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5.6: Current Developmental Topics to Inform Our Practice with Children and Families

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    Brain Functioning

    In the 21 st century, we have medical technology that has enabled us to discover more about how the brain functions. “Neuroscience research has developed sophisticated technologies, such as ultrasound; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); positron emission tomography (PET); and effective, non-invasive ways to study brain chemistry (such as the steroid hormone cortisol).” [14] These technologies have made it possible to investigate what is happening in the brain, both how it is wired and how the chemicals in our brain affect our functioning. Here are some important aspects, from this research, for us to consider in working with children and families:

    Rushton (2011) provides these four principles that help us to connect the dots to classroom practice:

    Principle #1 : “Every brain is uniquely organized” When setting up our environments, it is important to use this lens so we can provide varied materials, activities, and interactions that are responsive to each individual child. (We expand on this in Chapter 5 – Developmental Ages and Stages/Guidance).

    Principle #2 : “The brain is continually growing, changing, and adapting to the environment.”

    • The brain operates on a “lose it or use it” principle. Why is this important? We know that we are born with about 100 billion brain cells and 50 trillion connections among them. We know that we need to use our brain to grow those cells and connections or they will wither away. Once they are gone, it is impossible to get them back.
    • Children who are not properly nourished, both with nutrition and stimulation suffer from deterioration of brain cells and the connections needed to grow a healthy brain.
    • Early experiences help to shape the brain. Attunement (which is a bringing into harmony,) with a child, creates that opportunity to make connections.

    Principle #3 : “A brain-compatible classroom enables connection of learning to positive emotions.”

    • Give children reasonable choices.
    • Allow children to make decisions. (yellow shovel or blue shovel, jacket on or off, etc.)
    • Allow children the full experience of the decisions they make. Mistakes are learning opportunities. (F.A.I.L. – First attempt in learning). Trying to do things multiple times and in multiple ways provides children with a healthy self-image.

    Principle #4 : “Children’s brains need to be immersed in real life, hands-on, and meaningful learning experiences that are intertwined with a commonality and require some form of problem-solving.”

    • Facilitate exploration in children’s individual and collective interests.
    • Give children the respect to listen and engage regarding their findings.
    • Give children time to explore.
    • Give children the opportunity to make multiple hypotheses about what they are discovering.

    Developmentally Appropriate Practices

    The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), one of the professional organizations in the field of early childhood education, has a position statement from 2009 (note they are currently revising this position statement and are looking for feedback from the field, if you are interested in advocacy for young children, you may want to take the opportunity to review it and give feedback: .) There are three important aspects of Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP): [15]

    1. What is known about child development and learning – referring to knowledge of age-related characteristics that permits general predictions about what experiences are likely to best promote children’s learning and development.
    2. What is known about each child as an individual – referring to what practitioners learn about each child that has implications for how best to adapt and be responsive to that individual variation.
    3. What is known about the social and cultural contexts in which children live – referring to the values, expectations, and behavioral and linguistic conventions that shape children’s lives at home and in their communities that practitioners must strive to understand in order to ensure that learning experiences in the program or school are meaningful, relevant, and respectful for each child and family.

    What does this mean?

    Utilizing the core components of DAP is important as practitioners of early learning. Here are some things to consider:

    • Knowledge about child development and learning helps up to make predictions about what children of a particular age group are like typically. This helps us to make decisions with some confidence about how we set up the environment, what learning materials we use in our classrooms, and what are the kinds of interactions and activities that will support the children in our class. In addition, this knowledge tells us that groups of children and the individual children within that group will be the same in some ways and different in other ways.
    • To be an effective early childhood professional, we must use a variety of methods – such as observation, clinical interviews, examination of children’s work, individual child assessments, and talking with families so we get to know each individual child in the group well. When we have compiled the information we need to support each child, we can make plans and adjustments to promote each child’s individual development and learning as fully as possible.
    • Each child grows up in a family and in a broader social and cultural community. This provides our understanding of what our group considers appropriate, values, expects, admires, etc. (think Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory and Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Theory). These understandings help us to absorb “rules” about behaviors – how do I show respect in my culture, how do I interact with people I know well and I have just met (as a teacher you will be in the just met category for a while), how do I regard time and personal space, how should I dress, etc. When young children are in a group setting outside their home, what makes the most sense to them, how they use language to interact, and how they experience this new world depend on the social and cultural contexts to which they are accustomed. Skilled teachers consider such contextual factors along with the children’s ages and their individual differences, in shaping all aspects of the learning environments. (More content will be in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 that will help you to deeply understand DAP)

