19 Aug 2016

Developing a child progress tool

Developing a child progress tool

SmartStart aims to create a generation of enthusiastic young learners, who have the foundations in place to become the best they can be while increasing their chances of success in school and life.

We are focused on three key outcomes in particular. Firstly, that every child should have the ability to form the kinds of close relationships that make them happy and give them the confidence to shine. Secondly, that every child should be a great thinker and communicator. And thirdly, that every child should develop those core general skills – such as self-control, perseverance and flexibility – that are essential tools for living and learning.

An important challenge for SmartStart is finding the best way of using assessment to support children to achieve these outcomes. This is sometimes called formative assessment or diagnostic assessment. The main purpose of it is to help SmartStarters develop a thorough understanding of the interests, needs and progress of each child in their care. It is only with this knowledge that practitioners can provide the right kind of learning opportunities and tailor support to meet each child's needs. 

So across all SmartStart sites this spring, we are launching our Growing and Learning child progress tool. The development of this tool has been based on two important principles: First, that high-stakes testing is inappropriate for young children, and second, that every child’s developmental journey is unique and so an effective assessment tool will not use a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

In terms of the first principle, the Growing and Learning tool is an in-process tool. In other words, children do not have to sit some kind of test or perform a series of tasks during a special assessment. Rather, SmartStart practitioners will assess the children in their care each and every day. They will keep notes and use what they are observing to plan appropriate and stimulating activities. While children will not be aware that they are being assessed, twice a year SmartStarters will produce a short progress report that can be shared with parents and provide the basis for further reflection and planning.

In terms of the second principle, children are whole beings not a sum of skills and behaviours! In other words, assessing isolated skills can be unhelpful and even misleading. It is the holistic picture and the direction of travel that matter. Children also develop at different speeds and will not necessarily acquire skills in the order that we would expect. Creating age-related norms for this young age group can therefore be fraught with problems. Firstly, whose norms are they? While it is not only true that the norm for one child will differ from the norm for another, it is also the case that norms vary between contexts and cultures. Secondly, using age-related milestones can lead to inappropriate practice, as practitioners and parents pressure children to ‘catch up then keep up’.

For this reason, the Growing and Learning tool is more a road-map than a set of tick boxes. It uses simple illustrations and descriptors to create a visual picture of what a child’s learning and development journey is likely to look like during this critical period. While it sequences skills within competence areas (on the understanding that later skills often depend on prior skills), it avoids using age-related milestones. Instead it signals the overall direction of travel between broad phases.

The simple illustrations help to bring the concepts alive for parents and caregivers who may never previously have been involved in a conversation about their child’s progress. Our vision is that the map is stuck on fridges and walls in homes across South Africa, as parents are given the knowledge to transform their homes into learning-rich environments.

SmartStarters will receive training and support to use the tool in a way that encourages reflection and responsiveness in their programme delivery. They will be encouraged to use the SmartStart routine as a flexible framework within which activities are planned according to the needs and interests of each child. Where children are struggling or encountering barriers, the tool will help SmartStarters to identify this early on and involve parents in finding the right solutions.

Above all, the Growing and Learning tool will help to create early learning spaces in which our children feel seen and known, treated as unique individuals and supported to fulfil their infinite potential.

Get involved! Find out more

To find out more about SmartStart and how you can get involved, contact the SmartStart office on 010 595 3902 or email us at hello@smartstart.org.za.