Developmentally Appropriate Teaching: Why Does it Matter?

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In America, there has been a rush for pushed-down academics to prevent the failures of students in older grades. The academics of preschools, kindergarten, and 1st grade have been pushed to a full year beyond the expectations of previous times. In fact, it is very common to hear people refer to Kindergarten as the new First grade, or Preschool as the new Kindergarten.

Can young students learn beyond the expectations of previous years? Can they work through skills with rigor? Yes! But young children do not learn in the same way that older children learn, and often the proper methodologies for teaching in developmentally appropriate ways are ignored. Also, not all children are ready for learning milestones at the same time. Just as it would be foolish to say that any toddler who is not walking by 12 months is automatically behind in their development, it is not prudent to assume that because student’s move at different speeds along the learning continuum, that they are “at risk” or they are “being failed”.

When teaching becomes an exercise in imposing the curriculum on a child rather than presenting a curriculum to enhance natural childhood, students are frustrated, early academic failure has been felt, school burnout at younger grades has occurred and the magical moments of childhood have been lessened.

The Ted Talk “What Do Babies Think?” by Alison Gopnik, a child development psychologist explores the development of the human brain and focuses on the relationships between the correlation of the length of childhood and the development of the human brain. For example, she compares the development of a crow and a chicken, correlating the length of their childhood. The crow, who is a very intelligent bird has a childhood of one year, and a chicken, less than a month. She states, “The disparity in childhood (of these birds) is why the crow ends up on the cover of Science, and the chickens end up in a soup pot.”

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With the information of science, experience, and common sense, why is the practice of pushing down the curriculum such a common theme? The human brain is designed to develop, expand, and grow in a sequential manner. Undue academic demands that are contrary to human growth can disrupt this development. Our goal should never be to move children faster through the academic continuum; rather, our goal should always be to deepen the academics and to make them impactful, joyful, and truly meaningful.


The Results From Escalated or Pushed Down Curriculum

Behavior

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With the push down of curriculum, students are expected to sit quietly for longer amounts of time, ignoring the fact that young children learn best through direct interactions, active hands-on opportunities, experiential play, in a classroom filled with love, music, and discovery.

The trend has become classrooms with escalated expectations, filled with passive and receptive experiences; moments filled with worksheets, and curriculum that is not purposefully foundational. These environments manifest a greater number of behavior problems than their Developmentally Appropriate (DAP) counterparts. Why is this? Simply put, students who are placed in inappropriate environments exhibit inappropriate behaviors. Children, especially the youngest students in the classroom, become frustrated with activities that involve being seated, being quiet, fine motor expectations beyond the growth of muscles, and curriculum presented above their level of cognition. Young children lack the sophistication of adults to verbalize their frustrations, consequently they become wiggly, disruptive, angry, and aggressive. Generally, this behavior is dealt with following school discipline policies rather that finding the root of the behaviors and adjusting classroom procedures accordingly. If we do not recognize those frustrations that are a result of pushed down curriculum as behaviors needing to be fostered in socially appropriate ways, are we not nurturing chickens rather than crows?

Disrupted Timeline of Skills Acquisition

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Another unintended consequence of pushed down curriculum is the disruption of foundational skills; those developed sequentially and naturally in early childhood. In an earlier post we compared the teaching of reading with building a house. We discussed when constructing a home, no one begins with the roof. You don’t need construction experience or a degree in architecture to know that this will not lead to a successful end. Just as the building of a house needs to follow a certain order, skills for reading (and math) also follow a sequence. In fact, research has shown that most students learn to read following the same sequence of skill acquisition.

When teaching with DAP methods, children have time to develop those crucial foundational skills such as phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, and number sense (all recognized as strong predictors for future success). In DAP classrooms, students are exposed to rich vocabulary, oral language experiences, story elements, deep literary experiences, dramatic play, experimentation, and rich moments of discovery. In the classrooms filled with pushed down curriculum, students are exposed to long moments of seat work, worksheets, way too many sight words, number problems at the expense of number sense, and laborious efforts of handwriting drills.

Growth Mindset

Young children have a natural, intrinsic motivational system. They are born with determination, perseverance, problem solving, and a natural ability to learn from mistakes using, problem solving, and cause and effect. In fact, most young children feel they can accomplish about anything they set their mind to. Classrooms that are developmentally appropriate tend to foster that notion and allow children to blossom and grow in natural ways. Conversely, children who are subjected to environments not conducive to development become easily discouraged, anxious, begin to lose confidence, and learn to rely heavily on extrinsic motivators.

Academics and Developmentally Appropriate Practices

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Teaching with Developmentally Appropriate Practices does not mean you are not teaching children academics, in fact, I have seen children flourish in classrooms that are teaching appropriately. Common Core Standards can be easily met in Developmental ways. In fact, the authors of the Common Core always intended for children to be learning through DAP. The Common Core states: "[T]he use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document" (CCSS-ELA, 6, #1)

According to David Liben, of Student Achievement Partners, play is not listed in the CORE because it is a method of teaching, not a goal. But the developers of the CORE fully expect teachers to be using play as a way to best teach the goals in the CORE.

DAP and academic rigor are not opposing concepts. In fact, there is often more rigor in classrooms that are appropriate with a child-centered approach. The push-down of academic content is not going away any time soon, so it is up to the educators of young children to take that content and deliver it in ways that are experiential, playful, presented in a way young children learn.

We must teach children academic concepts in a manner that makes sense to the world of a child; thematically and playfully. Using appropriate lessons, activities, games, art, music, science, dramatic play, writing, and more weaving them together to create beautiful moments of rigorous learning presented with the development of a young child in mind.

If you would like to keep DAP in the early grades, please consider joining the Kinder Guardians facebook group. A place to ask questions, offer support, and collaborate with like-minded DAP teachers.


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