Developmentally appropriate practice refers to teaching techniques that considers a child’s individual needs and their social and cultural contexts to create an engaging learning experience. This teaching method prioritizes children’s strengths based on their cognitive and social-emotional development, environment, and social and cultural context.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines developmentally appropriate practice as "methods that promote each child's optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning."
In the mid-1980s, NAEYC released its first position statement on developmentally appropriate practice in response to inappropriate teaching practices and expectations in preschool and kindergarten. Since its initial development, NAEYC’s position statement on developmentally appropriate practice has been revised three times due to advances in research concerning the social, cultural, and historical contexts that influence young children’s development.
There are many ways that teachers can implement developmentally appropriate practice in their programs to ensure that children are supported. For example, teachers can speak with families about their children’s cultural experiences to gain insight into how their personal experiences and cultural identities may affect their development and understanding of concepts.
Principles that inform developmentally appropriate practice
NAEYC defines nine principles of child development that inform developmentally appropriate practice:
1. Children’s development and learning processes reflect the complex interplay between their biological characteristics and environment
Studies show that children who face prolonged adversities such as poverty, racial and cultural discrimination, and limited family resources in early childhood can develop changes in brain chemistry that lead to learning, behavioral, physical, and mental health issues later in life.
Teachers should provide their children with a consistent, responsive, and sensitive education that helps every child feel seen and appreciated so they can handle possible adversities and negative impacts of their environment.
One way teachers can help their children feel seen is by reading picture books that feature characters from diverse backgrounds so they can see themselves represented in stories.
2. All child development domains and learning approaches are important and interconnected
Teachers should foster children’s physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic development. As children learn skills in one developmental domain, they progress in other related domains. For example, as a child develops their language skills, they become capable of communicating more easily with other children, thus developing their social skills.
Teachers can use games and activities to help children develop skills in multiple domains. For example, playing games like “Simon Says” and “Mother May I” with children helps them develop physically, cognitively, and linguistically by improving their gross and fine motor skills, teaching them to follow and give directions, and improving their vocabulary. These games also improve children’s impulse control and executive functioning.
3. Play is essential for all children from birth through age 8
Play-based learning promotes children’s overall wellness and development and fosters their language, motor, cognitive, social, and emotional self-regulation skills. Playing also encourages children’s curiosity and allows them to practice the skills they learn in the classroom.
Teachers can help children learn through play by encouraging them to participate in unstructured, child-led activities that allow them to play and explore without learning objectives, such as playing with blocks or playing pretend. The American Psychological Association states that unstructured play is “a fundamental necessity for children to thrive physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially.”
4. Cultural contexts, experiences, and individual differences must be considered when evaluating children’s development
Children’s cultural identities influence how they demonstrate developmental milestones. For instance, children who primarily speak English may reach social and linguistic development milestones at a different rate than children who primarily speak a language other than English at home.
Teachers should communicate with families to learn more about children’s cultures to ensure the procedures they use to assess children’s development are equitable and free of cultural bias.
5. Children constantly take in and organize information to create meaning through their interactions and experiences
Children are active learners who acquire knowledge and make sense of the world through observation and interaction with adults and other children. In some cultures, children learn new skills and behaviors by actively participating in new experiences, while children in other environments might learn new skills by quietly observing appropriate behaviors.
Teachers should create a positive learning environment that allows children to interact without guidance and develop their own social identities.
6. Children’s motivation to learn increases when their learning environment fosters their sense of belonging, purpose, and agency
Children are more motivated to learn when they feel appreciated and physically and psychologically safe. Teachers can help children feel safe and appreciated by giving them opportunities to meet adults and other children who share their culture and home language. These experiences help affirm children’s identities and foster their social and linguistic development.
Teachers should also foster children’s sense of agency by giving them opportunities to make decisions that impact their learning experiences, such as what activities they’ll take part in or what story will be read to them.
7. Teachers need subject-area knowledge, an understanding of the learning progressions within each subject area, and pedagogical knowledge about teaching each subject effectively
Teachers should have a deep understanding of the concepts of multiple subjects and the connections that can be made between multiple subject areas. This allows teachers to design interdisciplinary activities that let children explore the core concepts of multiple subjects at once. Additionally, understanding the language associated with each discipline helps teachers provide instructions and explain important concepts to their children while avoiding potentially biased language.
8. Children develop and learn when challenged and given opportunities to practice newly acquired skills
Teachers should create a learning environment where children are emotionally supported and motivated to attempt challenging skills. Teachers should observe their children’s progress toward mastering skills and encourage them to use their skills to complete new tasks. For example, children who have mastered sorting identical blocks by color can be asked to sort toys of various shapes by color. By introducing an appropriate level of challenge at the right time, educators can help children progress in their development.
9. Technology and interactive media can be valuable tools for supporting children’s development and learning when used responsibly and intentionally
Using technology in moderation can supplement daily lessons and help children practice their skills. For example, children can use tablets to listen to picture books with audio to identify letters and sounds as a way to support their learning in the classroom. Technology can also help teachers communicate with multilingual children using voice recognition and translation software. In addition, technology and digital media can be used to facilitate communication between educators, families, and children and simplify documentation and assessments.
What are the most important tenets of DAP?
Educators create culturally responsive learning experiences
Developmentally appropriate education programs should support and appreciate families’ cultural diversity by setting classroom expectations that reflect diverse values and cultures. For example, in collectivist cultures, community and interdependence are valued over personal independence.
Teachers can reflect the values of cultures by emphasizing community building over independence. For instance, children can be encouraged to share a set of art materials with each other rather than claiming individual art materials as their own.
Educators leverage children’s individuality to promote learning and development
Developmentally appropriate practice values each child’s individuality and personal identity. Teachers should develop deep relationships with families and get to know each child’s strengths, needs, and interests as well as their cultural identity and values.