    To summarize how to make use of DAP, an effective teacher begins by thinking about what children of that chronological and developmental age are like. This knowledge provides a general idea of the activities, routines, interactions, and curriculum that will be effective with that group of children. The teacher must also consider how each child is an individual within the context of family, community, culture, linguistic norms, social group, past experience, and current circumstances. Once the teacher can fully see children as they are, they are able to make decisions that are developmentally and culturally appropriate for each of the children in their care.

    Identity Formation

    Who we are is a very important aspect of our well-being. As children grow and develop, their identity is shaped by who they are when they arrive on this planet and the adults and peers whom they interact with throughout their lifespan. Many theories give us supportive evidence that helps us to see that our self-concept is critical to the social and emotional health of human beings. (ex. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory, John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, etc.) As early childhood professionals, we are called upon to positively support the social/emotional development of the children and the families that we serve. We do this by:

    • Honoring each unique child and the family they are a part of.
    • Acknowledging their emotions with attunement and support.
    • Listening to hear not to respond.
    • Providing an emotionally safe space in our early childhood environments.
    • Recognizing that all emotions are important and allowing children the freedom to express their emotions while providing them the necessary containment of safety.

    Our social-emotional life or our self-concept has many aspects to it. We are complex beings and we have several identities that early childhood professionals need to be aware of when interacting with the children and families in their early childhood environments. Our identities include but are not limited to the following categories:

    • Gender
    • Ethnicity
    • Race
    • Economic Class
    • Sexual Identity
    • Religion
    • Language
    • (Dis)abilities
    • Age

    Understanding our own identities and that we are all unique, helps us to build meaningful relationships with children and families that enable us to have understanding and compassion. Being aware (using reflective practice) that all humans are diverse and our environments, both emotionally and physically, need to affirm all who come to our environments to learn and grow.

    While we begin to form our identities from the moment we are conceived, identity formation is not stagnant. It is a dynamic process that develops throughout the life span. Hence, it is our ethical responsibility as early childhood professionals to create supportive language, environments, and inclusive practices that will affirm all who are a part of our early learning programs.

    While we delve more into guiding the behavior of young children in Chapter 5, there is evidence that when children feel supported and accepted by adults for who they are, this helps to wire and equip the brain for self-regulation. As we model regulation behavior (this is often identified as co-regulation behavior) which includes acceptance, compassion, belonging, and empathy, we are helping children to develop the regulation skills needed to get along and live in a diverse society.







    Pause to Reflect… Gender Stereotypes

    In American society, we have established and readily accept gender stereotypes. We have many biases about how boys and girls should look and behave. If you have grown up in America, you may be familiar with some of the following gender stereotypes:

    • Only girls cry.
    • Boys are stronger than girls.
    • Boys are active and girls are passive.
    • It’s ok for boys to be physically and emotionally aggressive after all they are just being boys.

    What other gender stereotypes have you heard?

    These stereotypes are so ingrained in us that we are often unconscious of how we perpetuate them. For example, we may compliment girls on their clothing and boys on their strength. We are called to look at our stereotypes/biases and find ways to counteract them when we are faced with the variety of ways in which boys and girls behave in our early childhood classrooms. How can we do that? We do that by engaging in dialogue with others to challenge our stereotypes and change our practices to create more inclusive and supportive environments.

    Note- This is an example of only one of the identity categories that is mentioned above. Think about what other stereotypes you have about the other categories of identity listed above. What can you do to challenge your assumptions/biases to help you in becoming an early childhood professional who engages in inclusive and supportive practices?


