“Developmentally Appropriate Practice”
Bring that term up in a room full of early childhood educators, and you’d better get comfy. They’ll have a lot to say on the matter. But bring that term up with just about anyone who is NOT an early childhood professional, and you may get blank stares. It’s a mouthful. I’m guessing most of your average citizens couldn’t tell you what it means.
And that’s a problem.
People don’t defend what they don’t recognize as valuable. And they won’t value what they don’t understand. This is why it becomes critical for early childhood professionals to be advocates and PR reps for developmentally appropriate practice.
To do that, we have to understand it ourselves.
When I speak to groups about DAP, I boil it down to three key components of respect: Respect for children as individuals with unique experiences. Respect for the developmental process. Respect for childhood as valuable and valid.
All three concepts were addressed in the first three chapters of our read along book, Rae Pica’s What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (*affiliate link).
Rae emphasizes and re-emphasizes one of the core concepts of child development: Not all children are the same. Children are not bags of chips on the conveyor belts of a factory – they are humans.
As a key principle of human development, we know that growth happens in a predictable order, but at a rate that can vary widely, even within the normal range. As an example, I’ve compared it to the growth of a plant. Flowers grow in a predictable order (roots, stems, leaves, buds, blooms). Similarly, children’s development and learning happens in a predictable pattern. Every major skill is preceded by the development of smaller, foundational skills.
But just because there is a predictable pattern to growth, and a predictable season for blooming, doesn’t mean that every flower on the plant will bloom on the same day. Each flower opens at its own rate within the growing season. For a flower, the season for blooming may be a matter of weeks or months. In child development, some seasons may even last a few years.
This is where things get tricky.
As pointed out in chapter 1, there are normal developmental periods in childhood, with some very wide windows. Walking, as cited on page 7, develops on average at 12 months. But the normal range varies from 8 ¾ months all the way to 17 months. A nine month window seems like quite the gap. But then we look at reading and see the normal window is even wider. The normal range spans several years, with 50% of children achieving the feat before age 6 ½, some as early as 3 or 4, and 50% achieving it later, some closing in on 8 years old.
Yet, research shows that there has been a big shift in attitudes and perceptions regarding WHEN children should be expected to know how to read, with an ever increasing number of both parents and teachers saying it should happen in kindergarten. Even the core standards for kindergarten seem to reflect this. At the end of kindergarten most students are 6. So why would we have an expectation that we already know more than half will not be ready to reach?
And all of this has a trickle down effect.
I’ve listened as some preschool teachers have said, “With kindergarten the way it is, I just can’t do preschool the old way anymore.” So they get rid of the sand table and the dramatic play area and cut back on outdoor play time. And they spend more time sitting at tables, filling in worksheets, and, well, being quiet.
This is the opposite of what we know about what children need developmentally.
Rae addresses this threat to the validity and value of the childhood experience by saying:
“Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we’re essentially wiping it out of existence in a misguided effort to ensure children get ahead.”
The reason this misguided sooner-faster approach doesn’t work is multifaceted. One being what was discussed earlier – we’re ignoring the normal developmental process. We’re ignoring how kids learn. Another element we can identify clearly is addressed in chapter 3. The loss of joy. Changing a learning environment to reflect less and less of what we know about how young children learn is a sure-fire recipe for increased stress and decreased joy.
I love quoting neurologist and teacher Judy Willis when I talk about the power of play, and she was quoted in chapter 3 as well: “Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen — literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Shouldn’t it be our challenge and opportunity to design learning that embraces these ingredients?” (emphasis mine – read more here)
Rae Pica cites Dr. Willis’ work in this chapter as well as Dr. William Stixrud who said, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.” So why would we expect our youngest learners to gain more from a high-pressure environment?
As Rae writes: “Imagine the lost potential as students continue to struggle to learn when anxious and unhappy. Imagine the ever-increasing number of students stressed out, burned out, acting out, and dropping out if things don’t turn around and quickly. Imagine the lost potential if students are kept from discovering the power of joy in the classroom.”
As recommended reading, Rae shares the article Joy in School, by Steven Wolk. Along with giving great tips for teachers, Wolk asks this important question, as a variation of one asked by John Dewey: “If the experience of “doing school” destroys children’s spirit to learn, their sense of wonder, their curiosity about the world, and their willingness to care for the human condition, have we succeeded as educators, no matter how well our students do on standardized tests?”
The good news is this: We don’t have to sacrifice wonder and curiosity for learning. They work together. We don’t have to give up DAP for quality education. They work together. We don’t have to choose between play and academic learning. They work together.
When we can explain, defend, and implement real DAP, when we can teach children in a way that respects their childhood as valuable and valid, respects the developmental process, and respects children as individuals, we will have children who are truly engaged in real learning.
They deserve that.
What were your thoughts about this section of What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (*affiliate link)? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section. Have a question for the author? Let us know what’s on your mind, and we’ll use that to guide our Q&A with Rae Pica at the end of the read along.