Early Learning Center

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Early Childhood Development


Early childhood development is defined as “a set of concepts, principles, and facts that explain, describe and account for the processes involved in change from immature to mature status and functioning” (Katz, 1996, p. 137). Development is generally divided into three broad categories: physical development, cognitive development, and social emotional development (Berk, 2000). Physical development addresses any change in the body, including how children grow, how they move, and how they perceive their environment. Cognitive development pertains to the mental processes (e.g., language, memory, problem solving) that children use to acquire and use knowledge. Emotional and social development addresses how children handle relationships with others, as well as understand of their own feelings.

Early childhood development is generally divided into three age categories (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). The first age category includes infants and toddlers who are between the ages of birth and 3 years of age. According to Lally and colleagues (1997), the most important factor for young infants (birth to 8 months) is security with primary caregivers. Between the ages of 9 to 18 months, mobile infants are mostly concerned with exploration and between 18 and 36 months, the central focus of development is identity, and children become more independent. The second age category of early childhood development includes preschoolers who are 3 to 5 years of age. According to Bredecamp and Copple (1997), this period of development is characterized by rapid gross motor development (e.g., jumping, hopping, skipping), refined movement of small muscles for object manipulation, major increases in vocabulary and use of language, abstract representation of mental constructs, and the development of relationships with other young children. The final category of early childhood development includes those children in the primary grades who are between 6 and 8 years of age. Bredekamp and Copple (1997) describe highlights in primary-aged children’s development during this time: Gross and fine motor development is characterized by children’s ability to perform controlled movements and sequence motor skills. Greater reasoning, problem solving, and assimilation also characterize children’s cognitive development at this stage. During the primary years, children’s vocabulary increases at a rapid pace. In addition, their written communication skills develop. Socially, primary-aged children begin to understand others’ perspectives, are concerned with fairness, and monitor their own behavior.


Practices for enhancing children’s development are influenced most by child development theories. Berk defines a theory as “an orderly, integrated set of statements that describes, explains, and predicts behavior” (2000, p. 6). Generally speaking there are four broad theoretical perspectives that guide practice in early childhood development: behaviorism and social learning theory, cognitive-developmental theory, sociocultural theory, and ecological systems theory.

B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) is most noted for his theory of behaviorism or more specifically operant conditioning theory, which is based on the premise that children’s behavior can be increased based on the presentation of reinforcers and decreased through punishment (Berk, 2000). Social learning theory, created by Albert Bandura (b. 1925), expands on operant conditioning by adding the idea that imitation or observational learning increases the chances that children will learn new behaviors. Generally speaking, behaviorists believe that children’s development is outside of their own influence, that it is shaped by environmental stimuli (Daniels & Shumow, 2003).

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) is credited with the cognitive-developmental theory that “views the child as actively constructing knowledge and cognitive development as taking place in stages” (Berk, 2000, p. 21). According to his con-structivist theory, Piaget asserted that children pass through four distinct stages of development, including the sensor-imotor stage (birth to 2 years), preoperational stage (2 to 7 years), concrete operational stage (7 to 11), and formal operational stage (11 and beyond). Piaget believed that reasoning deepens in children as they grow, engagement in the physical and social world enhances development, and “conceptual change occurs through assimilation and accommodation” (Daniels & Shumow, 2003, p. 497).

Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) saw child development as a kind of social constructivism, in which development is determined by culture. According to Berk and Winsler (1995) there are a number of tenets that are unique to social constructivism. First, because children’s culture influences the activities, language, and education to which children are exposed, these variables affect children’s development. Second, while some development is innate or influenced by biology, higher level development is affected by culture. Finally, the theory incorporates the zone of proximal development, that is, the range in children’s development between their ability to perform a task independently and their ability to perform a skill with the assistance of a more competent member of the their culture (adult or older child).

The ecological systems theory was originated by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917–2005) who believed that children developed “within a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the environment” (Berk, 2000, p. 26). Bronfenbrenner described four systems that influence child development. The microsystem involves those that are part of children’s most immediate environment, including the child’s parents and other primary caregivers. Interactions between the child and those adults impact children’s development. The second system is the mesosystem and involves systems that interact with the people in the microsystem, including child care programs and schools. Exosystems are places in which children do not spend time but which still impact children’s development, including the parents’ workplace policies. Finally, the macrosystem consists of “the values, laws, customs, and resources of a particular culture” (Berk, 2000, page 29). For example a culture’s beliefs about the importance of high quality childcare impact children’s development.

