I’ve been writing all week (and honestly, for years) about the importance of developmentally appropriate practice and why it’s so important to the healthy, whole development of our children.
But there’s one big question I haven’t addressed yet: Why is DAP so threatened? Where does this push to expect too much too soon come from?
I can’t say I know for sure. I’m certain you have some ideas about it, and I’d love to hear them. As with most of the problems in this world that need attention, the cause is quite complex and compounded. But here’s my best shot at a few of the reasons based on what I know.
A Little History
After Russia won the fist stage of the Space Race, launching Sputnik in the 1950s, America suffered a collective panic attack. As a nation we worried that we had lost our edge and we believed that only a smarter crop of citizens could get it back. With the perception that the security of the nation (both economically and militarily) was at risk, political players became involved in educational policies and curricula with increased fervor.
In some instances, increased national awareness was a good thing. Laws were enacted to (hypothetically) guarantee equal education to all, regardless of race, economic standing, or ability level, and new perspectives were brought in to put more emphasis on math and science and to introduce new technologies into the classroom.
But it also led to two negative and perhaps unintended consequences.
First, as education was perceived more and more as a national crises and a matter of national security, educational decisions were increasingly made by centralized powers. Teachers began to have less and less of a say in what went on in the classroom.
Ironically, in the context of the school setting, it’s often those teachers who are the experts on developmentally appropriate practice and child development theories. Many, particularly those who are licensed to teach children in the early childhood years, are required to have that background. Administrators and politicians, however, are not.
I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush here. I realize there are many amazing administrators who are extremely respectful of the developmental process and who are very inclusive of their teachers in the decision-making process. My point is only that in all of the standardizing that goes on in education (a topic I’ll get to in a minute), giving elementary principals and school policy-makers a background in early learning and child development is one requirement that is not standard.
In fact, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), which has proposed more professional development for administrators, particularly in the area of early childhood development, notes that in a case study done in the state of New Jersey, it was found that many of the elementary school principals had never even taught in a K-2 classroom. (Read more at NAESP: Principals Need to Know About Early Childhood Development.)
It seems it would be a logical requirement for anyone directing, planning, or supervising the education of young children to be familiar with the developmental processes and learning theories that are unique to this grade span. As Rae Pica wrote in her piece, What if Everybody Understood Child Development?:
“Maybe most people, including those who decide what teachers need to know, are unaware of the incontestable connection between how children develop (not just cognitively but also socially, emotionally, and physically)and how they learn.
When I hear stories about teachers and administrators making decisions that create the impression they don’t know children at all, I speculate about how different things might be if everyone understood child development. When I hear stories of small children who are bewildered, frustrated, and even defeated in their earliest school experiences, trying with brave determination to do what is asked of them and failing to understand why they can’t, I wonder, what if everybody understood child development? At the very least, shouldn’t every educator and school administrator?”
Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down too hard on well-meaning administrators and policy-makers. But if these groups are allowed to have such an influential role in the early education process and are not given a developmental background of their own to rely on, it’s easy to see how their good intentions could be led astray by others who have something to gain and/or who are equally inexperienced in those areas.
Secondly, as classroom decisions became increasingly centralized, the process of education became more standardized. (Read here, particularly under the heading, Context for Teachers: Deskilling Teaching; Standardized Curriculum for more about the historical influences on standardization. Here’s a hint: The idea was influenced more by assembly-lines in factories than by developmental theory.) If DAP hinges on responsiveness to individual development, standardization certainly poses a serious challenge to its proper implementation.
In considering the impact of standardization, Aiden McAuley of Montessori Madmen writes that standardization “creates an impersonal culture of education derived from logistics and efficiencies built on the false premise that all children learn in the same way and should know the same things by a certain age. A child is not a product to be manufactured by a government and should not be commoditized as such.”
(If you want more insight to what standardization can look like from a teacher’s point of view, read this teacher’s resignation letter.)
I agree that teachers need oversight, direction, and some degree of correlation, but they should also be allowed to teach in a way that is more responsive to their students than it is beholden to bureaucracies.
If we want to see more DAP in our classrooms, we need administrators and policymakers to be more familiar with early education and child development principles, and we need more room at decision-making tables of all levels for early education professionals to share their expertise. We need well-trained teachers who are then allowed to teach, adapt, and respond to their students as the professionals they are.