    Attachment is the tendency of human infants and animals to become emotionally close to certain individuals and to be calm and soothed while in their presence. Human infants develop strong emotional bonds with a caregiver, particularly a parent, and attachment to their caregivers is a step toward establishing a feeling of security in the world. When fearful or anxious the infant is comforted by contact with their object. For humans, attachment also involves and affects the tendency in adulthood to seek emotionally supportive relationships.” [16]

    As noted in Attachment Theory, co-created by Bowlby and Ainsworth, it is clear to us that attachment is a critical component of healthy development. Our brains are wired for attachment. Many of you may have witnessed a newborn baby as they interact with their parents/caregivers. Their very survival hinges on the attachment bonds that develop as they grow and develop. Children who are not given the proper support for attachment to occur may develop reactive attachment disorder. Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child does not establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection, and nurturing are not met and loving, caring, stable attachments with others are not established. [17]

    Why is this important for early childhood practitioners to know? The role of an early childhood professional is one of caregiving. While you are not the parent, nor a substitute for the parent, you do provide care for children in the absence of their parent. Families bring their children to early childhood centers for a whole host of reasons, but one thing that they share is that they trust their child’s caregivers to meet the need of their child is a loving and supportive way.

    Healthy attachments begin with a bond with the child’s primary caregivers (usually their family) and then extend to others who provide care for their child. How we as early childhood professionals care and support children, either adds or detracts from their healthy attachment. Our primary role is to ensure that the needs of children are met with love and support.

    It is also possible that children may enter our early childhood environment with unhealthy attachment or could possibly have reactive attachment disorder. In this case, it is our ethical and moral responsibility to meet with the family (in Chapter 8 – Partnering with Families more context and content will be given to support this statement) and to provide them with resources and support that could they could use to help their children to have better outcomes. As the course of study of an early childhood professional, affords them with knowledge and understanding of how children grow and develop, families do not often have this foundational knowledge. It is our duty to develop a reciprocal relationship with families that is respectful and compassionate. When we offer them support, we do so without judgment.

    The Value of Play in Childhood

    There has been much research done in recent years about the importance of play for young children. During the last 20 years, we have seen a decline in valuable play practices for children from birth to age 8. This decline has been shown to be detrimental to the healthy development of young children as play is the vehicle in which they learn about and discover the world.



    “Play is a legitimate right of childhood, representing a crucial aspect of children’s physical, intellectual, and social development.” [18]

    The true sense of play is that it is spontaneous, rewarding and fun. It has numerous benefits for young children as well as throughout the lifespan.

    • It helps children build foundational skills for learning to read, write and do math.
    • It helps children learn to navigate their social world. How to socialize with peers, how to understand others, how to communicate and negotiate with others, and how to identify who they are and what they like.
    • It encourages children to learn, to imagine, to categorize, to be curious, to solve problems, and to love learning.
    • It gives children opportunities to express what is troubling them about their daily life, including the stresses that exist within their home and other stresses that arise for them outside of the home.

    If you remember from the history chapter (Chapter 1), Fredrich Froebel introduced the concept of Kindergarten which literally means “child’s garden.” If you recall, the focus of the kindergarten that Froebel envisioned, focused on the whole child rather than specific subjects. The primary idea is that children should first develop social, emotional, motor, and cognitive skills in order to transform that learning to be ready for the demands on primary school (Chapter 6 – Early Childhood Programming will provide more detail about this). Play is the primary way in which children learn and grow in the early years.

    A teacher who understands the importance and value of play organizes the early childhood environment with meaningful activities and learning opportunities (aka Curriculum) to support the children in their classroom. This means that the collective and individuality of the children are taken into consideration as well as their social and cultural contexts (DAP).

    Here are some things to consider in thinking about play:

    • Play is relatively free of rules and is child-directed.
    • Play is carried out as if it is real life. (As it is real life for the child)
    • Play focusing on being rather than doing or the end result. (It is a process, not a product)
    • Play requires the interaction and involvement of the children and the support, either direct or indirect, of the early childhood professional.

