A Picture in Time: Writing Anecdotal Notes

A well written anecdotal note draws a picture of a child’s development in a moment in time.  Many early childhood curriculums use observation to document a child’s development.  Depending on the curriculum or  Early Childhood Program, teachers are advised to document observations in each developmental domain. The following example are the central domains from the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Approaches to Learning, Social and Emotional Development, Language and Literacy, Cognition and Perceptual Motor and Physical Development.  Below is the chart of central domains for infant/toddler and preschool. For more information on the Framework, follow the link.

The Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework 2015. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2015.

Written observations are a way to collect more information about the individual child, identify the interests of the child or a group of children.  This information is used in planning individual and group activities.  For example if children are showing an interest in bugs, butterflies or caterpillars, a teacher can develop an activity plan about insects.  By knowing where a child is at developmentally, a teacher can individualize the activity plan for each child. Maybe Lilly, age 3,  can make a repeating pattern with 2 shapes, while Francisco, age 5 can create repeating patterns with 5 shapes.  The small group activity could be creating repeating patterns using bug manipulatives.

The observations are often reviewed with parents during conferences.  Now that many curriculums and organizations have electronic records a report that can be printed to review the child’s development.  Anecdotal notes allow are useful for discussing progress of the child, what is the next steps in the child’s development.  The parents and teacher are able to identify and agree upon appropriate goals for the child.

A well written anecdotal note must have the following:

  1. A statement that includes the time, date, name and age of child and the setting.
  2. A description of the child’s behavior.  This is a complete narrative about what the child is doing during that point in time, without inserting what think is happening.
  3. Include details about the child’s actions, comments and include the comments or action of other children.  (Remember not to use the other child’s name, it is best to write “another child” stated …)
  4. Write down conversations using the exact words the children are using.
  5. Each note must have a beginning, middle and end in order to get the full picture of what was happening at that moment in time.


October 1, 2016, 10 AM during small group.  Lillie, age 3.

Lillie and another child were making patterns using the insect manipulatives. Lillie placed one green caterpillar in the first square, she put a green fly in the second square.  She picked up a blue butterfly and said “Nope, that’s not right!” Another child said: “What are you looking for?”  Lillie said “A blue caterpillar and a blue fly.” The other child moved the bugs in the bucket around until he found a blue caterpillar.  He set it on the table. He had picked up a blue fly that was in the bucket.  He put both pieces in his hand.   “Is this what you want?” he asked, reaching his hand out to Lillie.  “yes, Thank you” said Lillie.  She took the insect manipulatives out of his hand.  She set the blue fly in the third box and the blue caterpillar in the fourth box. “Nope, That’s not right!” she said.  picking up the blue fly she moved the blue caterpillar to the third square and set the blue fly on the fourth square.

“Now I need a green caterpillar and a green fly” Lillie found a green fly next to the bucket and picked it up setting near her tray.  The other child had a green caterpillar next to his tray, he handed it to her.  “Thank you”, said Lillie. Lillie put the green caterpillar in the fifth box.  She picked up the green fly and put it in the next box.  Lillie said “Mr. Jose I made a pattern!”

What if the observation was written differently.  For example:

At small group, Lillie and Francisco worked together to make patterns.

What is missing?

  • The date
  • child’s name
  • child’s age
  • the time
  • the conversation
  • details about the pattern (colors, the caterpillar, the fly, the butterfly)

What is wrong with the 2nd observation?

  • The observation was about Lillie and should not have had Franciso’s  name in it.  Anecdotal notes are confidential.  You must write “the other child” when including comments and interactions between children.
  • By not including the conversation, you cannot assess language development or the social emotional development of the child.
  • By not including the details about the colors and insect manipulatives, you do not illustrate the Lillie’s approach to learning, self correction, and self talk. The description of the pattern is missing, which is needed to compare to future observations.  Will she make a pattern using three objects and three colors in the next month? How will we be able to see the progress without this detail.
  • The date is missing. When collecting observations you must have the date and time of day.  The date helps set a timeline of the child’s development.  This observation is in October.  In January, you may do another observation of the child creating a pattern.  You need to be able to see if the child has progressed in developmental domains.

These are just a few things to keep in mind when making observations. The key is to describe what the behavior of the child is, writing a detail description, and include conversations. The anecdotal notes are used in assessing the child’s development and showing the progress over time.  The assessment of each child is important for providing results for the whole program.  Federal Programs like Head Start and many state programs have Quality Rating Systems that require data driven results to receive funding.






About mosaic4learning

I am Child Development Professional experience in training and Professional Development. I have presented at Pre-Service or In-Service for Head Start Programs, Child Care Centers and Preschools. Presentations include, but not limited to Shaken Baby Syndrome Prevention, Dual Language Learners in ECE, Cultural Diversity, and Inclusion. C.L.A.S.S. Certified Observer (Preschool) Environmental Rating Scales (ITERS, ECERS) Professional Development Specialist for Child Development Associate (CDA)
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One Response to A Picture in Time: Writing Anecdotal Notes

  1. Norah says:

    Anecdotal notes are very informative. They are time-consuming, but the information gleaned is worth it. They don’t always need to be so detailed, only when something pertinent is observed. It’s handy sometimes to carry a phone to record snippets of conversations and take photos. The conversations can be transcribed later.

    Liked by 1 person

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