If we’re having a discussion about DAP, let’s start at the beginning.
What the heck is it?
DAP, developmentally appropriate practice, is a teaching philosophy based in research and sound developmental theory about how kids learn and grow. Essentially, it’s respecting children as individuals, childhood as valuable and valid, and learning as part of a larger developmental process. Using DAP means approaching environments and experiences with an awareness and appreciation of where kids are developmentally and how they are wired to learn and progress in a healthy way as a whole child.
Closely related to DAP is another term, ZPD or Zone of Proximal Development. The “Zone” refers to the area of growth between what the child can do on his own and his frustration level. This is the sweet spot for teaching with DAP. It’s the spot where kids are stretched, but not frustrated. (You can read more about ZPD in this post from the NJC archives.) In order to teach most effectively, which is within the Zone of Proximal Development, one must be aware of where children are developmentally and how they progress. So DAP and ZPD are woven together.
That’s a lot all at once, no?
So how about an analogy? You know I love them!
Shopping for Developmentally Appropriate Practice
It’s important to realize that the concept of developmentally appropriate practice takes into account developmental progressions as well as individual differences. (Unfortunately that’s essentially the opposite of some broad-brush standards which seem to consider neither.) In my college classes we used the phrase “age and stage” to indicate that the two were not always synonymous.
Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp explain it in their book, Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice : An Introduction for Teachers of Children 3 To 6* as being similar to shopping for kids’ clothes.
In their example, you’re shopping for a dress for your 8 year-old god-daughter to wear to her next school musical performance. So you first go to the “Girls 7-10” section of the clothing store. This is where you would find clothing that would typically fit girls who are 8. This exemplifies the age-appropriateness portion of DAP.
But you can’t just grab any dress from that section. Your god-daughter may be taller or shorter than the offerings in this range. She might love pink dresses and hate lace. Considering these aspects exemplifies the individual-appropriateness portion of DAP.
Copple and Bredekamp then go on to point out that one must also consider social and cultural contexts: What are the expectations for her school function? What dress standards are held by her family?
(Keeping the concept of ZPD in mind, I would add that you would likely also pick a dress with just a bit of room for your goddaughter to grow — not so big that she looks slouchy, but not so small that she can’t wear it next week.)
Just as you can’t grab any dress from any section and expect it to fit your goddaughter, you can’t very well create a one-size-fits-all approach to education and call it DAP. The entire philosophy implies an attention not only to general developmental levels, but those of individuals as well.
Perhaps the biggest strain on DAP is our culture’s current obsession with standardization. Inherent to DAP is the concept of individualization. Quite frankly, individualization is how real human development actually works.
When we talk about developmental progression, the order that skills develop are generally pretty standard. But developmental timelines for when these skills appear are essentially norm-referenced, like a bell curve. Individual children will reach the same milestone months or even years apart from each other, and that’s completely normal and healthy within that particular skill’s range.
What isn’t healthy is pushing a child to reach a milestone early to satisfy our own imposed standards, irrespective of the child’s actual developmental timeline. In addition to creating frustration and negative attitudes, it negates the child’s individual developmental needs, including the foundational development that needs to take place to actually make that milestone possible (more on this later in the week).
It’s like trying to force open a flower bud just because a few on the same bush have already opened.
The Early Reader
When it comes to developmentally appropriate practice, reading seems to be one of the first topics that comes up as an example.
One specific example that comes to mind is a school in my area which boasts “kids reading at 3″. That may be the case very naturally for some kids, but it could be very detrimental to others who are being held to a standard that their individual development can not support. A child reading at 3 is not necessarily inappropriate — guaranteeing all 3 year-olds will be readers is.
I certainly wouldn’t rein in an enthusiastic reader just because he/she was on the young side, but the practices used in that encouragement need to be appropriate to their age and development, and also need to incorporate the foundational skills critical to reading. (See Why Don’t You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy).
So what’s DAP here? When should kids learn to read?
The issue isn’t so much a dichotomy of “either kids should read at 3 or they shouldn’t read until 7″, it’s recognizing that there are individual differences and developmental principles at play and that kids learn best when we respect that.
It’s been well established that kids struggle in school if they are not fluent readers by the end of third grade, which is typically when children begin to read to learn and not just learn to read. If they can’t read fluently by that point they tend to fall behind….and they tend not to catch up. So fluent reading by the end of third grade is the real, substantiated goal, and it’s a developmentally appropriate goal for the majority of children.
But the opposite is not necessarily true. No research has found that children do better in school if they learn to read at three or at five or at six. (Read more on this in this fantastic article.) The notion that pushing reading curricula and standards down to younger and younger grades will help them be more successful in school later on is unfounded. The practice is not developmentally appropriate and causes many children to have to work outside of that zone of proximal development. The frustration caused can be lasting and serious if it leads to negative attitudes about school, learning, and reading, or if it skips over vital, developmentally appropriate prereading skills that actually build lasting reading skills.
I have to agree with what was written in an article by Alicia Bayer, “In America, we currently have this idea that our children are struggling academically so the answer lies in pushing them more and more, at earlier and earlier ages… If our children are struggling academically, it does not make sense to make them do more of the same things that are failing them and from a younger age.”
Our kids don’t need more of what doesn’t work. They certainly don’t need the critical experiences of early childhood to be crowded out by policies that are grounded only in good intentions.
Respect children as individuals, childhood as valuable and valid, and learning as part of a larger developmental process.
Be sure to come back tomorrow to explore the causes and consequences of neglecting developmentally appropriate practice.
*Post contains affiliate links.