    Throughout the early years of development (0 -8), young children engage in many different forms of play. Those forms of play include but are not limited to: [19]

    • Symbolic Play – play which provides children with opportunities to make sense of the things that they see (for example, using a piece of wood to symbolize a person or an object)
    • Rough and Tumble Play – this is more about contact and less about fighting, it is about touching, tickling, gauging relative strength, discovering flexibility and the exhilaration of display, it releases energy and it allows children to participate in physical contact without resulting in someone getting hurt
    • Socio-Dramatic Play – playing house, going to the store, being a mother, father, etc., it is the enactment of the roles in which they see around them and their interpretation of those roles, it’s an opportunity for adults to witness how children internalize their experiences
    • Social Play – this is play in which the rules and criteria for social engagement and interaction can be revealed, explored, and amended
    • Creative Play – play which allows new responses, transformation of information awareness of new connections with an element of surprise, allows children to use and try out their imagination
    • Communication Play – using words, gestures, charades, jokes, play-acting, singing, whispering, exploring the various ways in which we communicate as humans
    • Locomotor Play – movement in any or every direction (for example, chase, tag, hide and seek, tree climbing)
    • Deep Play – it allows children to encounter risky or even potentially life-threatening experiences, to develop survival skills, and conquer fear (for example, balancing on a high beam, roller skating, high jump, riding a bike)
    • Fantasy Play – the type of play allows the child to let their imagination run wild, to arrange the world in the child’s way, a way that is unlikely to occur (for example, play at being a pilot and flying around the world), pretending to be various characters/people, be wherever and whatever they want to be and do
    • Object Play – use of hand-eye manipulations and movements

    Communicating with families about the power and importance of play is necessary but can be tricky. In an article entitled, “10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play” by Laurel Bongiorno published by NAEYC (found on, this is what she states: [20]

    1. Children learn through play
    2. Play is healthy
    3. Play reduces stress
    4. Play is more than meets the eye
    5. Make time for play
    6. Play and learning go hand-in-hand
    7. Play outside
    8. There’s a lot to learn about play
    9. Trust your own playful instincts
    10. Play is a child’s context for learning

    As you continue your studies in early childhood education, you will begin to form and inform your own ideas about the value of play as you review the literature and research that has been compiled on this subject.

    Trauma Informed Care [21]

    Over the last few decades, we have seen an increase in childhood trauma. Many types of trauma have a lasting effect on children as they grow and develop. When we think of trauma, we may think of things that are severe; however, we know that trauma comes in small doses that are repeated over time.

    There has been much research done to help identify what these adverse childhood experiences are. The compilation of research has identified some traumatic events that occur in childhood (0 – 17 years) that have an impact on children’s well-being that can last into adulthood if not given the proper support to help to mitigate this trauma. Here is a list of some of the traumatic events that may impact children’s mental and physical well-being: [22]

    • Experiencing violence or abuse
    • Witnessing violence in the home or community
    • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide

    Also including are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with:

    • Substance misuse
    • Mental health problems
    • Emotional abuse or neglect
    • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison

    Pause to Reflect… COVID-19 Trauma

    How may COVID-10, with the disruptions, isolations, and uncertainty contribute to trauma in early childhood?

    These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance abuse in adulthood, and a negative impact on educational and job opportunities.

    Here are some astounding facts about ACEs:

    • ACE’s are common. About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.
    • Preventing ACEs could potentially reduce a large number of health conditions. For example, up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease and 21 million cases of depression could have been potentially avoided by preventing ACEs.
    • Some children are at greater risk than others. Women and several racial/ethnic minority groups were at greater risk for having experienced 4 or more types of ACEs.
    • ACEs are costly. The economic and social costs to families, communities, and society total hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

    Trauma Informed Care is an organizational structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma. Trauma Informed Care also emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both consumers and providers, and helps survivors rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

    What can we do in our early childhood programs? We can help to ensure a strong start for children by:

    • Creating an early learning program that supports family engagement.
    • Make sure we are providing a high-quality child care experience.
    • Support the social-emotional development of all children.
    • Provide parenting workshops that help to promote the skills of parents.
    • Use home visitation as a way to engage and support children and their families.
    • Reflect on our own practices that could be unintentionally harmful to children who have experienced trauma.

    What can we do in our community? As early childhood professionals, our ethical responsibilities extend to our community as well (NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct, May, 2011):

    • Be a part of changing how people think about the causes of ACEs and who could help prevent them.
    • Shift the focus from individual responsibility to community solutions.
    • Reduce stigma around seeking help with parenting challenges or for substance misuse, depression, or suicidal thoughts.
    • Promote safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments where children live, learn, and play