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What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)?

DAP is a reactionary pedagogical movement started by early childhood educators which opposed what proponents felt was a developmentally inappropriate increase of academic expectations for students. DAP holds three central concepts:

1) That there is a specific age in which it is developmentally appropriate for students to learn specific curriculums. 

2) That teachers hold expert knowledge in regard to their students and therefore should be able to make decisions about developmentally appropriate curriculum goals for their students.

3) That the younger the student is the less direct instruction and the more inquiry based learning a student should have. 

What the Literature Tells us About Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Personally, I have some doubts and reservations regarding the efficacy of Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). While I strongly believe we need to be moving more toward evidence-based practices (not only in education, but in all fields), I am not convinced that DAP is entirely evidenced-based within its approach as I have been unable to find any meta-studies examining its efficacy. It is also difficult to evaluate the quality of such an all-encompassing approach as DAP with scientific objectivity when it includes so many tenants, methods, and sub-theories. That being said, I can see that many of the principles of DAP are inspired by scientifically validated principals, such as constructionism and active/discovery learning approaches. DAP, however, also seems to place a heavy emphasis on moderate learning expectations. But, the Hattie Scale shows that high expectations and teacher estimates of achievement are highly ranked relative to other pedagogical methods for student success, while moderate expectations, by comparison, are not.

This primary focus of DAP, then, does not appear to be strongly evidence-based. While DAP advocates will cite studies supporting its pedagogical efficacy, these studies do not compare DAP to any alternative strategies. Thus, the improvement in classes after implementing DAP, as discussed in previous articles and podcasts, could merely be a placebo effect. If we look at Hattie’s Scale, for example, there are a vast multitude of teaching methodologies which show some level of impact on student success; however, when there is no methodology being compared, it is impossible to understand whether or not the students showed improvement because of the implemented DAP program or because of previously ineffective teaching strategies. Personally, I think we should attempt to get away from large encompassing theories or the use of educational gurus and start to move toward the inclusion of individual evidence-based principles. 

Developmentally Appropriate Practice and Observational Assessment

One problem with DAP is its heavy emphasis on observational assessment. While I think it is possible to establish solid criteria for making observational assessments objective, I still worry about the overall efficacy of those assessments and their potential for fostering social bias. When I first started teaching primary classes, I objected to production-based assessments, because I felt they lacked relevance to children’s development. However, after being encouraged to use them by my principals, I was surprised to find that student achievements in my production based assessments were radically different from my observational impressions of student development. There is a large body of research showing that all people harbor some level of social bias. Teachers can be biased against students for something as malicious as gender or as subtle as student in-class behavior. I would hypothesize that the less observational the assessments and the more detailed the rubrics we, as educators, use, the less biased our assessment data will be.  

Developmentally Appropriate Practice and Inquiry Based Learning (IBL)

The DAP movement has pushed the idea that the younger a child is the less developmentally appropriate direct instruction is and, conversely, the more appropriate Inquiry Based Learning is. This idea, likely, is a response to the fact that young children have very short attention spans and little prior knowledge, making long periods of direct instruction virtually useless. However, the fact that young learners cannot handle long periods of direct instruction does not make Inquiry Based Learning any more effective as a pedagogical method. In fact, meta-studies and reviews on the topic, such as the ones by Friesen and Lazonder, would seem to suggest that the older a child is the more developmentally appropriate IBL is and conversely the younger a child is the less appropriate IBL is. Early primary students likely cannot handle sustained amounts of meaningful instruction. 

Developmentally Appropriate Practice and the Pygmalion Effect

My most pressing concern with the DAP movement is the fact that it advocates for teachers to be the final arbiters of reasonable expectations for students. However, when we look at the Pygmalion Effect, we see that teachers lowering their expectations of students might be one of the most harmful practices a teacher can engage in. Furthermore, Hattie's research on the impact of high expectations for students also confirms that high expectations should be in the top priorities of a teacher. Labelling theory advocates that, if we give a person a label, that the person will, over time, grow to fit the label, ultimately, creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. While not all teachers would use the philosophy of DAP to lower their expectations, educators are more likely to lower academic expectations in an area negatively impacted by socio-economic factors and social biases, such as schools affected by racialized populations. 

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Written by: Nate Joseph

Last Edited: 6/14/2019


-Lazonder, Ard W and R Hamesen. (2018).  “Meta-Analysis of Inquiry Based Learning.” Review of Education Research. 86.3
-S Freisen. (2013). Inquiry-Based Learning: A review of Research Literature. Galileo Education Network, University of Calgary. Retrieved from <>.
-J, Hattie. (2017). Hattie’s 2017 Updated List of Factors Influencing Student Achievement. Retrieved from <>
-C, Copple and S, Bredekamp. (2008). Developmentally Appropriate Practice. NAYEC.
- A, Crossman. (2018). An Overview of Labeling Theory. ThoughtCO. Retrieved from <>
-T, Oppong. (2018). Pygmalion Effect: How Expectation Shape Behaviour For Better or Worse. Medium. Retrieved from <>

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