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Developmentally Appropriate Practice: How, Why and When Your Child Learns What They Learn – by Lourdes Dumke

July 16, 2019

“When do you think he will begin reading? I’m talking about books, not just the words he writes with the Moveable Alphabet.”

There was a long pause before the teacher replied, “Well, we are working on having him sit and concentrate right now, and for him to be interested in books.  I am happy that he knows phonetic sounds and is beginning to read words. He turned four recently, and I feel certain he will read when he is ready.  Also, he is working on some speech challenges, and this impacts his language work.”

The boy’s mother skulked away.  She felt certain that her son was ready to read books now, and perhaps he just needed a bit more of a nudge. After all, her daughter began reading at this age in her primary program. She decided to accept the teacher’s suggestion and give it more time. A few months later, her son’s speech was improving with the help of speech therapy and he began reading. Within six months, reading was almost all he wanted to do at school and at home.

I am a Montessori teacher, but in this story, I am not the teacher: I am the Mom, and the boy is my now-adult son. When this story occurred, I was not yet a teacher but a communications manager at a Fortune 50 company. A few years later when I left the corporate world to become a teacher, I realized what this conversation with my son’s teacher years before was really about: Developmentally appropriate practices. It is a phrase educators use often, yet it eludes many parents. 

For educators, developmentally appropriate practice means considering what research tells us about child development and using that information to determine what children need and when they need it (“3 Core Considerations of DAP | NAEYC”, 2019). Think about it this way: When your child was a young infant, a few weeks old, did you worry constantly about when they would roll-over?  Did your friends say to you: “Perhaps you should get your daughter a tutor to make sure she sits up on time.” Or, “Is she really trying to crawl?  Maybe you should challenge her in that area a bit more.” My guess is that they probably did not say any of those things. Many people accept that in most circumstances, babies roll-over, crawl, and sit-up when they are ready. When children are preschoolers, however, that’s when many of us begin to get a little anxious. “Do they have challenges or gifts that need attention? Will they be ready for kindergarten or first grade? What about college: Is it too early to start thinking about college?” A parent could drive themselves into a frenzy because they just want the best for their children.  But the truth is, many of us worry about things that are largely out of our control. The key to keeping our sanity as parents is to remember that unless a child has exceptionalities, most of the things we worry about are going to happen exactly when they are supposed to happen. 

Let’s consider a few facts we know about preschool-aged children and how they develop:

  • Sequence matters. In the 1920s, a pediatrician and psychologist named Arnold Gesell shed much light on the science of child development with his concepts about maturation. He contended that even when still in gestation, human beings follow a predictable sequence of development, and for this reason, children should be physically and mentally ready for tasks before they are introduced to them and expected to master them (“Arnold Gesell Maturation Theory Explained – HRF“, 2019). 
  • Timing matters. In the Montessori world, we refer to sensitive periods when a child is most open to learning certain concepts because of where they are in their development (“The Ten Secrets of Montessori-#4 Sensitive Periods – Montessori Teacher Training and Parent Resources“, 2019). Although sensitive periods are not the only time a child’s brain can learn particular concepts, these stages of development enable a child to better build connections in those areas (“Better Brains for Babies | Sensitive Periods“, 2019).
  • Play matters, more than anything else. When I was a child in the 1970s, play was literally everything. We arrived home from school and played until dinner time.  We left home on our bicycles on Saturday mornings and came home when we were hungry, then went back into our neighborhoods ready for more play. We laid on the sidewalks in front of our homes at night studying the stars and trying to find the Big Dipper until our parents yelled from our porches that it was time to come inside. We played and played and played until we were sunburned, dirty and exhausted. The world is certainly different now, and many parents are uncomfortable setting their children free to roam their neighborhoods and explore. But there are many opportunities for free, unstructured play inside and outside your home, and creating time and space for those opportunities is critical. When children play, they build skills in many developmental areas, such as cognitive, physical, social, and literacy. They reduce stress, they help keep their bodies healthy and they learn to manage conflicts that inevitably happen when children play together (“10 things every parent should know about play | NAEYC“, 2019). A century ago, Maria Montessori explained that play and work are intertwined when it comes to children, and this is perhaps why many lessons in the Montessori classroom look like they center around play when they actually are carefully designed to aid a child’s development (Larson, 2019).  

If you can begin to understand the science behind your child’s learning and support your child’s needs at home, you might just find yourself where I was 20 years ago: Standing nervously outside of your child’s classroom, doing your best to trust the process.

Lourdes Dumke is a teacher at Suzuki’s Buckhead campus and an AMS-certified primary guide with an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education. She is also the mother of two former Montessori kids who are now a healthcare professional and a soon-to-be high school teacher, and she couldn’t resist sharing their picture above.

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