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DAP: The "Magic" in Early Childhood Education

by Dr. Barbara Bowman

Over the past 30 years, we have learned a great deal about how children learn and develop. Early childhood education is increasingly seen as valuable for promoting the well-being of children and families.

Unfortunately, some people seem to think that just the words "early childhood education" are magic and all we need to do is to see that every child is in an early childhood program and all will be well. But it’s not just any early childhood program. The magic is in what happens in a program. Early childhood programs of a particular quality and over time can positively affect children and their families. Those that follow developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) are the kinds of programs that can make a difference.

Many people misunderstand what we mean when we talk about developmentally appropriate curriculum and practices. I was appalled to hear that in Georgia recently, in its effort to insure success for all its children, banned developmentally appropriate practices as not sufficiently educational. The criticism was that children do not learn to read, write and compute, or learn civil behavior, or have good internal controls if you use developmentally appropriate practices. But DAP seeks to prepare children for academics--by making the academics interesting and worth learning. It seeks to teach civil behavior--by seeing that children are treated and treat each other with civility. It seeks to teach self-control-- in the context of good mental health.

We must also beware of those who do not understand DAP. They define DAP as rigid practices, rather than as a set of principles that are to be applied in different ways at different times and in different contexts. They want to see DAP as laws that require every developmentally appropriate classroom to look like every other one. DAP is not always delaying group reading instruction until age 6--if a group is ready to be successful, you can start earlier. It is not always having mothers stay until their children are settled in school--because all mothers cannot stay and, for some children and mothers, staying is not helpful to either the mother or the child. It is not always having enough equipment so children do not have to wait or take turns--although we try to keep frustration to a minimum because we care about civility.

I would like to discuss three developmentally appropriate principles and their implications for effective practice.

Principle #1: Developmentally appropriate practices recognize the importance of relationships. During the past 30 years, probably the most significant change in our thinking about young children is our new understanding of the role of social interaction in learning. We now know that children construct their knowledge about the world and learn their skills through engagement with adults and older peers.

This is different than how we understood development in the 1960's, when Piaget’s influence was at its height. Then we thought of the active child as learning mostly on his own. Adults were supposed to get out of the children’s way as they made sense of the world through their own initiative. They were to construct their own intelligence. We now understand that children are not completely self-directed little beings. We also now

know that children are not wholly dependent on adults. They are not like cars on an assembly line. We cannot stamp out competent children with standardized formulas, characterized by work sheets and drill and practice. Our new model of development calls for both an active child and an active caregiver/teacher.

Children learn to "make meaning" from and through their social interactions with adults and older children. The new model sees development more like a dance between adults and children, with each bending and sliding to the moves of the other. Parents, because their relationship with their children is on-going and consistent, are likely to be the most influential relationships in children’s development. This is why good quality early childhood programs support parents so they can do their jobs better.

But parental relationships are not the only important ones. New research in child development indicates that teachers and caregivers are powerful influences on the development of young children. When trained to understand and respond to young children, they can buffer (or intensify) a child’s experience. We must be sure that every child in our centers and schools finds committed and responsive adults. Children will not find these kinds of relationships when teachers are overwhelmed by too many children, by too little take home pay, and by too few opportunities to learn their profession.

Principle #2: Developmentally appropriate practices must be responsive to the learning style of young children. This need seems to have been forgotten as pressure for academic achievement has increased. Instead of the metaphor for young children being passive, ignorant and unworthy students, everyone now speaks of them as "sponges," ready to soak up knowledge and skills. But many people misunderstand what we mean when we extol the intelligence and capabilities of young children. They believe that because young children are so smart, we can teach them as if they were older children.

This has resulted in a dread disease--what I call the "academic bump." You know you have got it in your program when teachers at each level complain that the children are coming to them unprepared, which, of course, means that the teachers in the prior grade or level are not doing their job. Often this leads to downward dumping of curriculum. More and more of the curriculum of 3rd grade finds its way into 2nd grade, and what used to be done in 2nd grade is moved into 1st, 1st into kindergarten and kindergarten into preschool. Pretty soon, if the school is suffering from "the bump," you will begin to find signs of 2nd grade in kindergarten and the program that used to be taught in 1st grade becomes the preschool curriculum.

This bump disease is noticeable in preschools and day care centers as well as the primary grades. You know the program is afflicted when worksheets, number facts and whole group teaching are in and story reading, dictation, block play and conversation are out. I was in a program recently in which the teachers were lining up 3-year-olds to go to the bathroom and, as you can imagine, they were all over the place and it took forever to get them organized. When I asked why the teachers were doing this instead of just taking a few children at a time while the others continue their activities, the answer was that they will have to do it when they get to elementary school. But, it is not developmentally appropriate curriculum to teach next year’s skills this year. Many people are realizing that the very countries with whom we want to compete, like Sweden and Japan, do not rush children into formal instruction in reading and writing at an early age.

Principle #3: A developmentally appropriate curriculum responds to individual differences. All children do not do the same things at the same time. The basic equation of early childhood education is that the same curriculum practiced on different young children will get different results. No matter how carefully you plan, no matter how well you implement your plan, all the children will not learn the same amount or the same thing from the same experience. Homogeneous treatments delivered to heterogeneous kids yield heterogeneous results. Children do not develop evenly over 12 months or over 8 years. Much of early learning is maturation driven. That means that biological growth and experience have to coincide before a new developmental step can be taken. Some children’s biological capabilities develop more or less evenly, others grow by fits and starts. Some children do everything a little early, some are uneven (walk early/talk late or the other way around) and some are just a little later than others. But just as most children will learn to talk between 9-18 months, they will all learn to read between 5-8 years old, with appropriate reading environments. We have no evidence that there is an advantage to learning two months or even two years earlier.

Even if we could match the children for developmental or experiential characteristics which would predict similar outcomes, we shouldn’t want to. Our world is populated with people of various abilities and talents. During early childhood, children must learn how to regard differences between themselves and others.

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