Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Education

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Professor Emerita at Lesley University

Perspective – Thoughts from the Field

Nancy Carlsson-Paige was recently featured on CNN’s Schools of Thought with her piece: My view: Obama, Romney need to know one thing about early childhood education – start over. If you haven’t read it, you should ( We sat down with Nancy to delve deeper into the issue of changing policy on early childhood education.

ECE NewsWatch (ENW): How long has the nation been going in the wrong direction with policy-making for early childhood education? How far back was the exit we missed, and what are our chances of getting on the right interstate again?

Nancy Carlsson-Paige (NCP): I remember when there was a push for more academic content in early childhood in the 1980’s with the back-to-basics movement, but at that time we were able to almost halt its influence on young children because of the strong position NAEYC took with its publication Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) in 1986. Since that time though, we’ve lost a lot of ground as two important trends have lined up to take us in the wrong direction. First, NAEYC has gradually retreated from its strong defense of DAP to the point where the organization has given its support to the Common Core standards. As many early childhood educators and professors have attested, many of these standards are developmentally inappropriate, ignore children’s needs, capacities, and cultures, and do not honor their uniqueness as learners. Second, there is a forceful, nationwide push for early academics that was first legislated by the No Child Left Behind act of 2001 that has now gained traction from Race to the Top that requires standards for pre-K that align with the Common Core.

The policies that push early academics are tied to the larger national education policy agenda that mandates high-stakes tests and teacher and school evaluation based on test scores. Because the focus on academic skills and assessment in early childhood is now part of this larger agenda, it will be an extremely hard trend to reverse. Many early childhood teachers implement tests and standards because they are afraid their programs will lose public funding if tests scores don’t show progress. Principals, also worried about school and program survival, enforce prescribed curricula designed to align with tests. And everyone seems to be in line with the Common Core standards, busily putting energy into the standards for pre-K that will align with the Common Core. I know from several different surveys of early childhood teachers that there is a lot of despair out there among those who know that the heavy testing regimen and scripted teaching approaches are damaging to children. But it is hard for many teachers to know what to do. The only hope we have for turning things around lies with those of us in this field. I hope we early childhood professionals will find, within ourselves and collectively, the will and capability to speak out about what is right for young children.

ENW: You speak a lot about developmentally inappropriate practice in the pre-K and kindergarten age group; can you be more specific with what is meant by “developmentally inappropriate”? Because I think many – in the field and parents alike – do not know what this means or what to look for in early childhood centers.

NCP: There is a lot of confusion these days about what constitutes good education in the early years, brought on by the trends I described above. But we have decades of research and theory in child development telling us how young children learn best. Children need active, direct play and hands-on experiences. They need to see facts in meaningful contexts, to invent their own ideas and problems to explore and solve, to share their own solutions. Children need literacy activities that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and dramatic reenactments that grow out of their experiences; they need open-ended materials to build with, arts activities of all kinds, recess and time in nature. And they need teachers who know how to build curriculum from where children are. What we are seeing today is the replacement of this optimal early childhood environment with a narrowed curriculum and formal instruction in literacy and numeracy. I have been in many classrooms where four- and five-year-old children are sitting in chairs receiving direct instruction from the teacher who is following a script or a prescribed curriculum often aligned with tests the children will be given. These practices are harmful to young children and reflect a loss of trust in their intellectual capacities and an institutionalized crushing of their insatiable love of learning.

ENW: What are your recommendations for how teachers proceed to assess children’s strengths, interests, and abilities to develop curriculum?

NCP: Assessments are very important as a vehicle for continually developing curriculum and ensuring that it is tailored to meet the needs of each individual child. We should choose assessments that are ongoing and evolving and connected closely to observations of children, their development and learning, and to a child-centered curriculum. Teachers can engage in a well-thought out and intentional curriculum that is based on the information gained from these kinds of assessments. But we should not confuse the idea of quality assessments with standardized tests that rank and label children. Not only are such tests unreliable for use with young children, they often upset and confuse children, and cause them great stress, as we are hearing from so many teachers today. Also, we have to deal with the question of quantity. I hear from teachers in many different states that they are mandated to give multiple assessments and tests to children multiple times per year. It doesn’t matter how good the assessments are if too much of teachers’ time, energy, and creativity is drained by having to complete them.

ENW: If you were mentoring new PhD students what research areas might you suggest?

NCP: If I were mentoring PhD students in early childhood right now, I would want to see them become interested in the areas of education policy and professional leadership. In policy studies, I would hope that students could explore the link between family income and school success, and study how the inability of the U.S. to provide a strong welfare safety net contributes to school failure. I’d like students to compare our nation to other wealthy nations on scales of child well-being, and study how that impacts success in school. I would also like to see studies in early childhood professional leadership. I think we are in the situation we are in today because our field is lacking strong leadership and a voice that speaks for the best education for our nation’s young children. NAEYC used to provide this leadership for the field but it no longer does. I think you can tell from my answer here that I value action research that helps us take steps toward becoming a more just society, especially one that protects and supports all of the nation’s young children equitably.

ENW: Here at PDI, we focus on strategies to improve the workforce; in order for the next generation of teachers to succeed on behalf of children, what do you envision?

NCP: The most important way to improve our early childhood workforce, I believe, is to strengthen our profession. In my perfect world, early childhood teachers would all have a master’s degree in early childhood paid for by the government (why not copy Finland?). I would want to provide ongoing professional development free of cost to all teachers. I would build in time for teachers to collaborate on projects of interest to them. I would encourage democratic work places where teachers, parents, and administrators face and solve problems together.

ENW: The election is tomorrow, the candidates have their platforms, but what does the President need to do in terms of getting down to business on charting a new course for early childhood education in this country?

NCP: The President needs to start over with early childhood. He needs to ask early childhood professionals how to approach policy instead of listening to people who don’t know our field. The policies we are seeing in early childhood today are misguided. Policy mandates are causing a push-down of academic skills to 3, 4 and 5 year olds that used to be associated with first-graders through third-graders. Young kids are expected to learn specific facts and skills at specified ages, such as naming the letters and counting by 2’s and 5’s. This is bringing great harm to our nation’s children by portraying them as deficient. The heaviest burden is falling on those who live in poverty and with the fewest resources. To chart a new course for early childhood education, the President needs to start by putting early childhood educators, who have the knowledge base of their professional field, at the head of the policy-making table.

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Having a Job Doesn’t Pay the Child Care Bills?

This article on CNNMoney today really made me arch an eyebrow? It’s the complete opposite side of the story, do you buy it? I also think this is a perfect case for why employer-sponsored child care should be enacted. It may not work for every employer, but the conversation needs to start. A message such as this not only sets women back in the job market, by staying home, it sets families (some families) back in terms of small luxuries like taking a vacation. And for kids that do have stay-at-home moms, are they just being cared for…or are they missing out on stimulating early childhood education experiences in preschool?

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