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.