Comparison: The Thief of Joy
So I’ve addressed why DAP may be having a hard time maintaining a foothold in our school system, but what about our culture as a whole?
It goes back to that same Sputnik-like anxiety. As a nation, as parents, as teachers, and as students, we don’t want to fall behind. Yet there are so many voices willing to tell us we already have. Many people believe children are just smarter these days and so everyone needs to work harder and faster to keep up. But according to a study released three years ago from the Gesell Institute, the developmental norms for children remain unchanged today from where they were established by the institute’s namesake over 70 years ago.
Perhaps it’s because the world seems to be shrinking due to the connectivity of social media. Where once we may have had only a community or family cohort with which to compare our child’s ability levels, we now can check them against other children in our neighborhood, those in other nations, and those whose parents are among our 1,352 friends on Facebook. We’re bound to find not just one outstanding kid on our street that can outpace our own, but what seems like “everyone” when we gather from such a large sample.
Maybe it’s because there’s money to be made from that anxiety. Whether it’s a product that promises to teach your baby to read or the latest app for toddlers, there are plenty of marketing strategies that rely on our worries and fears. And as such, they’ll do what they can to perpetuate those worries and fears. If there’s money to be made, there’s a problem that will gain a narrative.
Good Research, Poorly Applied
In the late 90s there was a great deal of renewed attention given to the powerful brain development that goes on before birth and during the first three years of life. The research about brain growth during this window of life is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately however, some began to capitalize on this research, promoting an unfounded view that birth to three is a finite and closing window of development.
This crisis viewpoint once again allowed an opening for those with an agenda to promote or a product to sell. They spread a false narrative that some have come to refer to as the “Myth of the First Three Years”. The first three years are indeed a powerful period in human brain development and the experiences and environments children are exposed to during that period are important. But the notion that the door closes after those three years is unfounded by research. Plasticity continues to be an enduring quality of the brain, and resiliency a continued quality of childhood.
That isn’t to downplay the importance of early education; we want to start kids off right. But to imply that there is a hard deadline for development or that we can harness that early brain growth and translate it into the development of miniature Einsteins is unsupported by data.
Early learning is important and the potential within each child is great, but those tenets should not be allowed to mislead people into overreaching what is healthy for children.
When those of us in education and development talk about the importance of early learning, we are not talking about pushing standards down in order to learn them earlier. We’re talking about being responsive and enriching in the early years so that the normal, optimal, healthy development can take place as it is designed to. It’s not about super-charging childhood, it’s about supporting the needs that are naturally present.
As I said in the beginning, I’m sure there are even more factors in play, but those are the first to come to my mind. I would really enjoy hearing more about what you think leads to the disappearance of DAP.
I don’t want this post to be one of doom and gloom. It’s hard to outline the causes of a problem and not sound that way. But here’s the silver lining: Humans are flexible and resilient.
That means that not only can our kids grow and change, but so can we. We can advocate for more developmentally appropriate practice in our schools and other facilities. We can promote an awareness of child development principles with other parents, teachers, administrators, and policy-makers. We can send a message with our buying power that we are not interested in programs and products that ignore the basic principles of healthy child development.
We can breathe deeply and value childhood for what it’s meant to be, and our children for who they already are.
Catch this whole series on DAP, starting with the short post that ignited it all, On DAP and Why We Don’t Push Kids Down the Stairs. (Image Source)
Natalie F says
Here is my POV as someone who was raised and educated in Sputnik country 🙂 There are two fundamental problems in US public school system – teachers teaching one year only and lack of ability-based classrooms. I watch for 2 years now as good, dedicated and experienced teachers spend at least 6 first weeks in the school year getting to know their students and establishing order in the classrooms. That’s 6 lost week in educational process. Secondly, the gap between kids is too high. In my daughter’s second grade classroom there are kids who work on K level, and there are some who work on 4th grade level. How do you do DAP for everyone? I am seriously considering taking daughter out and sending her to a private school where kids are self-selected by ability, but I object to a natural self-selection by income.
I used to teach school and have been homeschooling for the last 10 years. I wholeheartedly agree with many of the points you address. I think a major developmental issue which is being ignored today is play. Unadulterated, unscripted, active play. In the entire national conversation about childhood obesity, I have yet to hear one “expert” propose the cheap, easy solution: bring back recess!
