“Instruction must be developmentally appropriate!” This, or some variation thereof, is something we use and hear frequently in education. However, if you ask someone to define what “developmentally appropriate” means, few can articulate a clear response or envision what it actually looks like in practice. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) as meeting students where they are and helping them to meet challenging but achievable learning goals (Copple, Bredekamp, Koralek, & Charner, 2013). Copple et al. (2013) suggest that effective implementation of DAP requires three things:

  • Knowing about child development and learning
  • Knowing what is individually appropriate
  • Knowing what is culturally important.

Let’s break each of these down in more detail.

Knowing about child development and learning means that educators are well versed in what is typical for the age of the students with whom they work. In other words, based on the chronological age of students, the skills that are typically exhibited and developed during this time period. It is essential that this information is based on research and validated tools, not just on what we think students should know. In addition, it is important not only to be aware of the discrete skills that are typically demonstrated within a given age range, but also to be familiar with what the research says about how children learn. For example, the evidence is clear that, for younger learners, long teacher-directed activities that require students to sit and listen quietly do not take into account the typical attention span for that age group.  As a result, this approach is ineffective and may create additional difficulties when students exhibit “problematic” behaviors because they are not able to attend for such long periods (Copple et al., 2013). So, it is equally important for educators to consider what and how to teach, based on students’ ages.

While it is certainly important to know what skills are typical given a student’s chronological age, it is essential that educators also recognize that all students develop uniquely.  Our students, like all of us, are complex individuals who may demonstrate above-age level skills in some areas while presenting with below-age level skills in others. The only way an educator can truly meet a student where s/he is and set appropriate goals is to know exactly what the student’s strengths and needs are. It is very possible that in the same Kindergarten class, one student may be reading short books independently while another is still learning to recognize letters. DAP means the teacher must differentiate instruction to support both of these children in achieving challenging goals, rather than insisting on a uniform approach.

Finally, we must not forget the importance of knowing what is culturally important for students. We never want to make assumptions about a student based on their race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. Instead, we must make an effort to get to know students’ families and learn about their values, expectations, and the factors that shape their lives at home and in their communities. This background information helps us provide meaningful, relevant, and respectful learning experiences for each child and family.

Copple and Bredekamp (2006) use the analogy of shopping to illustrate how one might successfully take into account these three areas. Let’s say you are taking your 14 year old niece shopping for some back-to-school clothes for her first year of high school. Taking age as a starting point, you would likely take her to the Juniors’ department. That would be considering age appropriateness. However, you are also aware that your niece is tall for her age, so you might guide her to selecting the “tall” sizes of jeans. In addition, you are probably aware of particular colors and styles she likes and does not like and will seek out items to suit her taste. That would be considering individual appropriateness. Finally, knowing that modesty is important to her family, you might guide her away from crop tops and mini-skirts. This would be considering social and cultural contexts. This rather simple activity, which we all would do without giving it much thought, is very similar to how we have to look at the instructional activities we design for our students.

When we hear “developmentally appropriate”, chronological age is often the first thing that comes to mind. However, to truly use DAP effectively, we cannot forget the importance of considering how children learn, what is individually appropriate for that child, and what is relevant given their culture. When we incorporate all of this into our instruction, we can truly help our students achieve challenging goals.


Copple, C., Bredekamp, S., Koralek, D., & Charner, K. (Eds.)(2013). Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Focus on Preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Copple C. & Bredekamp, S. (2006). Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.