FOUNDATIONS: Developmentally Appropriate Practice

foundationsI’m starting to gear up to teach my Early Childhood Curriculum course again this fall, and it’s gotten me thinking about Developmentally Appropriate Practice. It’s an idea that’s central to early childhood education, and it guides pretty much all parts of teaching practice. But I get the sense that it’s a term folks in the field don’t mention much around non-professionals, because it sounds a little stuffy and complicated, and that’s a shame because it’s a good and important concept. If I were shopping for a preschool, I’d be sure to ask the director, “How do you make sure all your classrooms are implementing developmentally appropriate practice?”

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is, basically, an answer to the question, “What’s the best way to educate young children? What’s the best way to support their learning and development?” DAP says, well, we ought to teach in a way that’s grounded in research about what children are like and what kinds of education work best. It sounds like a simple and obvious idea—but there are a lot of reasons that, in this field in particular, it’s important to articulate it. Early Childhood is a field that is rapidly professionalizing, but still has a lot of people working in it who got into it because they like little kids and thought it’d be easy, or who got into it 30 years ago and haven’t changed their practice since. DAP says, “No, just because you’ve been doing it a certain way for a few decades doesn’t mean it’s okay. As research changes, so must our practice.” It’s also important, in a field that struggles to be seen with respect in our culture, to point out that the state of the art is research-based and professional.

All that is a little beside the point when it comes to classroom practice, though. Let’s get back to the point of how to support children’s learning and development. A way I like to talk about it with my students it to say that DAP is really just a fancy way of saying “Meeting Children’s Needs.” There’s a lot you could say about what’s the best way to do that—indeed, the book on DAP is a 370-page behemoth—but it helps me to put it all in concrete, accessible terms. How do we meet children’s needs?

We tend to break down the idea of developmental appropriateness into three pieces. The first piece is age appropriateness. This is the part that most people understand most easily, and that is the most central part of our national dialogue on education. 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds and 8-year-olds are all different from each other; they shouldn’t be learning the same things, and we shouldn’t be teaching them the same ways (to an extent). Figuring out what’s appropriate for a certain age is partly a question of research (how does the brain develop?), partly a question of public policy (what do we as a community think this age group ought to know?), and partly a question of personal experience (after you’ve been in a preschool for a few years, you just KNOW the differences). Teaching in a way that’s appropriate to the age group is clearly important.

But it’s just as important to remember that not all 5-year-olds are the same as each other—to the contrary, no two of them are the same, in terms of how they learn best, what their needs are, what they already know. That’s obvious to anyone who has kids or works with them, but is surprisingly easy to forget when planning curriculum (or writing public policy). So the second part of DAP is individual appropriateness. Because research backs up the idea that that kids need individualized adaptations in their education—not just children with disabilities, but ALL of them. Within the broad strokes of age appropriateness, educators must be able to adjust their efforts to the unique needs of individual children. We do this by carefully observing each child; by building personal relationships with each child; by watching how they react to our teaching and adjusting accordingly. Without individual appropriateness, age appropriateness is ineffective and, frankly, a bit silly.

For awhile, those two pieces were basically the story. But recently there’s much more attention on what turns out to be just as important as the first two pieces: cultural appropriateness. Not all children grow up with the same values, expectations, practices, customs. Children exist within a context; their social relationships are a part of who they are. To effectively teach them, we need to understand the contexts they are a part of. And before you dismiss the idea as liberal touchy-feely falderal (and it does strike that chord, even with me), remember that the children who perform worst in school—rather, the children worst-served by our schools—are very often the children whose home culture is most different from the upper-middle-class-white-American culture that is basically the default in our education system. There are lots of reasons that poor, non-white, immigrant children have a hard time in school, but an important one is that the expectations are so different from what they’ve been taught. From personal experience, outcomes for children are improved dramatically when teachers and parents communicate clearly about their goals and values and practices, and have a window into each other’s worlds. If schools better understand “the whole child,” they do a much better job of meeting that child’s needs.

So that’s the gist. The way to meet children’s needs and educate them is to understand their age, culture, and individual needs, and then absorb all the research on those topics. Easy! Okay, not easy. But important, and approachable. If you don’t want to read the 370-page book (I don’t either), there are good (and less lengthy) resources at NAEYC. Or—and I really do encourage this—walk up to your preschool teacher and ask, “How do you do developmentally appropriate practice here?” It should be a good conversation.


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