Principles of child development and learning that inform developmentally appropriate practice
Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8
Taken together, these core values define NAEYC's basic commitment to
children and underlie its position on developmentally appropriate practice.
Developmentally appropriate practice is based on knowledge about how
children develop and learn. As Katz states, "In a developmental approach to
curriculum design, . . . [decisions] about what should be learned and how it
would best be learned depend on what we know of the learner's developmental
status and our understanding of the relationships between early experience and
subsequent development" (1995, 109). To guide their decisions about
practice, all early childhood teachers need to understand the developmental
changes that typically occur in the years from birth through age 8 and beyond,
variations in development that may occur, and how best to support children's
learning and development during these years.
A complete discussion of the knowledge base that informs early childhood
practice is beyond the scope of this document (see, for example, Seefeldt 1992;
Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart 1992; Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren 1993;
Spodek 1993; Berk 1996). Because development and learning are so complex, no one
theory is sufficient to explain these phenomena. However, a broad-based review
of the literature on early childhood education generates a set of principles to
inform early childhood practice. Principles are generalizations that are
sufficiently reliable that they should be taken into account when making
decisions (Katz & Chard 1989; Katz 1995). Following is a list of empirically
based principles of child development and learning that inform and guide
decisions about developmentally appropriate practice.
1. Domains of children's development -- physical, social, emotional,
and cognitive -- are closely rela-ted. Development in one domain influences
and is influenced by development in other domains.
Development in one domain can limit or facilitate development in others
(Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart 1992; Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren 1993). For
example, when babies begin to crawl or walk, their ability to explore the world
expands, and their mobility, in turn, affects their cognitive development.
Likewise, children's language skill affects their ability to establish social
relationships with adults and other children, just as their skill in social
interaction can support or impede their language development.
Because developmental domains are interrelated, educators should be aware of
and use these interrelationships to organize children's learning experiences in
ways that help children develop optimally in all areas and that make meaningful
connections across domains.
Recognition of the connections across developmental domains is also useful
for curriculum planning with the various age groups represented in the early
childhood period. Curriculum with infants and toddlers is almost solely driven
by the need to support their healthy development in all domains. During the
primary grades, curriculum planning attempts to help children develop conceptual
understandings that apply across related subject-matter disciplines.
2. Development occurs in a relatively orderly sequence, with later
abilities, skills, and knowledge building on those already acquired.
Human development research indicates that relatively stable, predictable
sequences of growth and change occur in children during the first nine years of
life (Piaget 1952; Erikson 1963; Dyson & Genishi 1993; Gallahue 1993; Case &
Okamoto 1996). Predictable changes occur in all domains of development -- physical,
emotional, social, language, and cognitive -- although the ways that these
changes are manifest and the meaning attached to them may vary in different
cultural contexts. Knowledge of typical development of children within the age
span served by the program provides a general framework to guide how teachers
prepare the learning environment and plan realistic curriculum goals and
objectives and appropriate experiences.
3. Development proceeds at varying rates from child to child as well as
unevenly within different areas of each child's functioning.
Individual variation has at least two dimensions: the inevitable variability
around the average or normative course of development and the uniqueness of each
person as an individual (Sroufe, Cooper, & DeHart 1992). Each child is a
unique person with an individual pattern and timing of growth, as well as
individual personality, temperament, learning style, and experiential and family
background. All children have their own strengths, needs, and interests; for
some children, special learning and developmental needs or abilities are
identified. Given the enormous variation among children of the same
chronological age, a child's age must be recognized as only a crude index of
Recognition that individual variation is not only to be expected but also
valued requires that decisions about curriculum and adults' interactions with
children be as individualized as possible. Emphasis on individual
appropriateness is not the same as "individualism." Rather, this
recognition requires that children be considered not solely as members of an age
group, expected to perform to a predetermined norm and without adaptation to
individual variation of any kind. Having high expectations for all children is
important, but rigid expectations of group norms do not reflect what is known
about real differences in individual development and learning during the early
years. Group-norm expectancy can be especially harmful for children with special
learning and developmental needs (NEGP 1991; Mallory 1992; Wolery, Strain, &
4. Early experiences have both cumulative and delayed effects on
individual children's development; optimal periods exist for certain types of
development and learning.
