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V.1 #3 Early Intervention - Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice "Appropriate" for Youn

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is an oft-used but sometimes not-so-well understood phrase in early childhood education. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 1996) describes DAP as teaching children in ways that (a) meet children where they are, and (b) help them to reach challenging yet achievable goals designed to propel their learning and development forward.

To decide what kinds of learning activities are developmentally appropriate for children, early childhood educators should consider three important factors: (a) the child’s age, (b) individual factors (e.g., personality, learning style, preferences, prior experience), and (c) cultural factors (e.g., cultural norms, values, communication patterns).

Copple and Bredekamp (2006) use the analogy of a mother shopping for a young girl’s dress to explain how educators might consider a child’s age, individual factors, and cultural factors when selecting developmentally appropriate activities for young children. First, the mother would consider her daughter’s age. If she’s eight years old, her mother would probably begin by heading for the section of the store with clothing in sizes 7-10. Second, the mother would consider individual factors to further narrow the possible number of dresses. If the child is tall for her age, her mother might search the racks containing larger sizes in the 7-10 range, and would not search through dresses that are too small or too large. To further narrow the selection, the mother would consider her daughter’s personality and preferences. If the child loves blue, her mother would likely spend more time looking at blue dresses than other colors. Finally, the mother would consider the social and cultural contexts in which her daughter would be wearing the dress. Such considerations would help her decide whether to select a long dress, a dress with sleeves, or a dress with a fun print.

Since the introduction of the term, many people in early childhood education have questioned the “appropriateness” of DAP for children suspected of having a learning disability, who have an identified learning disability, or who are at risk for a disability. In some cases, educators question whether certain emergent literacy skills, such as alphabet knowledge, are appropriate targets for children who are lagging behind their peers in one or more developmental domains. Unfortunately, the idea that DAP is inappropriate for children with disabilities misses the mark by giving to much weight to a child’s age and too little weight to individual and cultural factors. Children with disabilities, like all other children, can benefit from challenging yet achievable goals that help them advance their learning and development.

Taking alphabet knowledge again as an example, research indicates that knowing the letters of the alphabet is an important precursor for reading. Although children with disabilities might know no-to-few letters upon entering preschool (fewer than peers of the same age who are developing in a typical fashion), teachers can still introduce letters to them, perhaps by beginning with letters in each child’s name. Teachers should also consider the individual interests of each child when introducing letters to them (e.g., by reading alphabet books to children who especially enjoy books or by using modeling clay with children who might enjoy molding letter shapes).

Finally, teachers should consider social and cultural factors. They might, for example, (a) keep parents informed about their children’s progress in alphabet knowledge and other emergent literacy skills; and (b) explain to parents how they can further build on their child’s skills in the home (e.g., by drawing attention to environmental print on cereal boxes and signs).

Remembering that age is only but the first of three important considerations should help teachers of children with disabilities feel more comfortable with the idea of meeting children at their level and then structuring activities that are neither too easy nor too hard. Regardless of disability, activities that are moderately challenging can promote children’s learning and development.


Copple C., & Bredekamp, S. (2006). Basics of developmentally appropriate practice: An introduction for Teachers of children 3 to 6. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1996). A position statement: Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Available from

Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist in Washington, DC. She is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall).

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