Early Childhood Documentation — Portfolios!

When our children are toddlers and preschoolers, a lot of our homeschooling focus is really on play. When they enter into more formal academics it’s easier to track their knowledge and development. So how can we observe and record our younger children’s interests and developmental milestones? One way is to keep Developmental Domain Portfolios! Portfolios are an excellent way to document your child’s learning through a developmental lens. Not only does it create a map for milestones attained, but it also shows a pattern of interest that you can build upon.


A developmental portfolio will contain sections from each of the developmental domains, including cognitive, social/emotional, physical, language, and creative expression. Within these five domains you can collect artifacts or samples of your child’s work or experiences. This will help you see where your child’s interests and strengths are. This type of record is also important to your child. They may have a special drawing they want to save or share with other family or friends. Or, they may want to look at their own portfolio and “remember” what they have learned.


There are many ways to document learning and include artifacts within a developmental portfolio. This may include a picture your child has made, an observation journal, and a photograph with a learning story. It may also include a video link of your child engaged in a developmentally appropriate activity to document language or growth, a running record, screenings or assessments, and individual smart goals.  For information on the five developmental domains, check out Washington State Early Learning and Developmental Guidelines. Your state should have the same information for early learning, also.

So, how do I create a developmental domain portfolio? Here are nine steps to help you get started! (This was written for and adapted from my Early Childhood Development classroom, but can be adapted to your individual family needs.)

  1. Supplies to gather:
  • three-ring binder one for each child (with a clear sleeve in the front and the spine)
  • five-tab dividers of different colors
  • Box of page protectors
  • Copy of current Washington State Early Learning and Developmental Benchmarks
  • Be familiar with the concept of a “Learning Story”
  1. Create a checklist:
  • Include the names of all the children
  • The five domains of learning you will focus on (ex: cognition, physical, language and literacy, creative expression, and social emotional)
  • An area for comments
  • A space for a date of domain being observed 
  1. Create portfolio:
  • Insert a photo of each child in the front pouch of the binder
  • Insert the child’s name (first and last) in the spine of the binder
  • Put the five dividers in the binder
  • Label each divider with the domains of development being assessed
  • Place page protectors in front and behind each divider
  • Write an “about me” page for each child with start date, birth date, specific interests and curiosities, comfort items, etc. 
  1. Create a reference page for each developmental domain being assessed:
  • Use the Benchmarks to create a one page document to reference each domain (there should be five)
  • Place each overview behind the divider it is describing 
  1. Create an observation sheet to place in your environment:
  • Ask three or four reflective questions (for instance: what I see, what I hear, what I wonder)
  • Make sure you include a space for the observer’s name, date, and space in the environment 
  1. Collecting data:
  • Each day as the observations and samples of children’s work comes in, place them in the pouch of the individual child’s portfolio
  • The end of the week go through the data collected, and decide where each item can be organized in domains of learning (write the date on the checklist with a comment to reference the evidence)
  • Use the observation, photo, or child’s work to create a learning story of the child (reflect, evaluate, and extend on their learning)
  1. Continue the process:
  • Continue daily to observe, collect, and document each child’s curiosities and interests
  • Use the checklist to be sure you’re observing every child in each domain
  • Once the domains are complete, then you start again to measure the growth in each domain
  1. Invite family to have a voice in the child’s portfolio:
  • Ask them to write a “hopes and dreams” page for the child to put in the front of their portfolio
  • Ask them to write up a learning story at home or at school once or twice a year
  • Ask them to add their lens to a learning story already written about the child
  • Ask them to write up observations in the classroom with any of the children to add to their portfolio
  1. Invite other adults to observe, collect, and build on the children’s portfolios:
  • Ask the adults that have established relationships with the children to write up observations, collect children’s work samples, and write up learning stories
  • Ask them to build on an original learning story to have multiple lenses of the child

Your child’s portfolio is what you want to make of it based off of what learning goals are important to your family! For a downloadable copy of this checklist and the five developmental domains, CLICK HERE.

How to Keep Homeschool Records

Keeping homeschool records usually involves more than one method. The first thing you need to know is what your state requires. The law in my state requires the following: a plan book, diary, or other written record of subjects taught and activities engaged in; a portfolio of samples of the child’s academic work; other written, or credible evidence equivalent to the above; and a log of hours spent in instruction.


