The previous installment of this series on DAP ended with a quote that really resonated with me. It perfectly encapsulates the ironic environment we find ourselves in today. There’s a well-intentioned rush to avoid failure, by putting kids in situations that actually increase the odds of failure.
In a fascinating TED Talk, What Do Babies Think?, child development psychologist Alison Gopnik points out an interesting fact about brain development. Across many animal species, “there’s a relationship between how long a childhood a species has and how big their brains are compared to their bodies, and how smart and flexible they are.”
In other words, the more intelligent species tend to have longer childhood periods. The example she shares is the crow, a bird with a childhood as long as two years and considered rather intelligent, and the domestic chicken, which matures in a matter of months and well…it’s not that bright. The disparity in childhood, she says, is the reason why “the crows end up on the cover of Science, and the chickens end up in the soup pot.”
With this information, it is ironic that there are still some who seem to believe that the faster you can move your child through childhood, the more advanced they’ll be.
Learning and knowledge are related to that childhood period. It takes time and a variety of experiences to fully develop a complex, flexible brain. There are no extra points for circumventing childhood.
That’s why I’m so passionate about protecting childhood and a proponent of Developmentally Appropriate Practice.
When we ignore or interrupt healthy development, we tend to have problems. Exposing kids over the long term to environments, programs, and expectations that are not appropriate to their development has some clear effects.
Here Comes Trouble
The first effect is an increase in behavior problems. This comes from two fronts.
First, kids who are given inappropriate situations tend to behave inappropriately. Too much seat time or work that is beyond the zone of proximal development leads to frustration. Kids – particularly those who are younger and less likely to be willing or able to verbalize this frustration or problem-solve the situation – tend to release this frustration physically. A child becoming wiggly, disruptive, or aggressive is much more likely to occur in a classroom that is not developmentally appropriate. It’s not structured to meet kids’ developmental needs or support their developmental growth.
When needs aren’t met, you can be fairly certain you will get undesirable behaviors. Think of it from a personal level. How is your own behavior and attitude when you are fed vs hungry, rested vs tired, or validated vs ignored?
The second way the lack of DAP leads to more behavior problems is in perception and approach. Without DAP we find ourselves in a culture of “Zero Tolerance” behavior management, where preschoolers are being expelled (yes, expelled) at alarming rates. (Read my rant about that here.) I’m not suggesting we need to tolerate and allow bad behavior, but when typical behavior challenges push kids out of the very situation that is supposed to support their burgeoning social development there’s a problem. And it isn’t the kids.
When we recognize certain behaviors as developmentally appropriate (even when they aren’t socially appropriate), we can approach behavior with a teaching mindset. We promote growth and progress rather than punishing kids for going through typical growing pains that are designed by their developmental drive to create teaching moments.
A Shaky Foundation
Another unintended consequence of a “sooner is better” approach is that it often overlooks the foundational skills that are typically developed in early childhood. I explain it in the context of building a house. People tend to get pretty excited to see a new structure pop up out of the earth where there was once nothing. Rarely does anyone say, “Wow, did you see that foundation? It was amazing?” And yet, what would happen if a builder, in his anxiety to erect the perfect building as soon as possible, simply skipped over this vital step?
While pouring a foundation may not be as visually exciting as seeing a building go up in its recognizable form, it is critical to get it right. No one would ever risk putting hours of work into building a house if it lacked a foundation to keep it solid, strong, and immovable. Unfortunately, that’s what happens when we dive right into teaching children benchmark skills, without recognizing the critical importance of the foundational skills that have to come before.
As just one example, phonemic awareness has been shown to be an extremely strong predictor of reading success, and the lack of the skill has been linked to reading struggles. It begins before a child learns the ABCs and is developed without ever looking at a printed word. Yet it is a skill that can be taught, if we’ll just take the time. Time to talk, read, sing, and chant. Time to simply play with words.
But the simpleness of it is not nearly as appealing as seeing kids pull words from a page where none seemed to exist before, so we’re tempted to skip it and get on to the skills that are more noticeable and universally appreciated as actual reading skills. While that may produce “readers”, their foundation will be shaky.
If you want the proper foundation for reading, take it from reading experts Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell who said it best in their (outstanding) resource, Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook*:
“The knowledge that forms the foundation for reading and writing is built throughout early childhood through play, language, and literary experiences.”
Similar foundational skills are critical for other learning areas as well, and they are built — almost imperceptibly to some — through developmentally appropriate, hands-on, playful learning experiences. If our anxiety is about having successful learners in the future, it seems we should give them the right start today.