Children's early experiences, either positive or negative, are cumulative in
the sense that if an experience occurs occasionally, it may have minimal
effects. If positive or negative experiences occur frequently, however, they can
have powerful, lasting, even "snowballing," effects (Katz & Chard
1989; Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren 1993; Wieder & Greenspan 1993). For
example, a child's social experiences with other children in the preschool years
help him develop social skills and confidence that enable him to make friends in
the early school years, and these experiences further enhance the child's social
competence. Conversely, children who fail to develop minimal social competence
and are neglected or rejected by peers are at significant risk to drop out of
school, become delinquent, and experience mental health problems in adulthood
(Asher, Hymel, & Renshaw 1984; Parker & Asher 1987).
Similar patterns can be observed in babies whose cries and other attempts at
communication are regularly responded to, thus enhancing their own sense of
efficacy and increasing communicative competence. Likewise, when children have
or do not have early literacy experiences, such as being read to regularly,
their later success in learning to read is affected accordingly. Perhaps most
convincing is the growing body of research demonstrating that social and
sensorimotor experiences during the first three years directly affect
neurological development of the brain, with important and lasting implications
for children's capacity to learn (Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives 1996).
Early experiences can also have delayed effects, either positive or
negative, on subsequent development. For instance, some evidence suggests that
reliance on extrinsic rewards (such as candy or money) to shape children's
behavior, a strategy that can be very effective in the short term, under certain
circumstances lessens children's intrinsic motivation to engage in the rewarded
behavior in the long term (Dweck 1986; Kohn 1993). For example, paying children
to read books may over time undermine their desire to read for their own
enjoyment and edification.
At certain points in the life span, some kinds of learning and development
occur most efficiently. For example, the first three years of life appear to be
an optimal period for verbal language development (Kuhl 1994). Although delays
in language development due to physical or environmental deficits can be
ameliorated later on, such intervention usually requires considerable effort.
Similarly, the preschool years appear to be optimum for fundamental motor
development (that is, fundamental motor skills are more easily and efficiently
acquired at this age) (Gallahue 1995). Children who have many opportunities and
adult support to practice large-motor skills (running, jumping, hopping,
skipping) during this period have the cumulative benefit of being better able to
acquire more sophisticated, complex motor skills (balancing on a beam or riding
a two-wheel bike) in subsequent years. On the other hand, children whose early
motor experiences are severely limited may struggle to acquire physical
competence and may also experience delayed effects when attempting to
participate in sports or personal fitness activities later in life.
5. Development proceeds in predictable directions toward greater
complexity, organization, and internalization.
Learning during early childhood proceeds from behavioral knowledge to
symbolic or representational knowledge (Bruner 1983). For example, children
learn to navigate their homes and other familiar settings long before they can
understand the words left and right or read a map of the house. Developmentally
appropriate programs provide opportunities for children to broaden and deepen
their behavioral knowledge by providing a variety of firsthand experiences and
by helping children acquire symbolic knowledge through representing their
experiences in a variety of media, such as drawing, painting, construction of
models, dramatic play, verbal and written descriptions (Katz 1995).
Even very young children are able to use various media to represent their
understanding of concepts. Furthermore, through representation of their
knowledge, the knowledge itself is enhanced (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman
1993; Malaguzzi 1993; Forman 1994). Representational modes and media also vary
with the age of the child. For instance, most learning for infants and toddlers
is sensory and motoric, but by age 2 children use one object to stand for
another in play (a block for a phone or a spoon for a guitar).
6. Development and learning occur in and are influenced by multiple
social and cultural contexts.
Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1989, 1993) provides an ecological model for
understanding human development. He explains that children's development is best
understood within the sociocultural context of the family, educational setting,
community, and broader society. These various contexts are interrelated, and all
have an impact on the developing child. For example, even a child in a loving,
supportive family within a strong, healthy community is affected by the biases
of the larger society, such as racism or sexism, and may show the effects of
negative stereotyping and discrimination.
We define culture as the customary beliefs and patterns of and for behavior,
both explicit and implicit, that are passed on to future generations by the
society they live in and/or by a social, religious, or ethnic group within it.
Because culture is often discussed in the context of diversity or
multiculturalism, people fail to recognize the powerful role that culture plays
in influencing the development of all children. Every culture structures and
interprets children's behavior and development (Edwards & Gandini 1989;
Tobin, Wu, & Davidson 1989; Rogoff et al. 1993). As Bowman states, "Rules
of development are the same for all children, but social contexts shape
children's development into different configurations" (1994, 220). Early
childhood teachers need to understand the influence of sociocultural contexts on
learning, recognize children's developing competence, and accept a variety of
ways for children to express their developmental achievements (Vygotsky 1978;
Wertsch 1985; Forman, Minick, & Stone 1993; New 1993, 1994; Bowman &
Stott 1994; Mallory & New 1994a; Phillips 1994; Bruner 1996; Wardle 1996).
Teachers should learn about the culture of the majority of the children
they serve if that culture differs from their own. However, recognizing that
development and learning are influenced by social and cultural contexts does not
require teachers to understand all the nuances of every cultural group they may
encounter in their practice; this would be an impossible task. Rather, this
fundamental recognition sensitizes teachers to the need to acknowledge how their
own cultural experience shapes their perspective and to realize that multiple
perspectives, in addition to their own, must be considered in decisions about
children's development and learning.
Children are capable of learning to function in more than one cultural
context simultaneously. However, if teachers set low expectations for children
based on their home culture and language, children cannot develop and learn
optimally. Education should be an additive process. For example, children whose
primary language is not English should be able to learn English without being
forced to give up their home language (NAEYC 1996a). Likewise, children who
speak only English benefit from learning another language. The goal is that all
children learn to function well in the society as a whole and move comfortably
among groups of people who come from both similar and dissimilar backgrounds.
7. Children are active learners, drawing on direct physical and social
experience as well as cul-turally transmitted knowledge to construct their own
understandings of the world around them.
Children contribute to their own development and learning as they strive to
make meaning out of their daily experiences in the home, the early childhood
program, and the community. Principles of developmentally appropriate practice
are based on several prominent theories that view intellectual development from
a constructivist, interactive perspective (Dewey 1916; Piaget 1952; Vygotsky
1978; DeVries & Kohlberg 1990; Rogoff 1990; Gardner 1991; Kamii & Ewing 1996).
From birth, children are actively engaged in constructing their own
understandings from their experiences, and these understandings are mediated by
and clearly linked to the sociocultural context. Young children actively learn
from observing and participating with other children and adults, including
parents and teachers. Children need to form their own hypotheses and keep trying
them out through social interaction, physical manipulation, and their own
thought processes -- observing what happens, reflecting on their findings,
asking questions, and formulating answers. When objects, events, and other
people challenge the working model that the child has mentally constructed, the
child is forced to adjust the model or alter the mental structures to account
for the new information. Throughout early childhood, the child in processing new
experiences continually reshapes, expands, and reorganizes mental structures
(Piaget 1952; Vygotsky 1978; Case & Okamoto 1996). When teachers and other
adults use various strategies to encourage children to reflect on their
experiences by planning beforehand and "revisiting" afterward, the
knowledge and understanding gained from the experience is deepened (Copple,
Sigel, & Saunders 1984; Edwards, Gandini, & Forman 1993; Stremmel &
Fu 1993; Hohmann & Weikart 1995).