Sometimes, I think that maybe I’m not pushing my ninth grader hard enough. Then, tonight, I sat and listened as she and her father discussed the difference between Taoism and Confucianism ( I can hardly spell them!) and how those philosophies shaped both ancient and current practices in China and the Chinese government! Or, last year, when she listened to a story on NPR about international trade, what happens to our export dollars, and then makes the connection between foreign policy, fiscal policy and the value of the dollar! I think the reason that she can think so deeply about subjects and synthesize is BECAUSE she has so much more time to play and process information. I did not teach 9th grade in schools, but I’m pretty sure that not many government-schooled freshmen are having these types of conversations at home.
It’s so much fun to watch the children’s eyes light up as the world around them begins to make sense. I’m sure that teachers out there are glad that you are bringing this topic to educational “experts.” In the end, most teachers just want to teach.
Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer says
Another point that is extremely important to focus on is that educational policy dictated by politicians (and the corporate leaders/billionaires who fund them) may be the LARGEST reason that DAP is becoming so rare. I am a mother of four in Indiana where corporate “reform” of our education system has seen massive changes in our schools. Simultaneously cutting the funding drastically to public schools while establishing policy that focuses solely on test scores has required our schools to focus on test prep and test results to the detriment of DAP. Yes, I’d like to see an early childhood education background in all of our principals, but now our legislature just passed wording (sneaked into the budget bill last session) to allow anyone with no education background necessary to become a teacher. They passed a law that allows anyone with a Master’s in anything to become a superintendent (presumably expecting MBAs to start running these schools like businesses). There’s a bigger picture here that we simply can’t ignore. The reason that these initiatives are in place is because big business has figured out that there is a MINT to be made with our tax dollars and the public schools..if they are successful at privatizing them. When a school district can be taken over by the state and turned over to be run for-profit by a private entity if test scores drop, our kids will never have the space to create, explore, or learn in the most DAP-friendly way. When a teacher’s entire livelihood is on the line based on test scores, she or he will be struggling to allow the space for DAP because test-taking abilities of their students will be the determinant of keeping a job and being able to feed their families. How informed we are on this, how we vote MATTERS. If we want to take back childhood, we have to kick out those who are looking to make our schools for profit and not for kids. Here is my website on Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/pages/Monroe-County-Coalition-Public-Education/374573205902510 But there is also this early childhood blogger: http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2013/10/what-self-governance-is-all-about.html And a must-read is Diane Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error. http://www.amazon.com/Reign-Error-Privatization-Movement-Americas/dp/0385350880
I think you bring up some interesting points, but I think we have to be careful about cutting a wide swath, especially when we talk about those with whom we disagree. I think there are people from the business sector who do indeed have something valuable to add to the education discussion, and while some may be motivated by greed, I have to believe that many — if not the majority — have noble ambitions. I know plenty of people who don’t work in education who have valid concerns and worthwhile opinions on the topic. I think there’s room at the table for many perspectives, I only ask that we let a foundation of human development inform a sincere and open-minded discussion. I agree that we don’t want schools to be turned into diploma factories, but perhaps there is room for some business sense, as we spend more per student on education in the US than does any other country. While I support public schools, I’m also a firm believer in school choice. If we accept the developmental principle that children should not be standardized, it stands to reason that we also need a variety of options when it comes to schools and curricula in order to meet those diversified needs. While we may cringe at the thought of schools as a business, what we have now is a bureaucracy, which has it’s own many flaws. I don’t disagree that you have some valid points, but I hate to vilify one party or cut anyone out of the discussion (though I agree it does need to be an actual discussion, not a take-over).
You are right — we do need to be informed, and we need to make our voices heard.
Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer says
I am all for allowing parents to choose private schools but not at the expense of public education. What “school choice” is doing now is gutting our public education system. When parents take vouchers here in Indiana, they take the money directly out of the public school funding. When charters open up, they also take per-pupil funding away from the local public schools. The for-profit charters are the worst: they open and close as businesses, leaving children and communities in complete upheaval. Private schools get to choose who walks through their doors and charter schools also have ways of siphoning off the ones that want to keep and those they don’t. We are buying into this “choice” idea in our consumer mentality. What happens to the children whose parents can’t possibly make those choices? What happens to the children who are so high-need that they will never be accepted in a private school? Until we commit to all children and a common system of education by fully funding it, we will continue to see the economic disparity grow. Another point: when we self-select our communities this way, we are segregating ourselves terribly. Yes, I recognize that there are many wonderful business people out there who are not looking to make a buck on the backs of poor children. And I will bet that many of the folks who promote vouchers and charter schools believe that they are trying to help children. But the fact is, they are hurting them. Thanks for your thoughtful response and your discussion. It’s important to have this back and forth!
http://open.salon.com/blog/paul_nevins/2012/10/05/shall_we_corporatize_public_education_too and http://www.educatedreporter.com/2011/09/more-on-charter-school-experiment.html and https://www.au.org/church-state/february-2011-church-state/featured/10-reasons-why-private-school-vouchers-should-be
Mad props for a great article!