Race to the…Bottom?
If we look at other countries that top the US in the international metric (PISA scores), it seems we’re trying to catch up to them by doing the opposite of what they’re doing.
In Finland, for example, formal, direct instruction doesn’t begin until age 7. In the preschools and kindergartens that preface that, you won’t find the country’s next crop of top students drilling through flashcards or poring over worksheets. More likely, you’ll see them singing, playing, and painting. In Finland, the focus for early education is on learning how to learn. Children are encouraged to experience, explore, and play. The Finns value the development of curiosity and social competency in the early years. They know that the “academics” will come more easily later if the foundation is there. It seems that while we’re in a rush to give our kids too much too soon, Finland is actually getting ahead by starting later.
I was surprised to learn that even Singapore, consistently near the top of international rankings, values a social-competency model, holistic development, and a play-based structure over academics in the early years. According to the country’s Ministry of Education (and yes, you really should click here and read this position statement):
“Significantly, these Desired Outcomes emphasi(z)e social skills and attitudes and not so much… academic skills. This demonstrates the fact that social skills and expressions of communication are of paramount importance. While basic intellectual skills are important and should not be overlooked, the enduring effects of a child’s social and emotional competence are of even greater importance, for the holistic development of the child. The latter determine the effective functioning of a person more than his/her IQ or academic prowess. We should devote more of the time in pre-school to the acquisition of positive dispositions for this will carry children far and prepare them for future learning. We should not be preparing children for the next stage in learning. The pre-school years are important in themselves.” (Emphasis mine.)
If we are indeed so anxious about our children becoming academically successful, why would we push increasingly for models that seem to directly contradict the programs that have been proven to yield the results we desire?
I believe part of that answer lies in tomorrow’s post.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about what is causing our hyper-drive to push kids too far too soon, and what we can do to fix it. Make sure you stick around!
*This post contains affiliate links.
The Why We Play letters share this message about the importance of developmentally appropriate practice and play in the early years, written specifically for the parents in your education community. Get your own set to help you consistently communicate Why We Play.
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This is fantastic. Is it possible to get a printable copy of all the DAP posts you are doing? I think parents need to be educated on this matter and your words say it perfectly!
I agree! These are great guidelines! I love what she said about building a strong foundation. One problem, as a preschool teacher, is a parent who want to push their children forward before they are developmentally ready! Let’s just skip the four year old preschool program and go straight to kindergarten! Just because the child seems to be ahead of her peers in some things doesn’t mean she can skip a step in the process!
I was at a presentation once where the speaker addressed the issue of parents wanting to push their kids too fast (he was a preschool director). He said (as if speaking to a parent), “well, yes, and of course we’ll want Little Susie to understand the differences in male and female anatomy and the changes of puberty and the basics of birth control and how to use a condom and….” Of course the parents would be absolutely horrified, which is the perfect opening to the idea that somethings are just better to wait for, right?
I am seriously loving these posts! Keep them coming! I wish you needed an assistant!
Heike Larson says
Great post! At our Montessori preschools, we very often have parents push for academics at an early age. We work hard to explain exactly your point about the foundational skills children need to master first–motor skills, the ability to sustain attention, phonemic awareness, impulse control. For toddlers and young preschoolers, it’s often very non-academic activities–painting, food prep, puzzles, plant care, cleaning up–that build the strong foundation upon which later explicit academics rest. We call this “indirect preparation”, and I think it’s quite well aligned with what you describe here as developmentally appropriate practice: http://www.leportschools.com/blog/a-surprisingly-non-academic-approach-to-strong-academics/
Auntie Angela says
If parents, educators and policy makers were all in the know about DAP I think we’d have a much better education system. It is so frustrating for me to see kids who are just where they should be developmentally being pushed (and often discouraged) because the aren’t “keeping up” with standards. Thanks for writing on this topic and spreading the word.
Yet another fantastic post Amanda! This series is just incredible. Will be sharing!
Thank you for continuing this extremely important series of blog posts.
Over 30 years ago we began our home education journey due to developmentally inappropriate practices (DIP) in our oldest son’s public school. Over the years I’ve observed so many children in a variety of care situations who are obviously suffering from the effects of inappropriate caregiving practices. In Feb 2012 I resigned from a Montessori daycare job saying ‘Don’t break the babies’. By my calculations 80% of the children in the school were suffering from the effects of DIPs either at school or at home, or both. Recent first hand reports from a parent tell me nothing has changed. Maria Montessori is rolling over in her grave! Looking forward to your next post.