The Plan Book: When using a lesson plan book, the lessons are planned in advance. Lay out the plans and the assignments for the week, and check off each item as it is covered. You can use a lesson plan book purchased at a teacher supply store, or download lesson plan pages from a website such as DonnaYoung.org. It can even be as simple as writing them down in a spiral notebook, or making your own plans in a word processing program on your computer. I usually started out the school year with two weeks of lesson plans prepared ahead. Then each Sunday from the time school started, I would plan one more week. That way I was always two weeks ahead, which gave me time to find library books, videos, and experiment and art supplies. Yet, I wasn’t planning so far ahead that I would have to make a lot of major plan changes if we needed to slow down or take a day off for some reason.


The Diary: With the diary (or journal) method, instead of writing down what you do before you do it, you or the student write daily in the diary what was done and what was learned. The diary can also be used in conjunction with the plan book. I used the diary method to keep track of field trips, vacation educational hours, educational videos, community service projects, and life-skill learning activities.


The Portfolio: A portfolio is for saving samples of school work. I didn’t save every piece of my children’s school work. That would have been overwhelming. Instead I saved one paper from each subject from the first week of school, and from the last week of each quarter. I also saved examples of reports, research papers, poems, stories, art work, and other special assignments. For three dimensional projects or artwork too large for the portfolio, I took photographs and placed those in the portfolio.

Other Written Records: This can include reading lists, standardized test scores, lists of classes and curriculum used, a general daily schedule, lists of accomplishments and recognition, copies of paperwork filed with your state, etc.

Attendance Records: Some states require a certain number of days of school per year. My state requires a certain number of hours of instruction. Either way, you should keep track of those days or hours to show that you’ve met your state’s requirements. Making note of hours or days in your daily lesson plans or on a calendar, and using a spreadsheet on your computer to record and tally them, is a simple way of keeping an accurate record.

I kept all of the above in a thick three-ring binder divided into sections labeled Lesson Plans, Journal, Portfolio, and Hourly Log. Each section was divided by a tabbed divider, and the Portfolio section had pocket dividers for holding the samples of work. At the end of each year all the records for that year were in one notebook.

I saved all of the notebooks until the child was out of high school, then I sorted through all of the elementary notebooks and saved a few things that were special as mementos and threw the rest away. I kept the high school notebooks for a while longer in case they were needed to back up my transcripts for college admissions. I’ll talk about the specifics of high school record keeping in a future post.


Over the course of 25 years of homeschooling, I began with writing lesson plans out by hand, moved on to using a word processing program, and eventually settled into using homeschool record-keeping software. With the software I was able to type up lesson plans and print them. There was a diary feature for recording the activities I kept in journal form. It also tracked attendance and grades, and I was able to print reports on these with a click of a button. It saved me so much time and effort, and it was worth every penny. There are a variety of computer-based programs available online, and most will let you download a trial version to try out before you buy.

The key to staying on top of your record keeping is to find a system that fits your style. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of record keeping until you find your niche, and before you know it, keeping good homeschool records will become second nature to you.

The Importance of Homeschool Record Keeping


Many times over the years I have heard people give excuses as to why they just can’t seem to keep up with their homeschool record keeping. They are “too disorganized,” they “can’t find the time” in their day, it’s “not really important” because they know deep down inside how their children are doing… The list goes on and on. However, if you aren’t keeping adequate records, you run the risk of short-changing your children.

I recently received an e-mail from a former homeschooler whose family had been part of our local support group several years ago. He was on the verge of getting a very good job, but there was one obstacle standing in his way. He had to pass a high level security clearance, but his high school diploma hadn’t been signed. Without proof that he had finished high school he couldn’t pass the security clearance and he wouldn’t get the job.

His mother and father were divorced. His mother had been the parent involved in the homeschooling process, but she had passed away, so it was too late to get her signature on the diploma. Since the name of our support group was on the diploma, he was wondering if I could sign it for him, since I was the support group leader at the time of his graduation.

He also asked how he could get a copy of his transcript, which of course, I could not help with in any way. He didn’t even know what had happened to the homeschool records his mother had kept. There had been a flooded basement, and many things were thrown out. All of the information needed to develop a transcript was gone!