The previous comments express my thoughts as well–I don’t understand why we segment kids and have teachers with them for only one school year when the child-teacher relationship is a key component of learning, I’m surprised at the number of kids in my neighborhood who have hardly any free time to play, the lack of requirements for teachers and administrators to know about child development is frustrating, and trying to follow the money trail of current education reforms is absolutely dizzying.
To add to the discussion:
1: It seems that part of the reason why we are losing DAP is that many parents have never seen anything different than the same old-factory model. They’ve never seen DAP in action. Of the hundreds of preschools in the metropolitan area where I live, only 20 are NAEYC accredited. Of those, only 8 are open to the general public (not employer sponsored or Head Start and other programs with financial qualifications). Of those 8, I only know for certain that 2 are play-based programs that use the Creative Curriculum focusing on whole child development. My children attended one of those. By chance I heard of it through a neighbor. I didn’t really know what I was getting my children into. I just knew they liked it.
2: Lack of a DAP vocabulary for parents. Even though I stumbled upon a fantastic early childhood program, I wouldn’t have known what my children had if it were not for this blog. It has been exciting and fascinating for me over the few years to read about everything from creating a culture of literacy, to the difference between art and craft, to unit study ideas, to children’s authors. This blog has given me the words to describe what I’ve seen in my children’s play-based program. Many, many thanks. I can not overstate how good the knowledge I gained here has been for my family.
You have no idea how much the term “mad props” made me smile. Thank you so much. And thank you for your extremely kind words as well as your consistently thoughtful commentary. You really help me to see my midday nap time escapes and quiet late nights in front of a computer actually make a difference to real people beyond the screen. Thank you so much!
Suanne Walker says
Amen! This is the sermon I’ve been preaching for nearly 20 years. I taught Kindergarten 28 years, and spent the last five I taught in opposition to the changes I was seeing introduced that were DAP inappropriate. That was 12 years ago and I continue to talk to PreK teachers about being advocates for children and DAP practice. I now work with these teachers, training and coaching for a developmentally appropriate assessment system, required for all state-funded PreK classrooms. Please continue your crusade for the only best for children practice that will let our kids be happy and successful in early childhood. I hope I live long enough to see this change happen.
Just keep preaching, sister!
I second the motion to make this series into a handbook! We’ve actually just moved to Indiana where they have ALL DAY kindergarten. I taught in Utah, and there was a school in my district that offered all day kindergarten, but only for the students who qualified (read: low academic performance). Anyway, I wish that was the case here. A good friend of mine’s little boy attends an all day kindergarten that has only ONE recess for the entire day. They are not allowed to go outside during lunch. I am not sure yet what the recess situation is here in my neighborhood school. But I worry. I look at my exuberant, strong-willed son and romp in the mud and water and I worry. How could he be expected to sit for so long? And will that make it hard for the teachers to see past any behaviors that crop up due to that expectation?
My current plan is to go to the school starting in January to hopefully start an open dialogue about what kindergarten looks like at the school. Then I hope to be able to approach it as a “I want to work with you to educate my child” vs coming off as “I know what’s best and you don’t and public schools can’t do anything right” since I am a strong believer in our public school system- flawed though it is. It has so much potential! I know that legally they are not required to go to school here in Indiana until age 8, so I am hoping to be able to work with the school, and even pull my son out early (or take him late) each day if need be- to make sure he still has time to be a child.
I am wondering if anyone else has tried something like this with success? I value the public education system, so I really want to work WITH them and not be seen as AGAINST them.
Such a great attitude, Andrea. I know some parents here send their kids to school half a day and homeschool half the day. I’d be tempted to do the same in your situation. I too believe in working with the public school system and offering plenty of choices so we can meet kids’ individual needs. It seems if you came with the attitude you describe, they’d have a hard time NOT working with you! Good luck!