A Developmental Approach to Educating Young Children

A Developmental Approach to Educating Young Children


Denise H. Daniels & Patricia K. Clarkson


“This book helps the practicing educator turn research into seamless classroom practice. The practice exercises can be implemented immediately to help build student success.”

—Katina Keener, Science/Social Studies Teacher, T. C. Walker Elementary School, Gloucester, VA

Launch young learners on positive pathways through school!

The early school years provide critical opportunities for children to develop foundational skills and positive attitudes toward learning. This book, the first in the Classroom Insights from Educational Psychology series, gives current and prospective PreK–3 teachers valuable insight into how young children feel, think, and learn.

Denise H. Daniels and Patricia K. Clarkson show how current research and theory from educational psychology can be applied to create a child-centered learning environment and to develop best practices for instruction. Readers will gain a deeper understanding of:

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    Series Preface to Classroom Insights

    Division 15, Educational Psychology, of the American Psychological Association and Corwin have partnered to create the innovative Classroom Insights From Educational Psychology series for teachers in an effort to reduce the widening gap between research and theory on learning, teaching, and classroom practice. Educational psychology is a discipline that seeks to understand the integration among human development and learning, classroom learning environments and instructional strategies, and student learning and assessment. In this way, the field of educational psychology is among the most relevant and applicable for teachers.

    While on the one hand, we have seen great advances in our understanding of student learning and instructional practices over the last decade, these advances are not highly visible in today's classrooms, pre-service and graduate teacher education programs, or professional development for teachers. Consequently, classroom practice for the most part does not seem to be highly influenced by current research and theory in educational psychology. Yet federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, state and local agencies, and many school districts and grant programs call for “scientifically-based practices,” “research-based methods,” or “evidence-based decisions.” As part of the solution to this problem, this series of short, easily accessible books for teachers is designed to reflect in-depth, high quality research, to be used in a variety of educational settings, and is endorsed by Division 15.

    As the Classroom Insights series evolves over the years that new volumes are released, we as editors will continue to work with teachers to identify those topics that are most relevant to their current contexts and goals for student learning. We will also be guided by current and evolving research that honors the best practices of teachers and schools that are making proven efforts to reach all students and to help them succeed in their schooling and in retaining their love of learning. The research and practice knowledge base is honored by our commitment to have every book authored by an educational psychologist and at least one teacher colleague.

    The goals of this series are threefold:

    • To give practicing and pre-service teachers access to current advances in research and theory on classroom teaching and learning in an easily understood and usable form.
    • To align teacher preparation, advanced study, and professional development with current advances in research and theory, which have not been widely shared with teachers.
    • To highlight how the most effective teaching practices are based upon a substantial research base and created within classrooms, rather than applied in a “one-size-fits-all” or “silver bullet” approach across classrooms.

    Classroom Insights provides a series of specialized books that will improve teaching and learning in PreK–12 classrooms by focusing on what is most important and relevant to today's teachers. In some volumes the applications are limited to specific age levels or characteristics of students, while in others the ideas can be broadly applied across PreK–12 settings. Classroom strategies are integrated throughout every book and each includes a wide array of resources for teachers to use to study their own practices and improve student achievement and classroom learning environments. Finally, many of these research-based applications will be new approaches and frameworks that have never been published in a series for teachers.

    As series editors our goal is to provide the most up-to-date professional series of teacher resources for connecting teachers with the best and most relevant research in our field of educational psychology. We have planned for every page to provide useful insights for teachers into their current practices in ways that will help them transform classroom learning for their students, themselves, and their school communities.

    Sincerely, Your Series Editors

    Barbara L. McCombs, PhD
    Senior Research Scientist
    University of Denver

    Debra K. Meyer, PhD
    Elmhurst College


    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Yolanda Abel

    Assistant Professor

    School of Education

    Johns Hopkins University

    Baltimore, MD

    Carole S. Campbell

    Early Childhood Specialist and Special Educator

    Higher Ground Educational Consulting

    Green Valley, AZ

    Julie Frederick

    Kindergarten Teacher

    Broadview Thomson Elementary

    Seattle, WA

    Katina Keener

    Science/Social Studies, Grades 1 & 2

    T.C. Walker Elementary School

    Gloucester, VA

    About the Authors

    Denise H. Daniels is a professor of child development at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and a former associate professor of educational psychology at Northern Illinois University. She received her PhD in Education and Developmental Studies from University of California, Los Angeles in 1992. She draws from nearly 20 years of experience teaching educators and other child professionals at undergraduate and graduate levels. Denise's research focuses on children's adjustment and motivation to learn in school and the development of children's and teachers' psychological understandings and beliefs about education. She is involved in a variety of community and state endeavors to promote high quality early educational practices.

