Saturday, May 07, 2011

Should it Really Be Developmentally Appropriate Practice VERSUS Differentiated Instruction?

Rant time: I'm asking a question, and sharing my opinion.

When it comes to best practices in our early childhood/kindergarten classrooms, should it really be developmentally appropriate practice VERSUS differentiated instruction?  I think not.

There are different philosophies and ideas on teaching and about how children learn best, but it is beyond frustrating to me that advocacy for our students, each of them a WHOLE child, can occasionally be perceived as out-dated, anti-education and anti-progress. As we work to implement Response to Intervention effectively for our students and examine best instructional practices for our youngest learners, I've found that a significant number of newer teachers react with nonchalance when faced with the costly reality:  with a set number of hours in each school day, formal assessments that we are required to administer on a much more regular basis eat into the very valuable yet limited instructional and experiential time our students have with their teachers and one another.

Despite the arguments over NCLB, I can concede this: well-intentioned instructors, parents, and friends of education want to do whatever they can to ensure they are teaching effectively and/or helping children to receive an effective, quality education.  Unfortunately, many believe that the only documentable proof of their students' development and mastery of skills are formal assessments.  Does the acquisition of skills happen on a firm timeline for every child?  No. What if you drill and kill, bribe, punish, throw interventions of all shapes and sizes at them, and successfully enlist the help of their families?  Do all students acquire and master cognitive skills with the utilization of these "tools" at the same time, by the same deadline?  No.  If you're a teacher or parent with an opposing view, hear me out: I'm ~not~ saying that young children should never be assessed or should not have ready access to whatever help and intervention they might truly need.  I'm saying that the mastery outcome dictated by the constraints of the school's calendar year shouldn't ignore the fact that many cognitive skills are developmental in nature.  Prior schema, age, health, learning disabilities, vision, emotion management, social skills and personal interests all vary, student to student.  In my opinion, this necessitates that BOTH developmentally appropriate practice AND differentiated instruction be implemented in our classrooms.

I have no problem changing to meet our students' needs in the best way possible.  I just don't believe that drill and kill instruction and over-assessing while pre-established school calendar deadlines loom are good enough building blocks for my Super Stars.  None provide necessary time for the hands-on, rich and deep experiences my students need in order to build the sturdiest foundation upon which the remainder of their formal school experiences must be built.

Teachers, is developmentally appropriate practice recognized as a valid instructional methodology in your district?   NAEYC coined the term to describe the process of matching the learning environment to the diverse needs of children/students.... exactly what differentiated instruction provides for academic goals.  The significant difference between the definitions of DAP and differentiation is this:  DAP works to match learning environments to the abilities, developmental level, and social, emotional, and physical needs of the whole child as s/he dynamically changes throughout the school year.  It does this by providing exposure, deep rather than superficial experiences, and truly flexible pacing to practice, interact and share so that additional skills are fully developed as each student reaches his or her readiness milestones.  Differentiated instruction applies primarily to helping students master academic skills necessary for curricular success and completion.

Organic development is very different from mechanical development, and should be respected, not seen as an obstacle around which we must maneuver.  Not every student is ready to read at the same time.  Not every student is able to sit still or control his or her outbursts by a pre-established deadline. Not every student retains number by the same date on the school calendar.  They’re not ready until it’s their time to be ready.  Building upon prior schema and providing an experience-rich environment and the time to fully absorb concepts and develop understanding helps students become solidly ready.  DAP aims to provide for the physical, social, emotional AND cognitive needs of children, not just their technical pre-reading and math skills.  I believe that it's the whole child's ongoing, ever-changing developmental stages, needs, and milestones that must be met and supported in order for him or her to be successful at math, reading, socialization, and future problem solving.  Data-driven doesn't always equal student-oriented, and it's that discrepancy that causes our educators and parents to jump to the conclusion that what's best for the test scores child is to immediately barrage him or her with a multitude of "helpful" interventions, none of them being time.  None of them, except retention or encouraging parents to red-shirt their kindergartners.

Am I telling you that I employ a laissez-faire instructional style?  Certainly not. Am I telling you I don't use our common core standards and appropriate tools and assessments as part of the architecture that is my students' learning environment?  No.  But purposely ignoring or assuming that the time required to teach classroom behaviors, routines, problem solving, etc. is separate from how and when we’re best able to effectively teach reading and math concepts means that we value our students’ scores and a school’s calendar deadlines more than our students’ individual needs.  Like young children, DAP isn’t convenient for tests and deadlines.  It’s not designed to be.  It’s designed to best prepare children for all of the future learning they will do. As much as adults wish it possible to create super-children sooner, stronger, smarter, faster, we cannot separate a child’s emotional, developmental and social readiness from his or her academic readiness, no matter what guarantees late-night infomercial peddlers promise to eager, worried, and well meaning parents.  Young children aren’t convenient.  It's not their job to be.

