Appendix A: History and Context
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NAEYC released its original position statement on developmentally appropriate practice in the mid-1980s in response to two specific issues. First, as the number of public prekindergarten programs began to grow rapidly, so too did concerns about inappropriate teaching practices and expectations for preschool and kindergarten children. Second, NAEYC had recently launched its national accreditation system for early learning programs. While the accreditation criteria74 frequently referenced the term “developmentally appropriate,” initial program visits quickly revealed wide variation in how the term was interpreted. The original statement on developmentally appropriate practice focused on 4- and 5-year-olds75 but was soon expanded to address birth through age 8.76 Both the original statement and the expansion helped to build consensus on the meaning of the term within the field and provided a definition for educators to share with families, policymakers, and others.
NAEYC has regularly updated and reaffirmed its position statement on developmentally appropriate practice,77 and the term continues to be widely used within and beyond the early childhood field. Each edition has reflected the context and research of its time, striving to correct common misinterpretations and to disseminate current understandings based on emerging science and professional knowledge.
In many ways, the overriding issue that drove the adoption of the original statement remains. Far too few young children, birth through age 8, consistently participate in high-quality early childhood education experiences that optimally promote their development and learning. Indeed, while the developmental science promotes an understanding of early childhood education as a period encompassing the years from birth through age 8, early childhood education and primary or elementary education are effectively separated in practice. Teaching practices and expectations for young children too often do not reflect the most advanced science regarding creating an effective match between the learning environment and the learner in early childhood education settings.78
Although there has been considerable progress in building public understanding and support for the importance of the early childhood years, a consistent professional framework—across all roles and settings in which early childhood educators work—remains to be implemented. The lack of a shared, consistent professional framework has meant that many educators working with children birth through age 8 are neither effectively prepared nor adequately compensated. This lack of a professional framework has also contributed to inappropriate instructional practices and expectations for children, by many educators as well as by administrators, families, and the public at large. Additionally, since the statement was last revised a decade ago, new information and understandings prompt the need to update the definition of the term and to correct misinterpretations that have led to its misuse.
Notably, over the past few years, the Power to the Profession initiative (P2P) has established the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession that defines a strong, diverse, and effective early childhood profession. As one part of the framework, revised Professional Standards and Competencies for Early Childhood Educators have been defined. These standards and competencies set forth expectations for what all early childhood educators should know and be able to do; they also define key responsibilities across multiple levels of the profession. At the time of this statement’s publication, the work is moving towards adoption, adaptation, alignment, and implementation of recommendations in state and federal policy.
When NAEYC published its first position statement on developmentally appropriate practice, there were very few national groups focused on early childhood education. Since then, the number of organizations and initiatives, both public and private, in this space has grown exponentially. NAEYC is proud to collaborate with these partners to advance our shared goals for children, families, and the early childhood profession. These organizations and initiatives have also contributed to the growing knowledge base related to child development and early education. In the past five years alone, a number of influential national reports have focused on child development, learning, and education, with important implications for defining high quality in early childhood education. Among them are Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, published by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council in 2015 and three reports published between 2016 and 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0–8, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures, and How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. In addition, the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development published A Nation at Hope in 2019. Each of these reports provides an extensive literature review that helped to inform the updates to this statement.
Reframing “Best” Practice
Unlike previous editions, this revision purposefully does not use the term “best practice.” Rather, quality practices informed by evidence, research, and professional judgement are referred to as guidelines for early childhood educators’ professional practice and are directly aligned to the Professional Standards and Competencies for Early Childhood Educators. This reframing reflects the concern that, especially when applied to specific practices, ‘best’ has often been used in the United States to reflect the dominant culture’s assumptions. The dominant culture within the U.S. has historically and generally speaking been that of white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant people of northern European descent. Practices based on specific cultural assumptions without sufficient consideration of the wide variation in individual, social, and cultural contexts can create inherent bias. Educators who rely on the notion of a single “best” practice often make assumptions based on their own experiences, which may not have involved extensive experiences with a variety of populations. These assumptions can be biased if they do not fully consider the specific abilities, interests, experiences, and motivations of a particular child or their family’s culture, preferences, values, and child-rearing practices when determining the most appropriate practice for that child.
This point highlights the complexity of the decision-making process that early childhood educators must engage in each day for each child. Educators must be able to gather the information needed from the child and family to determine the most appropriate practice, articulate why it was chosen, and continue to be open to gathering new information—from the child, family, and the professional community—to assess its success and reflect on what adaptations may be needed moving forward. In this sense, “best” practice does not represent a single practice; what’s best is a dynamic and creative set of practices that embrace and build on the varied assets children bring to the learning community.
The nature of children’s skills and abilities, experiences, languages (including dialects), and cultures is likely to vary greatly within any single group of young children and over time. Early childhood educators must have an extensive repertoire of skills and a dynamic knowledge base to make decisions, sometimes balancing what at first appear to be contradictory demands, in order to address this wide range of diversity. This concept is not new to developmentally appropriate practice (described as “both/and” approaches to decision making in the 1996 and 2009 editions), but we highlight it here in an effort to reduce the continued misuse of developmentally appropriate practice, in which dominant-culture perspectives are equated to “best” practice.
Continuity and Change in This Revision
In many ways, this revision affirms the core concepts of developmentally appropriate practice, with relatively few changes since the 1996 edition. At the same time, this revised statement marks a profound departure requiring significant changes in current professional understanding and practice. How can both statements be true? First, NAEYC continues to underscore three core considerations in developmentally appropriate practice—the knowledge that educators must rely on as they intentionally make decisions each day to guide children’s development and learning toward challenging yet achievable goals. These include (1) knowledge of principles of child development and learning that enable early childhood educators to make general predictions about what experiences are likely to be most enriching for children; (2) knowledge about each child as an individual and the implications for how best to effectively adapt and be responsive to individual variation; and (3) knowledge about the social and cultural contexts in which each child lives—including family and community values, expectations, and linguistic conventions—that educators must strive to understand in order to ensure that learning experiences in the program or school are meaningful, relevant, and respectful for each child and family.
In the past, however, differences in social and cultural contexts were identified as deficits and gaps rather than assets or strengths to be built upon. Additionally, the implications of the educator’s personal and professional social and cultural contexts and of the program setting have largely been ignored. This revised statement reflects an equity lens that underscores these two important aspects in the revised core considerations:
- The principles of child development and learning acknowledge the critical role of social and cultural contexts and the fact that there is greater variation among the “universals” of development than previously recognized.
- Understanding of the social and cultural contexts applies not only to children but also to educators and to the program setting. It is essential to recognize that educators and administrators bring their own social and cultural contexts to bear in their decision making, and they must be aware of the implications of their contexts and associated biases—both implicit and explicit—to avoid taking actions that harm rather than support each child’s development and learning.
These changes are especially important given the growing racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of the domestic and global populations. They are consistent with the NAEYC position statement on Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education and are reflected in the revised principles of child development and learning and guidelines for practice within this position statement.