Liz Hernandez says
So many daycares and schools use the name/description of “Montessori” when in practice they are anything but. Montessori is more a philosophy and practice of deep respect for the child, than just having the “Montessori materials”. A TRUE Montessori school is a marvel to behold: children working on their task in a very concentrated and mindful manner,fully engaged, happy and peaceful, and with a relaxed and cooperative spirit. I hold Montessori education as the highest and best form of education. Too bad public schools don’t adopt this philosophy and method.
This is so important and so timely Mandy. Early Education programs in Utah are really struggling to understand what DAP is and why it is important. There is trend to implement methods that “prove” to close the achievement gap, but ignore all we know about supporting healthy early development.
I just watched the video and it is amazing, I am crying. And it has Spanish subtitles!!! I will share this with my people! Thank you!
Thank you so much, Fernanda! I’m so lucky to have you following!
Our district is at a disconnect. Our “at risk” preschool program is play based, student lead and developmentally appropriate however we are working on common core standards in Kindergarten and the expectations for increasing/ advancing reading levels keeps getting higher. We are currently implementing multiple PBIS school wide incentive programs to improve the behavior of our students. It makes you think … if we were more developmentally appropriate, we probably wouldn’t need all the incentive programs for appropriate social behavior.
I have been saying this for a long time. I just haven’t had the research to back it up. Honestly, I have been trying to get my hands on Frobel’s original ideas about what Kindergarten should be. I am 35, and for me, kindergarten was based around play, and it was awesome! That is why I wanted to teach kindergarten, not to make 5 year olds sit at a desk, do worksheets, and read by Christmas. My son is 8 years old in the 3rd grade and reads on a 5th grade level. That is not because we pushed him. He sat down with me looking at books when he was 3 and 4 and did it on his own. I refuse to push my kids to do something they are not ready for/don’t have the foundations for. He asked for help and I helped him. I make sure he had appropriate books to read. I will do the same for my daughter. She just hasn’t asked to be helped to read, yet, and that is perfectly okay. She just turned 4.
My son also has been diagnosed as ADHD. Now I’m not saying that it is solely the fault of his early academic foundations or lack there of, but I am sure it was a contributing factor.
Thank you for posting this!!!!!
THIS. This article right here, says SO much. I take my son to story times twice a week or more, not just to have fun, but so that I can learn the techniques used (songs, puppets, play, dance, instruments) and can incorporate them into our story times at home. I advocate reading to your child, but it goes beyond just reading to them. So I advocate going to story times at the local library, bookstore or museum. I believe in a discussion based, hands on, sensory filled approach to learning. I will definitely be checking back here for your next article, what a great eye-opener for so many parents!!!
Aseel Shawareb says
Thank you for your defence of developmentally appropriate practice. I have been away from teaching for about 8 years and am considering returning. I am alarmed at the push to introduce academics to soon to young children. The foundations are indeed important. I hope you don’t mind me forwarding this post on to a very good friend who is a Director in a local childcare centre I am sure she will find it to be of great interest. Thank you again for standing up for our young one and their future development. You have inspired me with your words.
Thank you so much, Rachel! And you are always welcome to share links to any of my posts — thank you so much for taking the time to do so! I’m glad to know there are people like you going into the classrooms with the kids we love, and teaching them to love learning!
Patty Lunn says
I agree with EVERYTHING you say . I taught 5yr olds like that but did do a few dittos so I wasn’t fired . How can I follow you ? Patty Lunn
If only our school administrators would read this and do what is right! My dyslexic daughter would be so much happier and better educated.
thanks for a great article. I do believe though that Fountas and Pinnell have great thoughts about preschool;however, they have changed their Reading Level from a C to a D for the end of kindergarten. I have read articles suggesting this was for monetary gain for them. I question why we need all students reading at the end of K. Yes, some are ready like my daughter who went into K reading. My son, raised the same way with lots of lap-time reading, rhymes, etc at home was not reading until 1st grade. I strongly believe in the Phonemic/Phonological Awareness skills and support changing what we are expecting to DAP classrooms. I just question F&P’s K levels. Thoughts?
