
Using the classroom as an assessment tool can help alleviate the feelings of anxiety and fear that often accompany more formal evaluations. I often think about a child I had in my class years ago. Before parent-teacher conferences, my co-teacher and I would review the things the children had learned up to that point. This child completely froze when it came time to review with him. He had a borderline panic attack because he was so scared to get the answer wrong. In such a high emotional state, there was no way we were going to get an accurate evaluation of his knowledge.
As a result, we completely changed the process so that we could get a better understanding of what he knew. Instead of having him sit at the table, we used his periods of play to gather the information that we needed in an environment that was comfortable for him. Using the classroom as an assessment tool provided a much more effective strategy that showcased his knowledge in a completely stress-free manner.
So, how do we go about using the classroom as an assessment tool?
- Be intentional about the manipulatives, books, writing tools, paper, furniture, etc., that will make up each center and space in the classroom. This process gets easier throughout the year as you get to know the children in your classroom and their abilities.
- Be mindful about the variability of the items in the classroom. Include items that support children’s development, as well as items that challenge children’s skills. Items should be rotated throughout the year to keep children engaged.
- Be observant. Simply watching children interact in and with the classroom can illustrate fine motor skills, social skills, and problem-solving capabilities, just to name a few.
- Be present in the classroom with the children. By sitting in a center with children, you become a part of their world. Children want to tell us what they know, we just need to listen.
- Ask open-ended questions (who, what, where, why, and how). By doing this, you give the child space to give you details instead of just saying yes or no.
- Have an in-depth knowledge of the curriculum used in the classroom. This way, you know what you’re looking for and how to support that skill in the classroom.
Teachers definitely have their hands full trying to balance academic requirements with the challenges of managing a classroom. By creating an engaging environment, the classroom can become an additional resource as we help children reach their goals.
The links below are helpful as they show you various settings of what an early learning environment looks like. While both videos depict a Pre-K classroom, the same mindset can be applied to any age group to make the learning environment a safe, nurturing, and engaging space.