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4 Things I'm NOT Saying When I Speak About Developmentally Appropriate Practice

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When I get the chance to speak to groups about DAP I cover a lot of ground.

I talk about things like:

The importance of respecting childhood, the developmental process, and individual learners.

The critical nature of appropriate, foundational early learning experiences.

The danger of shifting perceptions and expectations for children in early childhood, in spite of developmental processes that have remained constant.

How trying to “get ahead” in the wrong way, can actually be counterproductive.

But lately, I’ve begun to worry that people might be making assumptions about things I’m NOT saying.  Here are a few misconceptions about developmentally appropriate practice that I’ve been concerned about lately.

Respecting development means we shouldn’t teach.

I don’t want anyone walking away from one of my presentations or one of my posts with the idea that we should simply let children spin in fields of wildflowers until they are eight years old.  Development should be respected, but that doesn’t mean it does all the work alone.  Healthy growth and development does not happen in a vacuum.  As my breakout sessions on Teaching with Intention and my workshop on Powerful Play emphasize, early childhood development should be thoughtfully and actively supported, but there are many ways of teaching and different approaches that should be used in concert.

I frequently teach that play and learning are not mutually exclusive points at opposite ends of a spectrum, but that play is the method and learning is the outcome. 

And while learning through play is ideal, I also believe there is space for appropriate direct instruction in small doses.  (Here’s one example — the Number Bag.)  Direct instruction has earned a bad reputation, usually because it is used poorly, but that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bath.  We can teach directly — as long as it is also brief, meaningful, and playful, and as long as it respects the order and foundation of learning and development.  (We don’t jump right into direct instruction on adding and subtracting with children who still need to build number sense, for example.)

As Erika Christakis wrote in The Importance of Being Little, “Child centered doesn’t mean child run, and warm and responsive early childhood settings are not the opposite of intellectually oriented ones.”

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Preschoolers shouldn’t read.

Pressure to read is often the prime example of “too much too soon” that I hear about, so it’s one I address frequently.  But I don’t, for one minute, want anyone to think that we shouldn’t teach early literacy skills or that we should ever get in the way of young children who are ready to read.

The first hurdle to clear is the perception that reading is a finite task — you can read or you can’t — when in reality, it’s a long and nonlinear accumulation of skills.  We have to get away from the oh-so-tempting view that reading is simply a box to be checked.  While I argue passionately against the notion that all 3 year olds can or should be reading independently, I also agree that we “teach reading” before babies are even born.

Emergent literacy support often goes unrecognized by the untrained eye, but it is critically important in building foundational literacy skills.  (More on emergent literacy here.) The problem with early reading pressure is not that we’re teaching literacy skills, but that we’re focusing on a performance task rather than the appropriate skills at the appropriate time.

As my friend, Allison McDonald of No Time For Flash Cards (a great resource for both literacy and DAP)  powerfully stated, “We are throwing kids into a sink or swim environment without ever teaching them to swim.”

To use another metaphor, the problem is created when we become so focused on building the house that we ignore the foundation that must be meticulously constructed first.

(Read more about The Vital Importance of a Strong Foundation: Why Early Learning Matters.)

We should teach literacy– passionately, playfully, and powerfully.  It should permeate a child’s early experiences.  And it should begin with emergent, foundational tasks.

As one reader brilliantly commented in a discussion on my Facebook page:

Every time I read a story to the kids, I’m teaching reading.
Every time I put my finger on words as I’m reading aloud, I’m teaching reading.
Every time I ask kids what they think will happen next, I’m teaching reading.
Every time I pause while reading and let kids finish the sentence, I’m teaching reading.
Every time we draw pictures of a story, I’m teaching reading.
Every time we act out a story, I’m teaching reading.
Every time I ask a child to find his or her printed name amongst those of his/her peers, I’m teaching reading.
Every time we trace letters, lines, and shapes in the air, sand, or elsewhere, I’m teaching reading.
Every time we sing songs together, I’m teaching reading.
And the list goes on…

Developmentally Appropriate Practice is something that can be standardized.

To be developmentally appropriate means we respond to where kids are.  That means that instruction that is appropriate in one classroom or with one child may be different for another.  As this article (a must-read) noted, “In another classroom, a student reading on a third-grade level was not “allowed” to read in school because it was not developmentally appropriate. What could be more developmentally inappropriate than this child sitting on the rug singing the alphabet song?”  This statement could not be more true.  While DAP is sometimes used as a shield against certain activities or practices en masse, the real measure is how those specific activities measure up to our specific kids.

The example above reminded me of my own experience as an early reader.  When I was in first grade, our school librarian designated certain areas as appropriate reading for children under grade three.  K-2 students were asked to make their selections from those shelves because those texts were generally developmentally appropriate.  But my teacher and that librarian together noted that I was reading way above my grade level, and so they gave me the very exciting and heady privilege of being allowed to choose from the other shelves.  They were responding not only to my grade/age but also to my level/stage.

The notion that developmentally appropriate practice is one-size-fits-all is antithetical to its very definition.

But it’s a very prevalent one.  When we talk about DAP, we’re responding both to principles of general child development and also individual development.  “Age and stage” was the mnemonic device I relied on in my university studies.  But when we paint with too wide of a brush, we focus solely on age as a generalization and forget the critical role of individual stage.  Diversity is implicit in developmentally appropriate practice.

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Respecting individual learners means no one needs extra support or early intervention.

Perhaps one misconception that worries me most is the idea that respecting individual differences means no child needs extra support or early intervention.  I have heard stories of children labeled as behind or learning disabled because they didn’t match up to standards that were inappropriate.  This is clearly wrong.  Too much pressure or damaging labels placed on children on the lower end of a developmentally normal progression is counterproductive.

But on the flipside, respecting individual learners means giving individualized support as well.  There is a difference between showing developmentally normal progress that is paced behind another child in the same peer group and actually showing developmental delays.  While I want parents and teachers to take off some of the pressure generated by competition and comparison, I also want them to be open to professionals providing needed support and early intervention where necessary.

Deciphering which side of the line a child is on is undoubtedly one that requires a lot of time, expertise, and thought.  I don’t want anyone using developmentally appropriate practice as a carte blanche excuse to forgo support and/or intervention.  Respecting individual learners means getting them the support that they need.  That takes a community, and sometimes a team of experts.  Certainly, that requires finding the right people for that team, but I cannot stress enough the powerful and life-changing influence of appropriate early intervention.

Developmentally appropriate practice is a complex topic.  That’s why there are thick books and long university courses on the subject.  While it’s important to me to make this information easily accessible and easily understood, I also must be clear about what I’m NOT saying.

What misconceptions about developmentally appropriate practice do you see?

 

Originally posted on Not Just Cute.

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Amanda Morgan, MS, has nearly 20 years of experience teaching children, parents, and teachers in a variety of environments. She is a speaker and educator with degrees focused on early childhood education and child development, and currently writes at the blog, Not Just Cute
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Guest Monday, 20 November 2017