I hadn’t heard about that change. If the circumstances are as you describe, that’s disappointing. I totally agree that the window for reading is a rather wide one. I actually wrote about that recently. You may enjoy it, and will certainly relate: https://notjustcute.com/2015/09/15/allowing-children-to-bloom-in-season/
This definitely made me think about how I teach and push kids. However, I truly feel like it’s mostly the kids in poverty who struggle, and not because they can’t learn, but because their parents don’t help them learn and get them academically ready for kindergarten. If a child comes to me, and they have no parental academic support and haven’t their whole life, I will struggle and they will struggle. When you think about ALL those kids who aren’t in poverty in other schools, most of them benefit from being “pushed.” Their brains are like sponges. They soak up all the information you give them because they were ready BECAUSE they had prior help at home before even entering your classroom. They will soar. I think America needs to focus on preparing kids for school and then they’ll be ready for the standards mandated. I don’t think our standards are over the top. If they were, even kids who have parental support would struggle.
Many, many kids who have parental support *do* struggle with the standards. All kids are different which itself is why standards are harmful.
As far as those kids who come to you allegedly without parental support, the best thing you can do for them is not to “push” them, but to do the things that they should have gotten at home – songs, finger plays, movement, etc.
Liz Hernandez says
So many daycares and schools use the name/description of “Montessori” when in practice they are anything but. Montessori is more a philosophy and practice of deep respect for the child, and not just having the “Montessori materials”. A TRUE Montessori school is a marvel to behold: children working on their task in a very concentrated and mindful manner, fully engaged, happy and peaceful, and with a relaxed and cooperative spirit. I hold Montessori education as the highest and best form of education. Too bad public schools don’t adopt this philosophy and method.
Liz Hernandez says
I just discovered this blog (from the BAT group). I am overjoyed to find this article which so perfectly explains the importance of a solid foundation and taking developmentally correct steps. This should be National required reading!!!
I want to add that some kids (predominantly males, and around 1 in 150) do not have the “brain wirings”-for-reading completed until age 9 or so. No amount of pushing will speed this process for these individuals; when the connection is finally made they will suddenly snap into reading.(unfortunately, by then they have suffered the damaging labels and pressures)
Great point to make, Liz. What many people miss is that reading is not just a behavior or an action, but the reflection of a great deal of brain architecture and wiring. That can be influenced by environment, but some of it just simply takes time.
Thank you so much for this article – I will have to go back and read part one and I look forward to the rest of the series. I found you through a link on Peter Greene’s blog.
If i may be so bold: We all know we have exceptional children; when they skip a grade we prove it!
Karen Choice says
I will share this with many!! Thank You!
Meg Waldron says
Fabulous article, and I couldn’t agree more. I have to wonder, though, why Fountas and Pinell have decided that Kdgers should be reading at a D by the end of the K year. C was enough of a challenge for kids that come with little or no phonemic awareness.
I’ve heard that Fountas and Pinell have changed some of their guidelines. I’d be interested to hear their basis for that as well.
Mark D. says
Outstanding article–thank you for bringing this information to light. As school districts continue to move in on the preschool education territory that has been primarily occupied by nonprofits like the YMCA and churches, we are seeing an acceleration in opposite direction of DAP. Unfortunately, schools often crowd out the smaller providers until there are few choices left. Thank you for giving us the evidence to fight this trend.
Sarah Oksiuta says
Great article. I so want to move to Finland.
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Mary Nell bram says
I have been preaching this for years to no avail. Our students need social skills and language skills, especially in the impoverished areas. Instead, we teach them at an early age that they are failures and to hate school. Why do we punish children when we are asking them to do things that many of them are not yet developmentally ready for?
Julio Martinez says
When I started teaching kindergarten, eight years ago, the goal was to have children know their letters and sounds, and to have a reading level A(F&P). Know administrators talk about DAP but expect a level D thanks to Fountas and Pinell research. It is really frustrating trying to push a child that is not ready to read to accomplish a reading level so high.
Margo Gentile says
I agree with you. The same applies to math. I was trained in developmental math and that’s the way I’ve always taught. It just makes sense.
I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, too many don’t and in our area, the lack of affordable childcare care and less than ideal family situations have resulted in all day preschool programs and young 5 programs in our schools. Sending kids to school is cheaper than daycare and is sadly safer than the children’s home life.
I waited as long as possible to enroll my oldest in kindergarten and i’ve seenwhat he is exposed to in the other kids. It is truly sad. I am glad there articles like this being shared around so that hopefully a change will happen for the best interest of our children.
This school of thought has heavily influenced how we raise our kids. One thing I would add is the connection between intellectual/academic stimulation and social development. For kids who are naturally ahead academically, it can be hard to interact with traditionally age appropriate peers. On top of that, if a kid is bored in school, the likelihood of “inappropriate” behavior increases. We are considering whether moving such kids ahead in school will benefit their social development by surrounding them with intellectual peers and by keeping them engaged in school. What are your thoughts?