    Patricia K. Clarkson is an early education professional who has over 20 years of experience as a director, teacher, and seminar leader. Patty is currently a doctoral candidate in the joint doctoral program in Educational Leadership at University of California, Santa Barbara. She received a BS in Psychology and Human Development and an MA in Education Administration from California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo. Her research interests include teacher beliefs and practices in early childhood education and teacher training programs. Patty has established herself as a leader in early education through developing and directing a private P–6th grade educational program and leading early education seminars in conferences throughout Southern California.

  • Conclusion

    Our goal in A Developmental Approach to Educating Young Children is to provide prospective and practicing preschool and primary teachers with a brief introduction to current thinking about the development and education of children based on research and theory. Children from 4 to 8 years are developing important skills, behaviors, and attitudes toward learning during the early years of school that nudge them toward more or less optimal pathways. This is a time when children are moving from early to middle childhood ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, not necessarily in a straightforward fashion. They are not always easy to understand and predict; careful observation and patience is essential for getting to know children. As in any important developmental transition, this is a time when strengths and vulnerabilities acquired from earlier life play a powerful role in children's adjustment to new experiences and demands— in this case, different school settings. Thus, educators' sensitivity and attunement to children's needs, interests, and development are especially critical as well as fruitful during these years. This is a time when children's most important relationships continue to be with adults. Thus, the adults closest to children—teachers, parents, other caregivers—need to work together to facilitate their adjustment and take advantage of their emerging capacities and enthusiasm for learning. This is a time when children are also developing more sophisticated social awareness and skills that allow them to enhance friendships as well as expand relationships with peers in general. Thus, they need opportunities and support for relating to peers to ensure that they will care about and participate effectively in the learning community at school; otherwise, they probably will not. This is a time when children are still developing abilities to regulate their behavior and are beginning to consciously regulate their thoughts and strategies. Thus, teachers need to provide well-managed classroom routines and activities that allow children to feel comfortable and plan ways to approach learning tasks on their own, as well as with others. This is a time when children are developing important concepts about their world and begin formal learning in subjects that adults deem essential for their adaptation and eventual abilities to contribute to it. Thus, it is important for teachers to utilize instructional strategies that are effective in promoting skills (i.e., math, literacy) as well as thinking processes (i.e., scientific, creative) that will lead children to develop meaningful understandings and incite them to learn more. Taking advantage of opportunities available through technology as well as through direct contact with the natural world is important. Implementing contemporary educational approaches espoused here is difficult. Teachers cannot do it alone; they need assistance, resources, and continuous support. They also need affirmation and signs that they are helping their students learn and develop in positive ways.

    In this little book, we have provided some general recommendations for improving practice from contemporary developmental perspectives to aid in this endeavor. Other books in the Classroom Insights series will provide more specific recommendations for supporting children's learning of subject matter and skills, as well as attend to individual and cultural differences. In Resources, we have provided a list of resources and professional organizations to support teachers in their everyday lives in school. In addition, we have provided a list of inspiring stories written by or about teachers who are attuned to children and courageous enough to share their struggles and achievements vividly and honestly. We hope that these resources for and affirmations of developmentally appropriate practices help, but we know that they are not enough.

    From our experiences working with teachers, we have noted three major obstacles to implementing developmentally appropriate practices in preschools and primary grades today. We have also seen teachers successfully circumvent these obstacles and hopeful signs that some obstacles might dissipate with continued advocacy. The first is the obvious tension teachers feel between implementing practices that they believe are appropriate for children and what they are urged to do to promote academic achievement in the name of the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) or by parents; these tensions in the United States are real and must be acknowledged. Fortunately, these concerns have been recognized by child experts, professional organizations, policymakers, and others. For example, a number of books have been published and public statements made recently about the increased focus on academics and reduction of playtime in schools, such as Elkind's (2009) The Power of Play and the Alliance for Childhood report titled, “Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School” (Miller & Almon, 2009). And tireless advocacy efforts by organizations, such as the National Educational Organization, to modify NCLB appear to be gaining support.