I sincerely wish we as teachers would stop actively trying to force mechanical “improvements” upon organic learners by avoiding debate and limiting our dialogue and time together to figure out how we’ll wring-forth earlier mastery from children who might not be developmentally ready, no matter the teacher's instructional style or number of interventions attempted by many chefs stirring the same pot.  Students have varying needs, but we ignore the fact that one of the best interventions for young learners is simply the gift of time.  Not retention, TIME during the instructional year exploring, revisiting, rethinking, and fully absorbing the meat and potatoes of what has now come to be called the common core standards.  Where will our students find the time to expand their minds and solidify their conceptual understandings if their opportunities to engage in experience-rich activities are dramatically reduced by test after test after test?

Is DAP a new-to-you phrase?  Here are some sites with DAP info for non-early-childhood-ed. specialists.  Uninformed but well-intentioned partners in education can still do more to undermine our students' learning than help it:

Developmentally Appropriate Practice Q and A's

Developmentally Appropriate Practice Defined (article)

Crisis in the Kindergarten (Institute for Democratic Education in America): Why Children Need to Play in School (forward by David Elkind) ;

Quality educators want to teach students well.  They want to offer them all of the necessary tools that they can, to include best instructional practices, so that children remain engaged and capable lifelong learners. Kindergartners are neither inferior nor under-developed, requiring "fixing" to become Wonder Students, capes flowing in the breeze just because they're NOT reading on a first grade level by the end of December or acing time-consuming, boring, and often developmentally inappropriate assessments.  I sincerely hope that someday advocacy and respect for children will replace the bigger/better/faster/sooner mechanical ideal that so many prefer. Numbers are easier to crunch than organic variables, but just because we CAN reduce and categorize students by scores for reading and math doesn't mean we have the right to disregard all that they are, can, and will be, and call it "best practice."


  1. You've said this all very well! I'm in Canada (Toronto) and I teach jk/sk -- kind of like your preschool+kindergarten. most of my kids are 4 and 5 right now. Our Provincial Ministry is ALL ABOUT learning through play -- and DAP. But our school Principals are a different story.It's all about test scores. If the Grade 1s aren't scoring well, then push push push them in kindergarten. Our curriculum states that by the end of Kindergarten students "demonstrate knowledge of most letters of the alphabet in different contexts". It doesn't say anywhere that they should be able to identify 100 different sight words!(that's what my VP wants)!!!grrrrrrrr.I think that my criticism of this has led my P to pull me out of K for next year. sigh...

  2. Martha, you've noted another dramatic problem in education that simply isn't going away: no one has figured out that it's time to start being PRO-STUDENT by being PRO-TEACHER. We are professional, educated, and invested, and as such have a *right* and duty as child advocates to express our concerns and defend best practices in support of our students. Instead, we are expected to be compliant automatons, perhaps what many wish was the new definition of "highly qualified."

    I hope you and your students find yourselves in a good place not only at the end of this year, but as you start your next year too.

  3. would it be inappropriate to just say "WORD"! i love. love. love this a kindergarten teacher I GET IT...thanks for your well thought out RANT...i do appreciate it!

  4. Congrats on being named one of the best Kindergarten blogs!

  5. Michaele. What a great post to 'discover' in my first visit to your blog. Truly brilliant essay (rant) outlining so very many critical issues. Absolutely stunning summary for the onlooker or casual observer to read to get up-to-speed with the enormous issues facing individual teachers and the system at large. It is the children and indeed childhood that gets steam-rolled by the avalanche of testing. Please continue to be brilliant. I'm cheering for you!!!!

  6. Anonymous12:51 PM

    I was told (along with my fellow K teachers) two weeks ago that it didn't really matter what we believed - that this was the reality and we needed to get on board with it.

    They took our house equipment out last year.
    I got rid of my sand table four months ago because we no longer had time to use it.

    Our state assessment for K's consists of approx. 150 "elements".

    What a world we live in.

  7. Kristen5:32 PM

    Wow! You have some very valid points! I have only been teaching for 5 years and assessment has changed dramatically within those 5 years. There is such a variety of students that come into kindergarten and the range of learners is huge. The students definitely need more time. I have to figure out students that should qualify for reading services at the beginning of the year and many of the students would qualify based off of the common core assessments because of the fact that some students have not had enough exposure to the academic pieces of kindergarten yet. Parents are asking me why their child already has to go and get extra help when there has only been 2 weeks of school.

  8. Anonymous2:26 PM

    I am a parenet with a new kindergartener and I completly agree! How do we change it though! I want something better for my daughter but the "kill and drill" and "generate the data we want when we want it" method is so deeply netrenched that I don't know what to do. I want to support our local public school, but it is driving us all crazy (our family). Do you have any suggestions on what a paretn could do to change this!?


As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!