In the statement of this principle, the term "physical and social
experience" is used in the broadest sense to include children's exposure to
physical knowledge, learned through firsthand experience of using objects
(observing that a ball thrown in the air falls down), and social knowledge,
including the vast body of culturally acquired and transmitted knowledge that
children need to function in the world. For example, children progressively
construct their own understanding of various symbols, but the symbols they use
(such as the alphabet or numerical system) are the ones used within their
culture and transmitted to them by adults.
In recent years, discussions of cognitive development have at times become
polarized (see Seifert 1993). Piaget's theory stressed that development of
certain cognitive structures was a necessary prerequisite to learning (i.e.,
development precedes learning), while other research has demonstrated that
instruction in specific concepts or strategies can facilitate development of
more mature cognitive structures (learning precedes development) (Vygotsky 1978;
Gelman & Baillargeon 1983). Current attempts to resolve this apparent
dichotomy (Seifert 1993; Sameroff & McDonough 1994; Case & Okamoto 1996)
acknowledge that essentially both theoretical perspectives are correct in
explaining aspects of cognitive development during early childhood. Strategic
teaching, of course, can enhance children's learning. Yet, direct instruction
may be totally ineffective; it fails when it is not attuned to the cognitive
capacities and knowledge of the child at that point in development.
8. Development and learning result from interaction of biological
maturation and the environment, which includes both the physical and social
worlds that children live in.
The simplest way to express this principle is that human beings are products
of both heredity and environment and these forces are interrelated. Behaviorists
focus on the environmental influences that determine learning, while
maturationists emphasize the unfolding of predetermined, hereditary
characteristics. Each perspective is true to some extent, and yet neither
perspective is sufficient to explain learning or development. More often today,
development is viewed as the result of an interactive, transactional process
between the growing, changing individual and his or her experiences in the
social and physical worlds (Scarr & McCartney 1983; Plomin 1994a, b). For
example, a child's genetic makeup may predict healthy growth, but inadequate
nutrition in the early years of life may keep this potential from being
fulfilled. Or a severe disability, whether inherited or environmentally caused,
may be ameliorated through systematic, appropriate intervention. Likewise, a
child's inherited temperament -- whether a predisposition to be wary or
outgoing -- shapes and is shaped by how other children and adults communicate
with that child.
9. Play is an important vehicle for children's social, emotional, and
cognitive development, as well as a reflection of their development.
Understanding that children are active constructors of knowledge and that
development and learning are the result of interactive processes, early
childhood teachers recognize that children's play is a highly supportive context
for these developing processes (Piaget 1952; Fein 1981; Bergen 1988; Smilansky &
Shefatya 1990; Fromberg 1992; Berk & Winsler 1995). Play gives children
opportunities to understand the world, interact with others in social ways,
express and control emotions, and develop their symbolic capabilities.
Children's play gives adults insights into children's development and
opportunities to support the development of new strategies. Vygotsky (1978)
believed that play leads development, with written language growing out of oral
language through the vehicle of symbolic play that promotes the development of
symbolic representation abilities. Play provides a context for children to
practice newly acquired skills and also to function on the edge of their
developing capacities to take on new social roles, attempt novel or challenging
tasks, and solve complex problems that they would not (or could not) otherwise
do (Mallory & New 1994b).
Research demonstrates the importance of sociodramatic play as a tool for
learning curriculum content with 3- through 6-year-old children. When teachers
provide a thematic organization for play; offer appropriate props, space, and
time; and become involved in the play by extending and elaborating on children's
ideas, children's language and literacy skills can be enhanced (Levy, Schaefer,
& Phelps 1986; Schrader 1989, 1990; Morrow 1990; Pramling 1991; Levy,
Wolfgang, & Koorland 1992).