    The second obstacle, related to the first, is that many people in the United States simply do not know much about child development and the implications of this knowledge for education. Misunderstandings are still prevalent, such as “early learning is better” because young children easily “absorb” information, and “sitting still” and following directions promote good behavior and learning. These misunderstandings lead to inappropriate expectations for classroom practices. Therefore, teachers may feel like they have to battle others to implement developmentally appropriate practices. It is interesting that standard early educational practices in other countries that are often revered for excellent academic achievement, such as Japan, appear to be fairly in line with what American developmental and educational psychologists advocate. For example, Japanese educators pay much more attention to helping children develop socioemotional skills and relationships through play than to academic instruction in the early school years (e.g., Lewis, 1995; Tobin et al., 2009). Perhaps current concerns with catching up with student achievements in other countries, especially in science and math, will point us to examine beliefs about children's development and early educational practices in other countries as well as in our own. Such reexamination might help others to realize the benefits of approaches that patiently nurture children's development across domains to enhance academic learning and life skills.

    The third obstacle is that implementing the kinds of practices advocated here is challenging and time-consuming, especially for inexperienced teachers. It requires support from administrators, resources, and time to discuss and reflect on practices with colleagues and mentors (e.g., Ritchie & Crawford, 2009). In addition, it requires understanding of child development (Chapters 1 & 2), and how to balance child- and teacher-directed practices (Chapter 4), establish positive relationships (Chapter 3), and deal with a host of other responsibilities along with helping children move toward established learning standards. Some of these standards need reexamination. We do not have to compromise high quality practices for high standards (if they are appropriate), but we might have to educate others about what quality practices look like for young children. Fortunately, we have professional organizations like NAEYC and others to turn to for clear explanations and examples that can be shared with others.

    Although implementing developmentally appropriate practices is challenging, it is highly rewarding. Educators are more likely to elicit children's cooperation, enthusiasm, engagement, and “wonderful intellectual ideas” with contemporary, constructivist approaches than with more traditional approaches (e.g., Duckworth, 1996). They will spend less time correcting misbehavior and having to coerce children to do schoolwork, tasks that drain energy and passions for teaching. We believe that greater implementation of and support for the practices advocated here will help to entice and retain the enthusiastic, intelligent educators needed for guiding children toward positive pathways through school and life.

    Resource A: Tools for Reflection and Improvement

    A.1 Contemporary and Traditional Teacher Beliefs about Children and Appropriate Practices
    (From Table 1.2)

    A.2 Children's Approaches to Learning in the Classroom
    (From Table 2.1)

    A.3 Promoting Self-Regulation in Preschool and Primary-Grade Classrooms
    (From Table 2.2)

    A.4 Helping Children Become Less Inhibited in the Early Grades of School
    (See Chapter 2, Children at Risk for Adjustment Difficulties)

    A.5 Preschool to Kindergarten Transition
    (See Chapter 2, Readiness of the School)

    • Prekindergarten children visit a kindergarten class.
    • The prekindergarten teacher visits a kindergarten class.
    • The kindergarten teacher visits a preschool class.
    • The school holds a spring kindergarten orientation for prekindergarten children.
    • The school holds a spring kindergarten orientation for prekindergarten children's parents.
    • There is a schoolwide activity for prekindergarten children.
    • Teachers hold individual meetings with parents about kindergarten.
    • Teachers share written records about children's prekindergarten experience with elementary school teachers.
    • Teachers contact the kindergarten teacher about curriculum and/or specific children







    A.6 Teacher-Child Relationship Interview Questions
    (From Table 3.1)

    A.7 Promoting Positive Teacher-Child Relationships
    (See Chapter 3)

    A.8 Children's Peer Relations in Preschool and the Primary Grades
    (See Chapter 3, Child-Child Relationships in School)

    A.9 Promoting Healthy Peer Relations
    (See Chapter 3, Child-Child Relationships in School)

    A.10 Promoting Family Involvement
    (See Chapter 3, Teacher-Parent Relationships and Family Involvement in School)

    A.11 Creating Partnerships with Parents and Families
    (From Table 3.4)

    A.12 Positive Classroom Climates
    (From Table 4.1)

    A.13 Constructivist Classroom Organization
    (From Table 4.2)

    A.14 Quality Instructional Practices
    (See Chapter 4, Classroom Instruction)

    A.15 Thinking About the “Learners” in a Classroom
    (From Table 4.3)

    A.16 Guidelines for Fostering Learning and Development with Technology
    (From Table 5.1)

    A.17 Enhancing Outdoor Educational Environments and Activities
    (From Table 5.2)


    5 to 7 Developmental Shift. The change in children's thinking, behavior, and relationships as a result of the dynamic interplay between their developing abilities to make sense of their thoughts, feelings, and changing worlds, and the ways in which these worlds stimulate and respond to them.

    Approaches to Learning. A broad range of skills or dispositions that influences children's learning and adjustment; includes school-related attitudes, engagement in activities, persistence, and work habits.

