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5.5: Developmentally Appropriate Practice

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    • Angela Blums & Sally Nyblad Holloway
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    Early Childhood Educators have a wealth of resources to draw from as they plan ways to meet the developmental needs of each of the children in their care. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is the main professional organization for Early Childhood Educators. The NAEYC defines developmentally appropriate practice as “methods that promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning”. It is the job teachers to make sure that our practice meets children’s developmental needs. For example, there has been an unfortunate trend for modern preschools to include formal academic content taught at a level meant for older children. These practices are not developmentally appropriate. Developmentally appropriate practice dictates that any academic content should meet children’s developmental needs first. That means that children are given opportunities to learn academic content that are in keeping with their developmental level – such as learning through play.

    For a practice to be developmentally appropriate, it must consider developmental domains and a child’s age, individual needs, and individual culture.

    Developmental Domains

    To consider development in planning curriculum means understanding what is appropriate at a given age or stage of development. Developmental milestone charts can help with this. It is vital to know what children should be capable of at a given age of development and plan activities accordingly. For instance, we know that young children are concrete thinkers who learn best by using real, tangible items rather than representations of items. If we want a group of 3-year-old children to learn about apples, we will give them real apples to smell, touch, see, and taste. In this way, they can develop a long lasting, deep concept about apples. This is developmentally appropriate. Offering them a book about apples is a useful support and vital for language development, but the book alone will never give them the conceptual understanding about apples. Likewise, well-meaning families often expect early childhood teachers to have children complete worksheets in preschool. From what we know about child development, young children do not have the executive function to allow them to sit in a chair for long periods of time to learn from worksheets. Further, their bodies are designed to wiggle and move. Sitting at a desk will not help preschoolers learn. That is why many high-quality early childhood programs focus on play-based learning.

    Individual Needs

    Considering an individual child’s needs means knowing what is appropriate for a given child. The way this is determined is through developmental assessments. Curriculum should be tailored to each child’s different developmental needs. Perhaps there is an art activity in the classroom in which children cut paper with scissors and glue it onto a larger sheet. If some children do not have strong scissor skills, they may rip paper instead and use glue sticks to glue it down. In this way, children’s individual developmental needs are met. They still are able to practice fine motor skills with art, but the activity is not designed to limit children by ability level. This type of planning is the one of the hallmarks of early childhood educators – the thoughtful practice of tailoring activities to meet children’s individual needs. This practice is also referred to as differentiation, where the teacher understands and implements the idea that “one size does not fit all”.

    Cultural Context

    To consider culture in developmentally appropriate practice is to keep in mind the context in which the child is raised. Each family’s set of rules, way of communicating, neighborhood, history, status, and environment is unique. While there are some universals, what is considered developmentally appropriate for one culture may not be for another culture. For instance, the ways adults talk with children can vary widely depending on the culture. Some cultures rely heavily on verbal communication while others rely more on non-verbal communication. Cultures can also vary on their norms around children’s freedoms to move freely around a space. Some cultures allow children to move freely while others expect that children ask permission from an adult. Differences in these norms may mistakenly be seen as behavior issues by teachers.

    Culturally relevant pedagogy is the practice of including ideas and artifacts that refer to a child’s individual culture. This concept also extends to assessments. When measuring development using assessments, it is important to consider the cultural relevancy of the assessment. Does the assessment allow for children who speak multiple languages or those who do not have a familiarity with classroom materials? Imagine, for instance, that your assessment uses American football as examples. What happens when you have a child in your class who has just moved from India? Will her assessment be meaningful if she doesn’t understand the rules of American football? Teachers can be mindful of such differences when assessing children. The best way to stay informed about cultural practices is to develop reciprocal communication and strong relationships with families.

    NAEYC Guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice

    NAEYC has outlined guidelines that help ECE teachers engage in developmentally appropriate practice. These guidelines are summarized below, but for a deeper look please refer to the Developmentally Appropriate Practice Position Statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    The guidelines are as follows:

    1. Creating a caring community of learners
    2. Engaging in reciprocal partnerships with families and fostering community connections
    3. Observing, documenting, and assessing children’s development and learning
    4. Teaching to enhance each child’s development and learning
    5. Planning and implementing an engaging curriculum to achieve meaningful goals
    6. Demonstrating professionalism as an early childhood educator

    These guidelines go beyond child development and reach to the larger context of teaching and learning in early childhood settings. Each of the six guidelines plays a role in creating a developmentally appropriate learning experience for children.

    Creating a caring community of learners refers to how teachers create respectful interactions, positive relationships, and a supportive environment that focuses on the strengths that each child and family brings.

    Engaging in reciprocal partnerships with families and fostering community connections refers to how teachers establish two-way communication with families that respects varying communication styles, create multiple types of opportunities for family participation, and use families as a source of information for each child. It is important to also consider the community to which the program belongs and develop practices that honor and respect the community.

    Observing, documenting, and assessing children’s development and learning is how teachers measure how children are progressing in their development. This refers to watching and systematically observing children at play, keeping track of these observations using some type of system or tool, and later using that information to draw conclusions about how a child is meeting developmental goals.

    Teaching to enhance each child’s development and learning means that teachers use child development principles to foster learning. One main way to achieve this is through play-based learning. It also means that teachers use direct instruction in effective ways that meet children’s needs and create learning experiences that are varied in format and complexity.

    Planning and implementing an engaging curriculum to achieve meaningful goals refers to taking time to reflect and consider children’s individual developmental goals and create learning experiences around those goals. These goals come from the observations and assessments that have been previously carried out. Curriculum should also include all developmental domains (physical, cognitive, emotional, and social) and learning content areas (art, music, math, science, and language/literacy).

    Demonstrating professionalism as an early childhood educator is achieved in many ways. One way to demonstrate professionalism is follow the Professional Standards and Competencies for Early Childhood Educators from NAEYC.


    Imagine you are the teacher in a classroom of two- and three-year-olds. What developmentally appropriate considerations would you take when designing an art activity?

    Final Thoughts

    Understanding child development is a vital skill for all early childhood teachers. Knowing the key features of the developmental domains- physical, cognitive, social, and emotional is a good start. Making sure that both typically developing and atypically developing children’s needs are met is a requirement of good early childhood education. Implementing developmentally appropriate practice is critical to quality teaching. As with all things, understanding child development and its connection to developmentally appropriate practice takes time. It means seeking new knowledge and staying connected to the children in your care.

    This page titled 5.5: Developmentally Appropriate Practice is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela Blums & Sally Nyblad Holloway.