Looking Closely at Children

Indicator Checklists

With so much going on during a day, how can early educators train their eyes to see the emergence of key abilities in every single child?

It doesn’t take long for educators to learn how widely different children are and how different the ages are when their abilities appear. Experienced educators, who have seen lots of children grow up in their classrooms, notice little emergences and smile. It’s always a joy to see children grow. Over the years, experienced educators have learned to notice specific indicators of important abilities, such as a child using other children’s names or spontaneously handing others what they need before they ask.

New educators and caregivers usually are not looking for these small good things; they are more likely to be moving from crisis to crisis noticing the bad stuff that’s a problem. Noticing emergence indicates a skilled educator, a professional who studies learning. Emergence doesn’t shout itself out, so it’s easily masked by a well-practiced scream of “TEACHER!”

To help organize this process of awareness I offer a method to ensure noticing is spread across skill domains and includes every child. These four checklists are like a bird watcher’s notebook: something in hand that guides the quest, marks past accomplishments, and focuses upon today. This is useful assessment.

I’ve been collecting key abilities ever since I first started working with children. Since I had no idea what I was doing, I thought it could be important to find out. I began to see patterns from watching video of highly skilled children. Their successes weren’t random acts. I showed them to my classes so we could watch them together to mark the key capabilities. I used the lists we evolved to check on the children in subsequent years.

I found I was creating new kinds of opportunities for the children where these performances might be more likely to occur. I found the children I had forgotten to notice. I found all of the families liked knowing that I cared, which led to adding color codes to add a sense of time without having to record a date.  It has always felt like I have had to do something for a long time, at least a year or two, before I became confident in what I was doing. This simple pursuit of empty boxes gradually honed my ability to see every child, not just the ones at the forefront. For me, this was a lot more educational than any book or course I ever took.

I have helped others start this, too, so I have a bit of background to say that it takes at least two years to train the eye. As all teachers know each group of children is different, so a second year of checking boxes on each child, marking through the seasons, offers further complexity.

I found I could see better after two years of diligence. I could confidently spot those children who were trucking along just fine, so I marked off most boxes for the self-evident ones and focused my attention upon those I couldn’t see. That proved to be the ideal way to use the checklists; it minimized the record-keeping burden yet maintained my attentiveness to collecting specifics to show their families and, by the way, direct my camera lens in the right place at the right time to capture emerging abilities for Learning Stories.

Like everything one learns, systematic practice helps one find out what you don’t know you don’t know. That is the HUGE problem. The ability to see emergence in as many dimensions as possible marks a step up in professionalism, worthy of a wage increase, I would say.

I invite you to try the Indicator Checklists long enough to discover what it has done for you in becoming the educator you would like to be.

Social, Cognitive, Motor, and Expressive Abilities

These four pages of indicators in address general categories of competence which emerge in differing ways at different times from toddlerhood to common school age. I don’t see how these can describe learning or usefully compare children. Their validity can be confirmed through one’s observations of children, not published research. My goal was simply to list sets of abilities I found significant, in categories that made sense to me, independent of developmental timelines or particular ages. Whether or not a child masters any single item is irrelevant. You simply decide to check off the box that indicates a child demonstrated the item to you, to your personal satisfaction. That statement may not be directly evident. Once you mark the known, as seen by you, it’s over. The check allows you to turn your antennae in the direction of the unknown, looking for a bird you have not yet seen. You aren’t looking for more robins.

Ruby jumped over a bucket.
√ I’ll check off Ruby.
Thumbs up girl!

I see eight children have unchecked boxes for jumping over something.
Hey, DeShawn, Ruby jumped over that bucket.

A missing checkmark, an open box, indicates either (1) the ability has been unseen or (2) the ability is not present so far.  Empty boxes indicate the need for attentiveness.

Mary Elizabeth has almost all her boxes checked, but Johnny has only two. I’ll watch Johnny more carefully today.

When you know what to attend to, you can somehow create the conditions that might allow that ability to emerge and be observed.

Johnny’s greets others with words and a smile box is empty. I am going to make sure I greet everyone today with words and a smile and see if Johnny does it, too.

Maybe Johnny will start greeting others at his own initiative several weeks or months from now. Maybe not. You never know when others learn something unless you watch. Moreover, you get to decide whether an item is important or not. You can always choose to leave something blank for any reason you wish.

Say, for example, you know Suzie and her family; that’s the group that knows her best. We all know she is amazingly athletic.

I checked off all the items for the really amazing Suzie, because we all know.

Development Offers Surprises

Learning what to look for comes with the lovely benefit of enjoying the differences in children, AND it’s all looking at what children CAN DO, not what they can’t. Open boxes tell one nothing.

By working at all of these domains systematically, over two or more years, one gets the hawk eye.


I changed the color of the checkmark (summer)
About every 3 months (fall)
To provide additional (winter)
for the family (spring)

All Indicator Checklists PDF

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