Child development theories generally guide teaching practices of children from birth to 8 years of age. Daniels and Shumow (2003) describe differences in instructional practices based on theoretical orientation. Teachers who espouse behaviorist theory generally follow more teacher-directed instructional practices, including didactic instruction with emphasis on acquisition of basic skills. Other child development theories emphasize child-centered practices. Teachers who support the constructivist theory provide child-choice, guided discovery, and cooperative learning. They emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, and intrinsic motivation. Social constructivists build their practices around a community of learners, instructional conversation, and authentic tasks, and emphasize cultural literacy, collaboration, and metacognition. Teachers emphasizing the ecological systems theory in their classrooms stress parent and community involvement, out-of-school activities, and cultural instruction. They teach social cognition, cultural awareness, and adaptive habits of coping.


Many early childhood development experts believe that knowledge of child development theory should guide educational practices of children from birth to 8 years of age (Katz, 1996). Katz questions “if we do not know enough about the relationship between early experience and the ultimate competencies necessary for effective participation in democratic processes, how can we design effective educational practice?” (1996, p. 141). Theories are useful in helping researchers and teachers guide their observations (Stott & Bowman, 1996). It is from this point of view that practices for supporting the development of children from birth to 8 years of age originate. Developmentally appropriate practices are a set of standards for providing high quality early care and education experiences (Goldstein, 1997) to children, birth to 8, which are based on knowledge about “how children develop and learn” (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 9).

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) describes specific educational practices to which those working with young children should adhere (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). These include: a) creating a caring community of learners; b) teaching to enhance development and learning; c) creating appropriate curriculum; d) assessing children’s learning and development; and e) establishing relationships with families. Detailed information about the application of these practices to specific age groups can be found in Bredekamp and Copple (1997). The following section provides an overview of each of these practices, empirical support for the practice, and some challenges educators face in implementing the practice in the current educational context.

Creating a Caring Community of Learners. The community in which children spend time involves both the physical and social environment and their influence impact children’s development. Specific variables in early care and education settings that influence how children grow and learn include low staff/child ratios, positive social interactions between children and between children and adults, appropriate classroom arrangements, and safe and healthy practices. According to Kontos and colleagues (2002), there is evidence that the presence of these specific variables in early care and education settings are “those where children are more likely to thrive, as determined by their attachment to the teacher, their peer relations, and their verbal ability” (p. 240).

Measures are available that evaluate the physical and social environments in which children to birth to 8 spend time (i.e., Infant/Toddler Environmental Rating Scale -Revised–Birth to 3; Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale – Revised–preschool; and Assessment of Practices in Early Elementary Classrooms–primary). Evidence of studies that have examined the community of learners has found disturbing results in some cases. In a study of Kentucky’s early care and education system, Grisham-Brown and colleagues (2005) found that young children from low social-economic backgrounds and those of minority status were more likely to participate in low quality early care and education programs than their counterparts. Similarly, a study of primary classrooms by Buchanan and colleagues (1998) found that those classrooms most likely to use developmentally inappropriate practices were those serving the largest number of children who receive free lunch. Incidentally, these same classrooms had larger class sizes than their counterparts who were engaged in developmentally appropriate practices.

Teaching to Enhance Development and Learning. Teaching practices for young children include opportunities for choice, hands-on learning, promotion of collaboration between children, use of a variety of teaching strategies, individualization, and self-regulation (Brede-kamp & Copple, 1997; Buchanan et al., 1998). There is evidence that these practices support the development of young children. Kontos and colleagues (2002) found that preschool aged children experience more complex interactions with peers when engaged in creative activities than other types of activities (e.g., language arts or gross motor). In Kontos, et al., the creative activities were those that were open ended without a finished product expected. McCormick and colleagues (2003) evaluated the 25 top-performing primary programs in Kentucky and found that one variable that differentiated those classrooms from the lowest performing classrooms was the provision of choice in selection of materials and activities. This study supports that the use of developmentally appropriate practices in primary classrooms positively impacts child outcomes.

A challenge in defining developmentally appropriate teaching strategies has been the emphasis on child-centered approaches. Whereas child-centered approaches originate from constructivist theory, didactic or teacher-directed instruction originates from a behaviorist perspective (Stipek, 2004). Because of the theoretical orientation from which child-centered practices derive, some have viewed them as synonymous with developmentally appropriate practices. However, Bredekamp and Rosegrant (1995) indicate that developmentally appropriate teaching strategies, in fact, fall along a continuum from those that are non-directive (acknowledgement) to those that are directive (direct instruction). Stipek (2004) found that teachers serving large numbers of low achieving children were more likely to use direct instruction than child-centered instructional techniques. Grisham-Brown, Hemmeter, and Pretti-Frontczak (2005) argue that in blended programs where teachers encounter groups of children with wide ability levels, it is appropriate for teachers to employ the full continuum of teaching behaviors. This view is certainly in keeping with the ideas of response to intervention, as set forth by Pretti-Frontczak and colleagues (2008) whereby children’s needs are addressed using more intentional, direct instruction. By using the full continuum of optional teaching strategies, those working with young children are, in fact, addressing the individualization ideas associated with developmentally appropriate practice.

