A Reflection on Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Cortez Deacetis

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) has been seen by many as the cornerstone of Early Childhood education since the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published the guidelines in 1987. The guidelines have been used widely in educare settings such as preschool and schools, with many educators accepting DAP as best practice for educating young children. Whilst DAP has been an highly successful approach for some educators, other alternative approaches to educating young children have recently been identified. Also, many criticisms of the DAP guidelines as they were originally written have been published. Two alternative discourses to Developmentally Appropriate Practice will be considered in this paper. These alternative discourses include an academic approach to early childhood education and the identified cultural bias of Developmentally Appropriate Practice.

NAEYC’s Position Statement (1987) suggests that children learn most effectively through a concrete, play oriented approach to early childhood education (p36). A child-oriented, play based program should address the physical, social, emotional and cognitive needs of the children enrolled in the program. This type of program has been recognised by many as best practice in the education of young children. In practice, this may mean that children spend much of their day engaged in active, meaningful play with toys, their peers, craft materials, blocks, paints, adults, outdoor equipment, books and other useful equipment. Play can be seen as beneficial in terms of children’s learning as it challenges them to create, collaborate, problem solve, predict, reflect and enhances their ability to communicate (Education Queensland, 2003).

Alternatively, there are educational programs for young children consisting of direct instruction that do not view play as a valid form of learning. These programs focus primarily on academic achievement (Spodek, Saracho, & Davis, 1987, p178). Academic programs may focus on skill and drills, learning of basic isolated facts and completing worksheets. Kessler (1992, p21) suggested that the increasingly academic nature of early childhood programs is due to their inclusion within school campuses. Academic programs are teaching children the concepts and skills that were previously taught in the first year of formal schooling. Play is often used within these programs as a form of relaxation after the children have completed their set work, rather than as valuable and meaningful learning experiences.

Elkind states that children learn best through direct encounters with their world rather than through formal education involving the inculcation of symbolic rules (1986, p1). These symbolic rules may include writing and number systems, which are extensively taught as part of academic programs. The children enrolled in these programs may have little opportunity to construct knowledge or understandings for themselves. Letters and numbers may be taught in rote like fashion, rather than construction of concepts (Kessler, 1992, p29). Teachers within these academic contexts may provide too much highly structured formal education for young children. Teaching methods can be too formal and are generally considered inappropriate for young children (Cotton & Conklin p1). These formal, content-centred teaching methods may involve a lot of seatwork and children will regularly engage in whole class activities. Less time will be devoted to play due to its apparent lack of educational value (Grover, 2001, p1). Play based, child centred programs provide a more open and flexible curriculum which should be more suited to meeting the educational needs of young children.

The type of program that teachers implement, either play based or academic may be impacted by many things including expectations of the school community. Given the context of the learning environment, different approaches to teaching and learning may be expected. My experiences have been impacted by the expectations of the centre and school administration and the parents of the children enrolled in the programs.

During my time as a preschool teacher working in a long day care centre, I was expected to implement a child centred, play based program based on DAP principles. A developmentally appropriate program was expected and encouraged by centre staff, administration and parents. Parents were encouraging of this approach and none requested a more formal, content based approach.

Alternatively I had a very different experience teaching a combined Preschool/ Transition class in a state school within a remote Aboriginal community. The school administration, staff and parents expected that the Early Childhood programs would be content based using formal teaching methods. A play based, developmentally appropriate program was actively resisted by the parents and they believed that the children were wasting their time engaging in play based learning experiences. Eventually I implemented a more formal academic style program, whilst still incorporating as many play based activities as possible. School learning, for this community meant children sitting at desks, completing worksheets, and learning the English writing and number systems. It also involved in whole class learning. Play was seen as a reward for working hard on academic tasks, not as a meaningful and engaging way of learning about the world.

I found it very challenging to teach using what I believed to be inappropriate pedagogy for young children. It was my experience that an academic program may encourage children to recite rote-learned facts. An academic approach failed to encourage the children to become active, engaged, questioning learners. It was also my experience that the inclusion of early childhood units within school campuses impacted on what the school community viewed as appropriate for young children. As most schools are academic in nature, one might expect similar to be occurring in the early childhood units, however inappropriate this may be.

The curriculum that I was encouraged to implement was very similar to that of a Year One class. This was challenging in itself as most of these children had no spoken English and were of a spoken tradition. The first years of schooling were used to maximise the children’s English language acquisition and to learn expected school behaviours. Parents judged my effectiveness as a teacher by how well the children were able to recite basic number facts or the alphabet for example, rather than if the children had developed pre-reading skills and basic mathematical understandings. These children were encouraged to be quiet, passive learners, usually engaged in whole class or table work, not actively engaged in meaningful play-based learning experiences. Another challenge in implementing a quality program which met the needs of the children was related to the cultural bias inherent of the NAEYC’s original guidelines.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice was promoted by many universities and teacher education courses as best practice for educating young children. It was assumed by many that it would meet the needs of all children within most educare contexts. This was not the case as the child development theories which underpin DAP were based on white middle class males and therefore have a cultural bias (Jispon, 1993). Due to this cultural bias, DAP may not meet the needs of all children, particularly those who do not share the monocultural values reflected in the guidelines. Goffin states that traditional reliance on white middle class norms should be re-examined in light of the cultural diversity of the children who participate in early childhood programs (1994, p195). Recent research has shown that developmental milestones and expectations vary from culture to culture (Nissani, 1993). What is valued and viewed as normal in one culture may not be reflected in any other culture. Therefore educators need to develop broad and meaningful understandings of their students’ cultural backgrounds, goals for socialisation, beliefs about the nature of the child and various child rearing techniques (Nissani, 1993). These beliefs about children and how they develop may differ from culture to culture.

