Getting Clear about DevelopmentallyAppropriate Practice

IN WORKING TO REVISE NAEYCS position statement on developmentally appropriate practice, the members of the appointed working group have come back again and again to this recognition: As a field we need to get beyond catch phrases and be precise in describing

and justifying practices. Taking care with our language is important to avoid misunderstandings and keep from lapsing into ways of thinking and talking that are knee-jerk or pat. For example, many an early childhood practitioner rejects a given practice by saying merely, “It’s not developmentally appropriate.” Yes, but why is it developmentally inappropriate?

This question is the one we want to keep foremost in our minds and in our discussions of practice.

In formulating the best current thinking about effective early childhood curriculum and pedagogy and seeking to encourage further discussion of them, we have found it useful to group practices that arise in discussions of developmentally appropriate practice into two categories in terms of how much agreement exists on them as developmentally

appropriate or not:

• practices the field broadly agrees are or are not developmentally appropriate

Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp are working together on revisions to Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (Bredekamp and Coppie, editors, 1997),

Members of the DAP working group include Sue Bredekamp, Juanita Copley, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Linda Espinosa, Ellen Frede, Mary Louise Hemmeter, Marjorie Kostelnik, and Dorothy Strickland.

• practices for which the field has yet to adequately specify the conditions under which they are (or are not) appropriate.

Broad agreement exists on these practices

For the two sets of practices in this category, there is widespread agreement in the early childhood field. The first set of practices are rightly viewed as developmentally effective with young children, allowing for variations within the 3-8 age range. The second set are recognized as developmentally inappropriate for use with children 3-8:

Developmentally appropriate

• Curriculum and experiences that actively engage children

• Rich, teacher-supported play

• Integrated curriculum

• Scope for children’s initiative and choice

• Intentional decisions in the organization and timing of learning experiences

• Adapting curriculum and teaching strategies to help individual children make optimal progress

Developmentaliy inappropriate

• Highly linear instruction, especially when it follows an inflexible timeline

• Heavy reliance on whole group instruction

• Fragmented lessons without connections that are meaningful to children

• Rigid adherence to a packaged, “one size fits air curriculum

• Teachers following a predetermined script without regard to children’s responses

• Highly prescriptive requirements, along with rigid timelines for achieving them

• Narrow focus (for example, only on literacy and math instruction)

Even for these areas of practice, terms and descriptors—play, integrated curriculum, scripted, and so on—are often used very loosely and tend to mean different things to different people.

For example, research shows that mature dramatic play promotes children’s development of self-regulation and other valuable capacities. But many children have not reached mature play— dramatic play in which they act out specific roles and plan their play—and some will not achieve this level without teacher action. Defending underdeveloped and immature play as a valid part of the school day for preschool and kindergarten children often backfires, leading to general devaluation of play and its role in child development. It is important when using terms like play to carefully specify their meaning.

Less agreement and clarity exist on these practices

Regarding the two sets of practices in this second category, there is less agreement. In these two sets, practices are often seen as desirable or undesirable based on long-held assumptions in the early childhood field. As we work to incorporate new knowledge and respond to changes in the educational and societal contexts, such as greater numbers of preschool-age children being educated in the public schools, early childhood professionals need to move beyond automatic acceptance or condemnation that fails to consider the situations in which an approach may be appropriate and effective.

Many practices are worthwhile in some situations but not in others, and all require careful definition. But early childhood professionals with concerns about changing contexts in schools may reject out of hand practices and concepts such as the following:

• Structured learning experiences, such as small groups with planned focus and sequence

• Use of packaged curricula

• Use of teacher “scripts,” such as questions teachers find useful to have at their fingertips

• State standards

• Child testing/assessment

• Scope and sequence

• “Academics”

The above practices, often automatically rejected, merit closer consideration; the next set of practices need closer scrutiny because they tend to be too readily accepted:

• Curriculum lacking in sequence and sustained focus

• Curriculum developed by a teacher or program without grounding in up-to-date knowledge about outcomes/standards, curriculum, and pedagogy

• Fun for fun’s sake (as sufficient rationale for including activities in the program)

• Purportedly child-centered classrooms in which many opportunities for learning are missed

• Curriculum focused on social emotional development without attention to cognitive development

• Observation without the follow-up needed to help children move forward

• Maturationist approach in which teachers simply wait for children to acquire the skill or concept

The effectiveness of many practices tends to depend on their purpose and the context in which they are used. For example, whole group learning experiences have a valid place in the day, at least for children ages 3 or 4. But as the predominant classroom format, whole group instruction is not attuned to the developmental characteristics of young children. As for a packaged curriculum. it can result in good or bad practice, depending on the manner and extent of its use and whether the teacher makes adaptations for the children she teaches.

Today, many early childhood educators, including those who work in the public schools, are actively discussing issues with K-12 educators as well as the families. As we advocate for the practices we believe serve children best, it is particularly vital that we be clear in our own thinking and precise in our communication.

As we and the working group members go forward with our work on the revision of the developmentally appropriate practice position statement and other NAEYC resources, we welcome your thoughts!