Constructing Appropriate Curriculum. According to Pretti-Frontczak and colleagues (2007) there are four parts to a curriculum framework: 1) assessment for gathering information about children; 2) scope and sequence or the developmental/content areas that will be addressed; 3) activities and instruction or the contexts and strategies for teaching; and 4) progress monitoring or methods for determining success of the instruction. Bre-dekamp and Copple (1997) indicate that developmen-tally appropriate curricula should address all areas of the children’s development and all content areas, bearing in mind the child’s age and considering children’s cultural, linguistic, and ability differences. Grisham-Brown and colleagues (2005) indicate that collaboration between educators, families, and other support personnel is essential for implementing a high quality curriculum for children in blended classrooms.

One key issue shaping curriculum design is the development of learning standards. Although states have had learning standards for K-12 programs since the early 1990s, early learning standards for children five and under were only developed in the mid-2000s (Scott-Little, Kagan, & Frelow, 2006). As of 2008, over 40 states and the District of Columbia have developed pre-kindergarten standards, many across all areas of development (Neuman & Roskos, 2005). The arrival of standards into programs serving children from birth to 8 years of age has challenged those who want to ensure the implementation of devel-opmentally appropriate practices during a standards-based climate that emphasizes accountability. In the late 2000s, leading researchers in early childhood education were beginning to provide guidance for ensuring that the needs of young children are appropriately addressed within this context. Goldstein found in a qualitative study that kindergarten teachers could address content standards in a developmentally appropriate manner by “recognizing and building on the curricular stability in kindergarten, employing instructional approaches that accommodate the children’s developmental needs, setting limits, acquiescing to demands for developmentally inappropriate practices and materials, engaging in proactive education and outreach, accepting additional responsibilities, and making concessions” (2007, p. 51). Grisham-Brown (2008) and Gronlund (2006) have proposed that curricula driven by early learning standards can be appropriate, if standards are addressed at different levels, depending on the needs of the children.

Assessing Children’s Learning and Development. Specific guidelines are available regarding children’s development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) advocate the use of authentic assessment practices as the primary approach for assessing young children (Division for Early Childhood, 2007; National Association for the Education of Young Children and National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, 2003). Authentic assessment strategies involve documenting learning and development of children during real-life activities and routines by familiar adults (Losardo & Notari-Syverson, 2001; Neisworth & Bagnato, 2004). Research has shown that many teachers prefer authentic assessment approaches over more traditional assessment methods (Gao, 2007; McNair et al., 2003), and there are positive relationships between the use of authentic assessment practices, other classroom practices, and child outcomes (Bagnato, 2005; Meisels et al., 2003).

Appropriate assessment practices for young children have been compromised by the accountability climate in education in the early 2000s. Early childhood leaders have advocated the use of authentic assessment approaches for accountability purposes, indicating that these methods are more appropriate for young children (Meisels et al., 2003; Neisworth & Bagnato, 2004; Grisham-Brown, 2008). Emerging research shows that authentic assessment approaches, used for accountability purposes, can yield technically adequate assessment data (Grisham-Brown, Pretti-Frontczak, & Hallam, in press), thereby not compromising the results of high-stakes assessment.

Establishing Reciprocal Relationships with Families. Indicators of active family involvement in programs serving young children should involve collaboration and communication. Bredekamp and Copple (1997) indicate that programs should collaborate with families as they design early experiences for their children using two-way communication strategies. Unlike other practices in early childhood education, family involvement has been an enduring value that few have challenged (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995) primarily because of the positive benefits on children’s development. For example, family literacy practices have been positively linked to children’s ability to read successfully (Gambrell & Mazzoni, 1999). Grisham-Brown and colleagues (2005) provide specific examples of how to involve families in child assessment, selection of children’s priorities, and curriculum development.

The period of development between birth and 8 is unique in a child’s life. Some have argued that there are critical periods of time by which children should learn specific skills, if they are to learn them (Shore, 1997). In one compelling article, Bailey argues that there should be a shift from emphasis on critical periods to critical experiences. Bailey questions: “What are the experiences that are absolutely necessary for all children to maximize school success, mental health, and social development?” (2002, p. 290). Clearly the practices that early childhood educators implement with children from birth to 8 have the greatest impact on child outcomes. Knowledge of those practices and the underlying theoretical orientation that supports them is essential in order for young children to receive “critical experiences.”