Teachers may need to establish wide networks and meaningful relationships with families and members of the community so they can develop sensitivity and understandings of their students’ culture. By developing these understandings and working closely with community, educators are able to prepare a more effective and appropriate educational program. Implementing a curriculum which addresses the cultural heritage of children will certainly be more developmentally appropriate than using curriculum guidelines which are culturally exclusive and reflective of monocultural norms. It has been stated that DAP as curricula knowledge base failed to acknowledge multiple perspectives, tacit knowledge, subjective knowing and personal cultural involvement in making meaning, thereby reflecting a particular cultural worldview (Jipson, 1993, p128). It is important that curriculum is developed using many sources including relevant child development knowledge, individual characteristics of children, subject knowledge, the values of the culture, parents’ desires and the knowledge children need to function competently in society (NAEYC, 1994, p23).

Educational programs aim to teach children the skills necessary to function as an active citizen within society. The skills, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes taught should reflect those that children experience within their home and community life. It is believed that children’s learning is enhanced when they perceive a connectedness between home and school and when what is valued in one system in honoured in the other (Kostelnik Soderman & Whiren 1993, p48). DAP guidelines (NAEYC 1987) as they were originally published ignored the cultural impact on learning and did little to emphasize the importance of strengthened home-school-community links. DAP emphasised autonomy and focuses on the individual which may be in direct conflict with the ethos of other cultures, which may emphasise family groups and community over individuals. According to Jipson critics have identified major problems with trying to establish universality in child development theories to cultures which do not share the same worldviews, languages or social orientations (1993, p128). Jipson goes on to state that by redefining the interests of the child in terms of the traditions and expectations of his/her culture and by reconnecting the experiences of the child to the context in which he/she lives and the cultural patterns and values which she/he experiences, teachers could undermine the bias seemingly inherent in DAP. The concept of DAP could be transformed to become culturally appropriate practice (1993, p134). The issue of culture has had a huge impact on my practice over the course of my career and have used the DAP guidelines with varied success.

I found DAP guidelines to be an effective basis for curriculum whilst working as a Preschool teacher within a long day child care centre. My students were all white middle class English first-language speakers. I did not encounter any difficulties or feel that I was unable to address the children’s needs and interests. I was of a similar cultural background and the program reflected the children’s life experiences. My experience working in a remote Aboriginal community was very different. I did not share these children’s cultural background. Nor did I speak the same language, or share the same child rearing beliefs or world view. Implementing DAP as I knew it proved to be ineffective and difficult, and was also met with resistance from community and school staff, as previously discussed. My challenge was to develop some basic understandings about the children’s culture, day to day life, their interests and past times and world view. I also needed some information about expectations for normal child development and expectations regarding acceptable behaviours. Information about child rearing techniques was also valuable. Most of the approaches, expectations and practices by the Anindilyakwa people were very different from mine. What I knew to be ‘true’ about how children develop, behave, speak and spend their day was not reflected within this culture. For example, some of the children enrolled in the preschool program were still being breastfed through out the school day and their mother (or aunty or grandmother) was expected to attend school with their child to support their learning. The differences in child rearing techniques and expectations about how children develop were vast. A curriculum based on white, middle class mainstream norms did not address the needs, interests and life experiences of these children. So, I developed a program which was reflective of these children’s realities, in conjunction with parents, a local language specialist, departmental advisors and representatives from the community who had education backgrounds. Eventually a program, although based on a more academic approach was developed and implemented with the help of members of the community. This program was sensitive to and actively addressed the cultural heritage of these children.

The new program demonstrated an understanding and responsiveness to the cultural and linguistic diversity of the students and could be considered developmentally appropriate as identified within the revised guidelines (NAEYC, 1997). The new program recognised the significance of family involvement and was based on a jointly constructed, meaningful and contextually relevant curriculum (NAEYC, 1997). The socio-cultural relationships with the classroom had to be considered due to social responsibilities and avoidance relationships. This type of social impact on learning was not addressed in the DAP guidelines as they were originally published. Although, social impact and cultural sensitivity are highlighted in the revised document.

It was my experience that there are stark differences in the expectations child develop, between those which form the basis of DAP and that of the Anindilyakwa people. Many Anindilyakwa children were dependent upon their mother or female carer for emotional support and nurturing. Mothers, grandmothers and aunties regularly attended school with their children. Yet, the children also were afforded a lot of freedom and were encouraged to make many choices for themselves. Many behaviours were accepted as long as everyone was happy. This approach to child rearing and development differs from that of the dominant Western culture, which was reflected in the original DAP guidelines. The program that was implemented reflected culturally specific expectations about how the children would develop and behave.

These understandings were developed through forging relationships with members of the school community, which included parents, and community elders. It is though meaningful connections with the wider community that teachers are able to develop educational programs that address the interests, culture, language, emotional social, and physical needs of the children they teach. The revised Developmentally Appropriate Practice guidelines do much to highlight the need for educators to be sensitive and mindful of the cultural impact on children’s learning. Also, that a child-centred, play based approach to educating young children appears to be the most successful and still represents best-practice. An academic approach to educating young children perhaps meet the needs of parents and school administrators, but does not represent the best approach to educating young children.

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