Learning about the identities of each child and family helps teachers learn the best ways to connect with and teach the children. This is especially helpful when teaching children with disabilities and children who don’t share the teacher’s cultural identity.
Educators leverage their child development knowledge to promote development across all domains
Teachers should use their knowledge of child development to determine the best ways to teach their children. Teachers can adapt teaching strategies informed by child development to accommodate their children’s unique abilities, strengths, and experiences. Personalizing lessons and activities helps teachers set culturally-appropriate goals that foster every child’s overall development.
To further support your children’s growth and development at each stage, download our list of activity ideas promoting language, sensory, social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development.
How does DAP support children’s development?
Teachers meet children where they are developmentally and see them as individuals
Developmentally appropriate practice allows teachers to get to know each child personally through observations and forming relationships with their families. This allows teachers to engage children in meaningful and joyful work and teach them lessons using their interests and strengths.
Teachers use observations to determine when children have mastered skills and need to be challenged. By observing children’s growth individually, teachers can challenge each child at the right pace and help them become confident, persistent, and motivated learners.
Teachers acknowledge each child’s social & cultural context
Teachers who implement developmentally appropriate practice create a culturally responsive and inclusive learning environment for all of their children. As a result, children feel a strong sense of belonging and community, promoting the social-emotional development necessary for learning.
Developmentally appropriate practice benefits
Children learn to respect each other’s differences
Developmentally appropriate practice encourages children to view themselves and their peers as valued individuals with unique strengths, identities, and experiences. Developmentally appropriate practice teaches children to appreciate diversity and respect the differences that make each person an individual.
Children learn to be persistent when facing challenges
Developmentally appropriate practice encourages teachers to offer gentle guidance and encouragement to children when they’re trying tasks rather than completing the tasks for them. This helps children learn to persist in challenging situations and teaches them that they can complete difficult tasks.
Teachers focus on children’s individual levels of understanding
Every child grows and develops at their own pace. Teachers use observation to determine if children are reaching developmental milestones quickly and need to be challenged or if they’re struggling and need additional support to reach the next milestone.
Using DAP strategies in the classroom
- Introduce new material by making comparisons and connections to familiar concepts. For example, when teaching children about mixing colors, have the child identify each primary color and identify something of that color: “Red like an apple. Blue like the sky.” Then have the child mix the paints and identify the new color: “Purple like a grape.”
- Show children the correct method to complete a task, such as washing their hands, writing numbers, or putting away toys.
- Provide information to children by giving facts or correct labels to things or objects, for example identifying the correct names of different shapes.
- Acknowledge what children do, for example, by giving them praise for positive actions: “It was nice of you to share the toy.” or “High five! You put your coat in your cubby all by yourself.”
- Encourage children to be persistent and complete tasks: “You’ve done a good job writing the first letter of your name. Can you write the next letter?”
- Model positive behavior towards others rather than simply telling children what to do: “It looks like my friend doesn’t have anything to color with. I’m going to share my crayons with them.”
- Give children specific feedback: “The beanbag didn’t get all the way to the hoop, so try throwing it harder.”
- Offer hints or cues when teaching new lessons that build on established skills. For example, place a few objects on a table in two piles so that one pile is larger than the other. Ask the child to identify the pile with more objects while offering a hint such as, “Does this pile look bigger or smaller than that pile?”
- Ask questions that prompt additional learning: “What words rhyme with cat?”
Partnering with families to implement DAP practices
Strong family-teacher partnerships are essential to a child’s early learning success. Establishing family-teacher relationships early on helps teachers learn more about each child’s unique culture, strengths, and abilities and keeps families informed of their child’s overall progress. Solid partnerships allow families to be more engaged with their child’s daily learning and support teachers’ efforts in the classroom. Consider the below strategies to effectively partner with families to implement developmentally appropriate practices.
Conduct intakes at the beginning of the year
At the beginning of the school year, teachers can meet with individual families and children at intake meetings to learn more about each child. Teachers can use this time to gather information about each family’s unique circumstances as well as share more about the program and ease any worries that families may have.
Establish open lines of communication
Ongoing communication between educators and families is key in promoting family engagement in their child’s learning. Teachers can use things like daily reports or childcare management software such as brightwheel to communicate with families and give them real-time updates about their children.
Document learning progress
Teachers can document children’s progress towards developmental milestones and learning goals through tools like progress reports or child portfolios. This way, both educators and families are informed about each child’s achievements, areas for improvement, and growth in key developmental areas, and can work together to support their learning success.
Hold family-teacher conferences
Family-teacher conferences allow families and teachers to meet in person to discuss children’s progress and learn about any changes at home that may impact their learning. Family-teacher conferences also allow families the opportunity to offer their perspectives on their children’s progress, ask any questions, and share their expectations for their children.
Partner with families on curriculum
Working with families to develop a curriculum helps teachers understand areas of a child’s development that they may not be able to observe each day, such as getting dressed or brushing their teeth. For example, a child may have trouble buttoning their pants in the morning before coming to the childcare center. A teacher may be able to help them develop this skill using a buttoning activity.
Using a developmentally appropriate practice in your childcare center will ensure your lessons affirm and support every child’s unique identity. Recognize how social, cultural, and historical context may affect each child’s learning and work with families to incorporate practices that prioritize each child’s individual experiences and identities.
Brightwheel is the complete solution for early education providers, enabling you to streamline your center’s operations and build a stand-out reputation. Brightwheel connects the most critical aspects of running your center—including sign in and out, parent communications, tuition billing, and licensing and compliance—in one easy-to-use tool, along with providing best-in-class customer support and coaching. Brightwheel is trusted by thousands of early education centers and millions of parents. Learn more at mybrightwheel.com.