    Attachment Theory. A developmental theory stipulating that the quality of attachment a child has to one or more caregivers (affective relationship) influences feelings of security and trust and subsequent relationships; Bowlby's theory.

    Classroom Climate. The social and emotional atmosphere of the classroom.

    Classroom Instructional Support. Classroom practices which support learning processes and curriculum goals.

    Classroom Organization. Management of classroom activities, including routines, behaviors, and instructional formats that influence student engagement.

    Close Relationship. A relationship characterized by warmth, open communication, and appropriate dependency.

    Conflicted Relationship. A relationship between individuals who are often at odds and show little affection for each other.

    Constructivist. An educational approach based on ideas that children must “construct” their own knowledge and understanding of the world. Teachers guide the process of learning through creating learning activities and focusing attention, posing questions, and stretching children's thinking.

    Dependent Relationship. A relationship in which one individual (e.g., child) is overly reliant on the other (e.g., teacher), and interactions are often emotionally negative.

    Developmentally Appropriate Practices (DAP). A phrase used to describe teaching strategies, curriculum, discipline practices, learning approaches, classroom environments, and interpersonal relationships that promote children's development at all ages.

    Digital Divide. The unequal access to computer technologies among children from different income groups.

    Domains of Readiness. Related to self-regulation, domains of readiness include executive functioning, emotional regulation, and approaches to learning. Skills in these domains affect many aspects of children's learning and development in school.

    Ecological Perspective. View of development attending to children's interactions and relationships with others in multiple environmental contexts, based on Bronfenbrenner's ecological model.

    Educational Television or Computer Programs. Programs intentionally designed to teach children academic concepts.

    Effortful Control (EC). Efficient management of one's thought processes.

    Emotional Regulation (ER). Management of the intensity of emotional responses such as anger, fear, pleasure, or sadness appropriate for the situation.

    Executive Function (EF). The ability to control thinking processes to complete a task, such as holding information in mind (working memory), shifting attention appropriately, and inhibiting irrelevant actions.

    Learner (Child)-Centered Practices. Educational practices based on understandings of developmental and psychological processes. Involves the teacher assuming a “facilitator” or “partner” role and encouraging children to take responsibility for their learning.

    Memory Strategies. A conscious effort (plan of action) to encode or recall information from memory to achieve a goal, for example, plans to remember where a favorite toy is located.

    Outdoor Education. Organized learning that takes place outside.

    Playful Learning. Enjoyable guided play that appears spontaneous and encourages academic exploration and learning.

    Profiles of School Readiness. Subgroups of children displaying similar patterns of strengths and weaknesses across domains of competence (i.e., cognitive, social, behavioral).

    Prosocial Programs. Programs that focus on the social and emotional needs and skills of children and encourage positive behavior.

    Reactive Aggression. An aggressive response that is easily provoked by irritation or perceived or actual threats.

    Reciprocal Teaching. A group discussion between students and the teacher (or adult) designed to strengthen comprehension skills. Teachers and students take turns being the discussion leader, and students learn how to monitor their understanding of what they are reading through dialogue.

    Reticent Behavior. Approach-avoidant behavior often manifested in prolonged onlooker behavior.

    Scaffolding. The process by which adults provide support to a child who is learning to master a task or problem by performing or directing those elements of the task that are beyond the child's ability.

    School Adjustment. Indicators of children's adjustment to school are attitudes and emotional experiences, involvement and engagement with activities, and performance.

    School Readiness. Often refers to the skills and knowledge that children bring to school that are associated with later adjustment and achievement. Current focus is on the provision of supports within schools for fostering children's adjustment and learning.

    Self-Reflection. The ability to reflect upon one's own thoughts, emotions, and attributes, such as asking, “Am I doing this right?”

    Self-Regulation Skills. Children's ability to manage their emotions, focus their attention, and inhibit some behaviors while engaging in goal-directed behavior.

    Social Competence. Socially adaptive behavior, especially with peers.

    Social-Constructivist. An approach to learning and teaching based on Vygotsky's theory of development. Children participate in a wide range of activities with teachers and peers as they jointly construct understandings.

    Teacher-Directed Practices. Activities, instructional practices, and classroom accommodations planned and implemented by the teacher.

    Theories of Mind. Children's intuitive or developing psychological theories about mental states, such as beliefs, intention, desires, and emotions. Children develop abilities to compare their own unobservable thoughts, desires, and beliefs with others.

    Working Models. The child's expectation of a relationship based on previous experiences.

    Zone of Proximal Development. The gap between what children can do on their own and what they can do with assistance from others, based on Vygotsky's notion.


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