By Danielle Houser and Cathy Osborne

Developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) describes an approach to education that focuses on the child as a developing human being and life long learner. This approach recognized the child as an active participant in the learning process; a participant who constructs meaning and knowledge through interaction with others, friends and family, materials and environment. The teacher is an active facilitator who helps the child make meaning of the various activities and interactions encountered throughout the day.

Developmentally appropriate practices require teachers to make decisions in the classroom by combining their knowledge of child development with an understanding of the individual child to achieve desired and meaningful outcomes. The term developmentally appropriate practices was popularized by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) with the 1987 publication of its Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practices in Early Childhood Programs. NAEYC developed the position statement to support its early childhood program accreditation system, which acknowledges and endorses programs offering appropriate early childhood practices.

With this system, early childhood educators can have a clear sense of appropriate early childhood practices. This way they might not use inappropriate developmental and academic expectations to prepare children for public school kindergarten programs.

At the same time NAEYC addressed the issue of appropriate practices in early childhood education, landmark decisions were made in education and civil rights legislation. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and the Pennsylvania Early Intervention Services Systems Act (Act 212) entitle eligible young children (birth through the age of beginners) and their families to early intervention services and programs. A key component of this legislation calls for the inclusion of children who have disabilities in natural environments; that is, in community activities and programs with their peers who are not disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, P.L. 101-336) requires all early childhood programs be prepared to serve all children. This trend toward inclusion of children who have disabilities into all early childhood settings, including home-and center-based child care programs, nursery schools, play groups, Head Start, preschools and kindergartens, requires partnerships between early childhood education and early childhood special education.

Focus On Individualization
Although each discipline has its own unique philosophical base, shared quality practices that are good for all children can be identified. Both early childhood education and early childhood special education believe in the importance of individualization. This is a key principle of special education in providing specific intervention strategies appropriate for each child and for the development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP). NAEYC has identified "individually appropriate" as part of its larger definition of "developmentally appropriate." NAEYC defines "developmentally appropriate" as both "individually appropriate and age appropriate."

All children benefit from the use of naturalistic and multidimensional assessment strategies. The use of a single test score to determine eligibility for special education or to retain a child at a grade level is not endorsed by either discipline. Assessment must become more naturalistic and multidimensional to help educators understand and meet the developmental needs of very young children. This can be achieved through the use of integrated curriculum and assessment materials and strategies. This approach provides developmental information and ideas for program development. The use of authentic assessment techniques in early childhood programs uses a longitudinal look at children's work in the context of the curriculum to evaluate individuals progress. This may be done by documenting children's work in portfolios.

Meaningful Learning
All children learn best when they have real materials they can manipulate. Another principle shared by early childhood education and early childhood special education is the importance of meaningful learning experiences. Through direct sensory involvement with their environment, children learn about topics that are personally meaningful and interesting. Teaching children who have or do not have disabilities requires the use of real and relevant materials and experiences. Discovering what works best for all children requires knowledge of each child, knowledge of how children learn and clear learning outcomes.

With these core components in place, other program areas can be planned, such as physical environment, teaching strategies, classroom management, materials, curriculum, evaluation, family education, staffing and staff development. The developmentally appropriate practices approach to early childhood education uses this framework. When all early childhood programs begin to respond to the individual needs of the learner, work within the context of realistic developmental expectations and use meaningful learning experiences, all children will benefit.


Bredekamp, Sue (Ed.). (1987). Developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Bredekamp, Sue. "The Relationship Between Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education: Healthy Marriage or Family Feud?" Topics in Early Childhood Special Education (Fall 1993): 258-274.

Carta, Judith J., Atwater, Jane B., Schwartz, Ilene S., McConnell, Scott R. "A Reaction to Johnson and McChesney Johnson." Topics in Early Childhood Special Education (Fall 1993): 243-255.

Griffin, Eileen. Developmentally Appropriate Practices Training Materials for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The Griffin Center For Human Development, Guilford, CT.

Danielle Houser is the Director of Early Intervention Technical Assistance (EITA) for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Bureau of Special Education.

Cathy Osborne is a consultant with EITA.

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