Professional Development: Why Developmentally Appropriate Practice is Still Important

  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K
Leadership: A Special Section for Administrators

As children grow, they master different developmental stages. Each stage provides building blocks for intelligence, morality, emotional health, and academic skills.

At each stage, certain experiences are necessary. To learn to relate to others with compassion requires teachers who provide nurturing, empathetic interactions. Learning to read social cues requires that teachers join in interactive play and negotiations. Creative and logical thinking requires that teachers become partners in pretend play, opinion-oriented discussions, and debates.

Children master these developmental tasks at very different paces. Hurrying the child through any stage can actually slow him down.

There are various ways in which the stages of child development have been described. Dr. Greenspan has outlined six functional developmental capacities. These basic functions show the way his mental capacities work together as a team. Cognitive, motor, language, emotional, and social skills act together to help the child deal with his world.

These stages can be described as follows:

Looking, Listening, and Staying Calm

One of the first abilities that all children need is to be calm and regulated and, at the same time, interested and engaged in their environment That means being interested in and attentive to people, things, sights, sounds, smells, and movements. Normally, children start learning this task in the early months of life. If a child doesn't have this ability at any age, then we need to work with the child. You can't jump over this vital internal milestone.

Feeling Close to Others

The inner security that makes it possible for a child to pay attention also gives the child the capacity to be warm, trusting, and intimate, both with adults and peers. Normally, we see this ability reaching an early crescendo between 4 and 6 months. An infant studies her parents' faces, cooing and returning their smiles with a special glow of her own.

Communicating Without Words

The third basic ability builds on the first two (you must be able to focus on and relate to people before you can communicate with them). From an early age, children learn to use and read signals that are expressed not through words, but through behavior, facial expression, body posture, and the like. Children's ability to communicate unfolds in a sequence of stages starting between about 6 and 18 months of age. At first, children communicate only nonverbally, but they can carry on a rich dialogue with smiles, frowns, pointing fingers, squirming, wiggling, gurgling, and crying. By 18 months, children are often very good readers of non-verbal cues ("referencing").

Children who can use and understand nonverbal communication comprehend the fundamentals of human interaction and communication much better than children who can't. This ability to read and respond to nonverbal cues, which a child learns very early in life, plays a continuing part in a child's ability to socialize and learn.

Solving Problems

During this stage, toddlers are learning how the world works. They are now able to recognize patterns and use these in problem solving. A recognition of which actions bring out a desired response in parents lead to a complex series of interactions. Now successful at getting what they want-juice, a toy, or a hug-children of 14 to 18 months begin to develop a sense of self. A number of cognitive abilities grow from these early emotional experiences of solving problems together with another person.

Emotional Ideas

Next, children begin to learn to form mental pictures or images, to form ideas about their wants, their needs, and their emotions. A child who says, "I want that pencil," instead of just grabbing it, is using symbols. We see this capacity when children say, "Give me that" or "I am happy" or "I am sad." They begin to substitute a thought or an idea ("I'm angry!") for an action (kicking or hitting). They not only experience the emotion but are also able to experience the idea of the emotion, which they can then put into words or into make-believe play. They are using an idea, expressed in words, to communicate something about what they want, what, they feel, or what they are going to do.

This ability opens a whole new world of challenges: Children can begin to exercise their minds, bodies, and emotions as one. It is crucial for children to have mastered this kind of communication by the time they get to the grade school years so that they can both understand words spoken to them and use words and ideas to express themselves.

Children learn by hearing others use words to express their emotions in certain contexts. Then when they experience the same emotions or experience, they try the words out. If their efforts are greeted with empathy and are amplified, the connection of word to the feeling is consolidated.

Emotional Thinking

The next ability involves going beyond just labeling a feeling-children gain the ability to think with these images. Between the ages of 2 ½ and 3 ½, children take those emotional ideas that they have elevated from the level of behavior to the level of ideas and make connections between different categories of ideas and feelings: Tm angry today because you didn't come and play with me," or "I feel happy because Mommy was nice." This ability to build bridges between ideas on an emotional level underlies all future logical thought More abstract logic and cause-and-effect thinking builds on this fundamental cause-and-effect thinking.

Helping a child through these stages and fostering these capacities requires a great deal of time and energy, and lots of time down on the floor interacting with the child.

  • Subjects:
    Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles, Early Social Skills, Communication and Language Development, Motor Skills, Social and Emotional Development, Learning and Cognitive Development
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