My first couple of years of homeschooling, I, too, struggled with record keeping. It wasn’t until after I attended a workshop for new homeschoolers that it finally clicked with me. At the workshop a representative from our state homeschooling organization explained what kind of records to keep in order to be compliant with our state law. Homeschooling mothers shared how they kept records. There were handouts of sample record-keeping forms for us to take home.

The one thing that made the biggest impression on me that night was what one of the mothers said. She said that one day she may have the privilege of being called before the authorities to show her records. Yes, she said “the privilege” — not the inconvenience, not the major hassle, not the unbelievable stress — of showing her records. Her point was that you may be the only homeschooler the powers that be ever see. Will your records give them the impression that homeschoolers have it all together and are doing a good job? Or, will your records make them think that a home education leaves much to be desired?

Do you have extended family members or neighbors that are vehemently against homeschooling? Are you separated or divorced? If so, you definitely need to be keeping good records.

No matter how well you may know your child is doing, no matter how busy or disorganized you are, there will very likely come a day when your child will need to prove that they were educated, and that proof is called homeschool records. When that time comes, will your records give your children the credibility that they need in the future as they enter college or the work force? Will your records be enough to prove that you are educating your children if you are ever called to do so? If not, now is the time to get started!

Documenting with a Portfolio . . . even when you don’t *have* to

It’s time to close out the school year!! We’ve added up the days and graded the last papers . . . but just as a brick and mortar teacher’s job isn’t over as soon as the students walk out the door, our jobs as homeschool teachers aren’t quite finished either. Before I allow myself to dive into looking at new curricula or planning for next year, tidying up the details of this school year is a priority.

Each state varies in its requirements; some states ask for portfolios or other documents. Our state only requires testing once/year, but I have found that creating a portfolio is a fun way to end the school year, allowing my kids to see their progress and success in a very tangible way. Really, it’s a form of summative evaluation, and so much more fun than a test!

There are plenty of lists and helpful resources on the web to help you put the Portfolio together. In fact, some sites have free templates so you can print off divider tabs and a Table of Contents, and more.

A Catesby Trillium flower that was luckier than the first one my son found . . . he learned to save them for pictures!

A Catesby Trillium flower that was luckier than the first one my son found . . . he learned to save them for pictures!

I have found that writing out a checklist of items or subjects to be included for my kids and then allowing them to select their favorites works well. It involves them in the process, and we generally end up sharing and laughing together while pulling the pieces together. The air rings with: “Remember when we were reading this book and then you spotted a mink in the backyard?!” or “Oh, when you practiced that song for the recital there was a deer and a turkey out front that seemed to be hanging out just to hear the music!” or “Oh, that’s the Catesby Trillium flower I accidentally picked before I knew it takes several years for it to bloom. At least we pressed it!” . . . Success=Lessons learned!

An accordion folder can keep many small items together, and keeps loose items like artwork together.

An accordion folder can keep many small  or loose items together, like artwork or crafts.

Our Portfolio is an accordion folder so that small objects like crafts can be accommodated along with math notebooks or slim journals. Pictures are a wonderful inclusion, and some families enjoy making scrapbooks as a type of Portfolio. I make a digital photo album of the year separate from the Portfolio which is a documentation of events, too.

If you’ve had a year full of surprises or unfortunate events, don’t despair: I thought I’d blown my son’s first grade year when we had some medical emergencies. Because I felt guilty about “neglecting him”, I made a photo album just for him. Turns out that as we reviewed our photos, memorabilia and assignments, he had accomplished much more than I thought possible simply through real life experiences. It was a turning point for our homeschool experience, and I am forever grateful for the lessons learned. See? Evaluation isn’t just for the student, and pulling documentation together is a great way to foster improvement in teaching methodology as well!

A photo album of my son's homeschool adventures a couple of years ago.

A photo album of my son’s homeschool adventures a couple of years ago.

Happy “End of the School Year” to YOU!!

My son selected his favorite assignments from each subject to include in his Portfolio. It was a great way to wrap up our year!

My son selected his favorite assignments from each subject to include in his Portfolio. It was a great way to wrap up our year!