Developmentally Appropriate Practice Handbook

Chapter 6


In a DAP classroom, the environment invites children to explore, question, problem solve and play. Children respond to DAP classrooms by being engaged, responsive, challenged and involved. The focus on healthy teacher-student relationships helps develop all aspects of a child’s development. Healthy relationships enhance a child’s self-esteem and assist in the development of secure relationships with other adults. DAP classrooms also encourage children to build healthy peer relationships and reduce the frequency of behavior problems.

An effective teacher understands theories of child development and uses these to guide curricular, environmental, and experiential decision making. Effective early childhood professionals structure children’s educational experiences to best suit their age and abilities. Children should be challenged, but not frustrated. Finding this point with each child is the goal of DAP. Lessons should be planned with state standards, student interests and abilities, and time and environmental constraints in mind. Teachers intentionally plan the environment so that children can lead but will inevitable lead towards important learning goals.

Recognizing play as critical for children to experience joy and wonder, early childhood educators incorporate frequent opportunities for play in their teaching strategies. They plan learning environments that provide a mix of self-directed play, guided play, and direct instruction. Educators maximize opportunities for children to choose the materials, playmates, topics, and approaches they use throughout the day for all children, birth through age 8. Educators support and extend children’s play experiences by providing materials and resources based on careful observation of children’s play choices. Adult-guided activities provide for children’s active agency as educators offer specific guidance and support to scaffold and extend children’s interest, engagement, and learning. Direct instruction—for example, providing children with relevant academic vocabulary, pointing out relationships, helping children recognize specific phenomena, or suggesting an alternative perspective—is an important tool for supporting children’s learning. Its effectiveness is determined by the degree to which it extends children’s interests and learning in meaningful ways and educators’ sensitivity to changes in children’s interest. Individually or in small or large groups, across all activities—self-directed play, guided play, direct instruction, and routines—the teacher is responsible for ensuring that each child’s overall experiences are stimulating, engaging, and developmentally, linguistically, and culturally responsive across all domains of development and learning. Promoting many opportunities for agency for each child is essential to fulfilling this responsibility. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 21)


Moving Forward with DAP

Infusing DAP into the classroom environment and learning activities should be a part of the daily routine. A school that is DAP driven should already have a philosophy in place that focuses on the DAP principles previously outlined. Individual teachers’ decisions should be made with the DAP-based philosophy in mind. The following is a list of suggestions from NAEYC that can be utilized on a daily basis to help with DAP implementation in your classroom. Following is a printable infographic to keep with planning materials.

  1. Acknowledge what children do or say. Let children know that we have noticed by giving positive attention, sometimes through comments, sometimes through just sitting nearby and observing. (“Thanks for your help, Kavi.” “You found another way to show 5.”)
  2. Encourage persistence and effort rather than just praising and evaluating what the child has done. (“You’re thinking of lots of words to describe the dog in the story. Let’s keep going!”)
  3. Give specific feedback rather than general comments. (“The beanbag didn’t get all the way to the hoop, James, so you might try throwing it harder.”)
  4. Model attitudes, ways of approaching problems, and behavior toward others, showing children rather than just telling them (“Hmm, that didn’t work and I need to think about why.” “I’m sorry, Ben, I missed part of what you said. Please tell me again.”)
  5. Demonstrate the correct way to do something. This usually involves a procedure that needs to be done in a certain way (such as using a wire whisk or writing the letter P).
  6. Create or add challenge so that a task goes a bit beyond what the children can already do. For example, you lay out a collection of chips, count them together and then ask a small group of children to tell you how many are left after they see you removing some of the chips. The children count the remaining chips to help come up with the answer. To add a challenge, you could hide the chips after you remove some, and the children will have to use a strategy other than counting the remaining chips to come up with the answer. To reduce challenge, you could simplify the task by guiding the children to touch each chip once as they count the remaining chips.
  7. Ask questions that provoke children’s thinking. (“If you couldn’t talk to your partner, how else could you let him know what to do?”)
  8. Give assistance (such as a cue or hint) to help children work on the edge of their current competence (“Can you think of a word that rhymes with your name, Matt? How about bat . . . Matt/bat? What else rhymes with Matt and bat?”)
  9. Provide information, directly giving children facts, verbal labels, and other information. (“This one that looks like a big mouse with a short tail is called a vole.”)
  10.  Give directions for children’s action or behavior. (“Touch each block only once as you count them.” “You want to move that icon over here? Okay, click on it and hold down, then drag it to wherever you want.”)

A small version of the previous list in infographic form in located on the next page of this handbook.  You may want to print a large version and post it in your classroom.  You can download the infographic for printing using the link below.



In order for DAP to be successful in your learning environment, the basic practices should be infused into all aspects of the center. Total involvement will serve to help each child meet with success and equip them with the skills to progress to their next level of learning. The summary that follows is designed to help with this integration.

Community of learners

  • Provide nurturing, loving, responsive, joyous, and safe care.
  • Build consistent and caring relationships among children, families, and co-workers.
  • Value and respect all members of the community.
  • Celebrate and embrace diversity, reflecting children’s cultures in the classroom and activities.
  • Develop open positive collaborations with families and colleagues to support children’s learning and development.
  • Focus on building self-confidence, self-regulation, and problem-solving skills


  • Offer both child initiated and teacher-[guided] learning experiences.
  • Be responsive to children’s ideas by offering materials, documentation (samples of their work, photographs, etc.), and thoughtful conversation that builds on their ideas, skills, and knowledge.
  • Plan for hands on experiences where children learn by doing.
  • Plan enough time for children to explore and fully engage (as well as revisit) their interests.
  • Build children’s learning by adding activities that challenge children and expand on what they can do.


  • Identify and define core learning goals for individual children and the program.
  • Develop a curriculum framework based on child development, individual learning, and cultures of the children in your group and that reflects learning goals.
  • Use the framework for planning activities, experiences, and routines.
  • Present rich content, focused work/center areas, and both indoor and outdoor environments that have meaningful connections to children’s interests, curiosities, and development.
  • Allow for flexibility in programming.


  • Assess what is appropriate for children developmentally, individually, and culturally.
  • Use assessment tools that allow you to assess children in an authentic, ongoing, and intentional manner.
  • Develop a system for collecting and compiling assessment information.
  • Use results for planning, decision-making, communicating with families and other colleagues, and to identify children who may need additional learning support.
  • Gather information from multiple sources, including families, children, and other teachers.


  • Welcome all families into the program and invite them to participate in a variety of ways.
  • Work in partnership with families.
  • Communicate regularly with families in an open, positive, two-way manner.
  • Respect and acknowledge family goals and choices for their child.
  • Involve families in planning for their children.
  • Be responsive to family concerns.
  • Be familiar with community programs and support families by referring them to additional services as needed. 

To make effective decisions . . ., practitioners need to be reflective and intentional. Take time to reflect on the children, your teaching, and your interactions. Think about what happened, what worked, what didn’t, and any surprises. Be intentional in your planning for children, in developing policies and procedures, in designing the environment, and in your approach. Think about why you do what you do, keeping your vision and goals for children in mind. Effective decision-making will guide you in choosing the best strategies for meeting the needs of the children and families. (Penn State Extension, 2016a, p.2)