Early Childhood Developmental Assessment

Peg Oliveira, PhD

“If we use effective tools the child reveals himself to all who will stop and listen to what he says and who with seeing eyes will watch what he does.”  -- Arnold Gesell

Child development isn’t simple or linear. Children develop at their own unique pace and seem to sprint past milestones one year and meander the next. Developmental assessment is the process of mapping a child’s development compared with children of similar age. By using developmentally appropriate observational methods to define where on the growth and learning trajectory a child currently falls, we can better meet their ever changing needs. Choosing a reliable and appropriate assessment method is important; even more important is understanding how to use the information gathered from assessments.

At The Gesell Institute of Child Development we assist parents and educators in finding the best match between what individual children need and what early education programs can offer using our Gesell Developmental Assessment system. This information can be a saving grace, like when a 5 year old assessed using the Gesell Developmental Observation - Revised was found to have vision delays that helped explain months of challenging behaviors. Outcomes assist parents and educators to identify delays, target areas in need of support and plan environments and experiences that best promote learning and development.

In addition to serving alongside other observational tools to identify children who may need additional support or intervention, assessment can provide a record of growth. It is a critical part of any high-quality, early childhood program. In a 2003 position statement on assessment in early childhood, the National Association for the Education of Young Children stated that early childhood professionals have the responsibility to “make ethical, appropriate, valid, and reliable assessment a central part of all early childhood programs. To assess young children’s strengths, progress, and needs, use assessment methods that are developmentally appropriate, culturally and linguistically responsive, tied to children’s daily activities, supported by professional development, inclusive of families, and connected to specific purposes” (NAEYC, Position Statement, 2003).

Assessment should be intentional and potentially have some benefit to the child. For example, assessment results might help improve teaching or refer intervention for special needs, document a child’s developmental growth. The assessment tools used need to match the purpose of assessing and be one step in a cycle of observation and accommodation to best meet each child’s emerging needs. Although specific methods for assessment tools vary, the process should always be cyclical, as follows:

Categories of Assessment Methods

Methods of child assessment can be categorized into two basic approaches: informal or formal. Both types of assessment methods are effective and can help inform educators and parents about a child’s progress, but their purposes differ and the tool chosen should match the purpose of assessing. Informal assessments are usually done in the child’s natural setting and are what teachers use in the day-to-day to evaluate a child’s individual performance, progress and comprehension. Informal assessment methods include observations, gathering children’s work into portfolios, interviews, checklists or teacher ratings of a child’s performance (such as grades). The National Education Goals Panel points to the importance of informal assessments in early childhood stating: “Methods of collecting assessment data include direct observation of children during natural activities; looking at drawings and samples of work; asking questions either orally or in writing; or asking informed adults about the child.” (Principles and Recommendations for Early Childhood Assessments, Shephard & Kagan, 1998).

In comparison, formal assessments are designed to describe what a child has learned, or to determine proficiency or mastery of content or skills. Formal assessment methods are usually pre-planned and include quizzes, questionnaires and standardized tests. These are useful in assessing performance in comparison to others or to identify strengths and weaknesses compared to peers.

Characteristics of Effective Assessment in Early Childhood

  • Emphasizes emerging development in all developmental domains: physical/motor, social-emotional, cognitive, language, and literacy development
  • Focuses on individual strengths  
  • Is based on principles of child growth and development
  • Recognizes and supports different intelligences and learning styles
  • Minimizes or alleviates child stress to ensure best outcomes
  • Is reflective and analytic, honest and accurate, instructive and useful
  • Is collaborative with learners, parents, teachers, and professional specialists as needed

How Assessment Information Can be Presented

Information gathered from an assessment can be presented and understood in a variety of ways. Two common presentation frames are criterion-referenced and norm-referenced assessments. Again, one is not better than the other but rather knowing what they describe is essential to using them wisely to support child learning. Criterion-referenced assessments compare a person’s knowledge or skills against a predetermined standard, learning goal, performance level, or other criterion. With criterion-referenced tests, each person’s performance is compared directly to the standard, without considering how other students perform on the test. Criterion-referenced assessments often place students into categories such as “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” For example, when at an amusement park where you must be 5 feet tall to ride a rollercoaster, it will not matter how tall the other riders are. Criterion referenced assessments tell you how a child performs in relation to the set criterion, not whether they performed below or above average compared to other children.

In comparison, norm-referenced assessments compare a child’s knowledge or skills to the knowledge or skills of the group. For example, a baby’s weight is defined by the percentile a it falls into. A baby in the 25th percentile weighs more than 25% of babies in the norm group and the same as or less than 75% of them. This data does not tell you, however, if the weight is considered healthy. Similarly, norm-referenced child assessments do not tell you if the child has met learning goals, but rather tells you their place in the group.



Shepard, L., Kagan, S.L., Wurtz, E. (Eds.). (1998). Principles and recommendations for early childhood assessments. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.


Early Childhood Assessment: Why, What, and How by the National Research Council. Catherine E. Snow and Susan B. Van Hemel, eds. The National Academies Press, 2008.


The Power of Observation: Birth through Eight (2nd edition) by Judy R. Jablon, Amy Laura Dombro & Margo L. Dichtelmiller. Teaching Strategies Inc., 2007.


Spotlight on Young Children and Assessment. Derry Koralek, ed. NAEYC, 2004.






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