Jan Noga on Surveying Young Children Part One: Planning and preparation are key!

Hi! My name is Jan Noga and I am the owner of Pathfinder Evaluation and Consulting, in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’m a developmental and counseling psychologist with a specialization in early and middle childhood. I’ve spent a lot of time in preschools – as a teacher, researcher, observer, and evaluator. I learned from some amazing advisors and mentors – Eleanor Maccoby, Albert Bandura, Walter Mischel, and Urie Bronfenbrenner – invaluable in my work with young children.

Lesson Learned: As an evaluator, I’ve run surveys with children as young as three. I’ve gone in as a solo evaluator on a project, and I’ve also managed teams of evaluators spread out across multiple schools. The one element that I always, always insist on is prior experience working with young children in group situations. This often rules out undergraduates (and even many graduate students), simply because they haven’t worked with more than one or two young children at a time. The same goes for parents – having a toddler or preschooler does not necessarily qualify you to do data collection with a classroom of young children. The people I turn to the most often are those with preschool teaching experience – they’ve got the most experience managing a diverse group of children.

Hot Tip: Surveying young children is best done as either a one-on-one or small group activity. I’ve found that a group of four or five children is the maximum size; any more than that and the kids will run the zoo instead of you!

Hot Tip: Keep your questions simple in structure and few in number, if only for your own sanity. Preschoolers and kindergarteners can handle up to 12 questions, but anything beyond that and they will quickly get tired of the game. Kids in first through second grade can handle up to 20. Remember, you’re going to be doing this over and over again with multiple groups – how many questions do you really want to read each time?

Lesson Learned: Another issue you might encounter with very young children is developmental diversity around language and the ability to express thoughts and ideas. I find that three-year-olds tend to be a little young to understand abstract concepts but can respond to very concrete questions (“Was this fun?,” “Was this hard?,” “Do you like to do art by yourself or with friends?” etc.). Four- and five-year-olds will still vary in terms of developmental levels, but can respond to very basic abstract concepts. Keep questions as concrete as possible. If language and abilities are not there, you may be better off using observation in structured situations, such as a play scenario.

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4 thoughts on “Jan Noga on Surveying Young Children Part One: Planning and preparation are key!”

  1. Hi Jan Noga,

    My name is Crystal and I am an undergrad psychology student at Texas A&M Central Texas. I also work fulltime as a preschool teacher at a child development center. My day to day casual observations of my students, never occurred to me to run surveys. My interest in childhood education.

    As far as the hot tips go, I agree to get anything remotely done or to get decent information, small groups or one on one are best. And I am sure you have been there, running large group activities can be a zoo and the children will take over quickly. I incorporate singing and dance. Upon observation I can tell who doesn’t want to do it and who feels pressured by others to participate. It’s amazing how all this is happening at such a young age. So complex but simple.
    I also agree that when questioning children, keeping it simple is best. We have lots to play with, so it can be distracting. If I refer to a book we read the previous day, I’ll keep my questions to a maximum of 4 to 5. Sometimes the three-year-old will surprise you with wonder detailed conversations.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi Jan,

    Thank you for a great read. Your article has greatly helped solidify and improve my current program evaluation design where I am evaluating the effectiveness of a preschool reading circle program.

    Originally, I had planned on using undergraduate students, many of whom are studying to become teachers, to conduct some of the surveys. But I understand that they would not have prior experience working specifically with students at a preschool age, which may limit their understanding of expectations of students at this age. I will therefore take your advice and have the preschool teachers be the ones conducting the surveys.

    It is nice to see that I had planned on surveys being conducted either as one-on-one or small group activities, and this is indeed best practice. I had also planned on keeping my questions simple and straightforward. I was quite surprised that preschoolers and kindergarteners could handle up to 12 questions. Seemed like a lot to me! I could possibly therefore re-think adding a few more questions to my survey.

    I also like the idea of using observation in structured situations, such as a play scenario. Would you also advise preschool teachers being the ones to observe these interactions? Or could an outsider also observe and generate reasonable results?

    From my own experience working with a wide age range of students, I appreciate being able to find an article that specifically deals with preschool children, as most of the information deals with school-age children. There is quite the difference between a preschooler and a first grader after all! Thanks again.

  3. Hello Ms. Noga,

    Thank you for your thoughtful article regarding conducting evaluations with young children. I found both of your articles to have helpful tips for obtaining credible and usable data when working children.

    I am a Kindergarten teacher, and currently a Graduate student at Queen’s university. For one of my course projects, I am evaluating a Forest School Program offered within my elementary school. I am trying to determine how children, ages 3-6 are feeling about the program. After reading your articles, I have realized that my questions may have been too open ended and moving forward I will choose more specific questions. I will also ensure that the language I use is developmentally appropriate as well as limiting the questions to a maximum of 12, as you suggest. I like the ideas of using surveys with stickers as this would provide more streamlined responses.

    I agree with your conclusions about ensuring that evaluators have sufficient experience working with young children. I too, have found that when I have volunteers in my classroom who do not have experience with young children, there are often misunderstandings about language, intent or behaviour. It would then be difficult to ensure responses are accurate.

    As per my current evaluation project, I was wondering if you see value in using photographs to document child thinking, perspective and experience. I often take pictures of children engaged in activities and them have them discuss it at a later date. What are your thoughts on this? Would it yield usable data?

    Thank you again. I look forward to your response.

    Tracey

  4. Hello Jan. Excellent hot tips. Thank you for sharing. What kind of questions do you ask them? Do you find you get better results one on one than in small groups? Or does it depend on the class setting and children? Do you ask them the questions more than once in a year? I’m curious if the answers would change based on their comfort level in September and then again in June also keeping in mind their maturity has increased. What kind of information are you looking for as a developmental counsellor and psychologist? Do the parents need to consent before you do your surveys? Thanks in advance.

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