In addition to supporting cognitive development, play serves important
functions in children's physical, emotional, and social development (Herron &
Sutton-Smith 1971). Children express and represent their ideas, thoughts, and
feelings when engaged in symbolic play. During play a child can learn to deal
with emotions, to interact with others, to resolve conflicts, and to gain a
sense of competence -- all in the safety that only play affords. Through play,
children also can develop their imaginations and creativity. Therefore,
child-initiated, teacher-supported play is an essential component of
developmentally appropriate practice (Fein & Rivkin 1986).
10. Development advances when children have opportunities to practice
newly acquired skills as well as when they experience a challenge just beyond
the level of their present mastery.
Research demonstrates that children need to be able to successfully
negotiate learning tasks most of the time if they are to maintain motivation and
persistence (Lary 1990; Brophy 1992). Confronted by repeated failure, most
children will simply stop trying. So most of the time, teachers should give
young children tasks that with effort they can accomplish and present them with
content that is accessible at their level of understanding. At the same time,
children continually gravitate to situations and stimuli that give them the
chance to work at their "growing edge" (Berk & Winsler 1995;
Bodrova & Leong 1996). Moreover, in a task just beyond the child's
independent reach, the adult and more-competent peers contribute significantly
to development by providing the supportive "scaffolding" that allows
the child to take the next step.
Development and learning are dynamic processes requiring that adults
understand the continuum, observe children closely to match curriculum and
teaching to children's emerging competencies, needs, and interests, and then
help children move forward by targeting educational experiences to the edge of
children's changing capacities so as to challenge but not frustrate them. Human
beings, especially children, are highly motivated to understand what they
almost, but not quite, comprehend and to master what they can almost, but not
quite, do (White 1965; Vygotsky 1978). The principle of learning is that
children can do things first in a supportive context and then later
independently and in a variety of contexts. Rogoff (1990) describes the process
of adult-assisted learning as "guided participation" to emphasize that
children actively collaborate with others to move to more complex levels of
understanding and skill.
11. Children demonstrate different modes of knowing and learning and
different ways of representing what they know.
For some time, learning theorists and developmental psychologists have
recognized that human beings come to understand the world in many ways and that
individuals tend to have preferred or stronger modes of learning. Studies of
differences in learning modalities have contrasted visual, auditory, or tactile
learners. Other work has identified learners as field-dependent or independent
(Witkin 1962). Gardner (1983) expanded on this concept by theorizing that human
beings possess at least seven "intelligences." In addition to having
the ones traditionally emphasized in schools, linguistic and
logical-mathematical, individuals are more or less proficient in at least these
other areas: musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and
Malaguzzi (1993) used the metaphor of "100 languages" to describe
the diverse modalities through which children come to understand the world and
represent their knowledge. The processes of representing their understanding can
with the assistance of teachers help children deepen, improve, and expand their
understanding (Copple, Sigel, & Saunders 1984; Forman 1994; Katz 1995). The
principle of diverse modalities implies that teachers should provide not only
opportunities for individual children to use their preferred modes of learning
to capitalize on their strengths (Hale-Benson 1986) but also opportunities to
help children develop in the modes or intelligences in which they may not be as
12. Children develop and learn best in the context of a community where
they are safe and valued, their physical needs are met, and they feel psychologically secure.
Maslow (1954) conceptualized a hierarchy of needs in which learning was not
considered possible unless physical and psychological needs for safety and
security were first met. Because children's physical health and safety too often
are threatened today, programs for young children must not only provide adequate
health, safety, and nutrition but may also need to ensure more comprehensive
services, such as physical, dental, and mental health and social services (NASBE
1991; U.S. Department of Health & Human Services 1996). In addition,
children's development in all areas is influenced by their ability to establish
and maintain a limited number of positive, consistent primary relationships with
adults and other children (Bowlby 1969; Stern 1985; Garbarino et al. 1992).
These primary relationships begin in the family but extend over time to include
children's teachers and members of the community; therefore, practices that are
developmentally appropriate address children's physical, social, and emotional
needs as well as their intellectual development.
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