ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Historical Perspectives on What Is "Developmentally Appropriate"

Thomas Armstrong

Post submitted by Thomas Armstrong, PhD, ASCD author and learning and human development expert. Connect with Armstrong on his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was at the beginning of my teaching career, Piaget was all the rage. We read his books and puzzled over how observation of children interacting with real-life situations could enable us to understand the development of their minds. We also were able to catch the tail end of interest in the work of Freud and saw how children's early struggles with issues like autonomy, jealousy, and initiative could affect their ability to emotionally manage the ups and downs of life later on in development.

These days, it seems that Piaget and Freud are hardly ever mentioned, let alone read, in education discourse. Instead, the buzzwords of the day are accountability, standards, data, and academic achievement. If we're interested in the child's development at all, it's usually to help us understand how to get the child to achieve academically. This explains why we are now expecting children to master academic material at younger and younger ages.

Again, back in my early days of teaching, early childhood education was seen primarily in terms of play experiences that children created out of their own imagination. Today we have preK–16 programs that attempt to foist the atmosphere of later academic learning on children as young as 3 or 4. And the sad thing is that the child development experts of our day are busy researching a child's ability to master academic learning in the early years, rather than questioning whether or not this is such a good thing in the first place.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a column on learning for Parenting Magazine, and when I did the research for an article on computers in education, it was difficult to find anyone in the field who would come out and say that children below the age of 4 should have access to computers. Now, if I suggest that children under 4 not be exposed to computers, I'm considered out of touch with the times. Thirty years ago, the National Association for the Education of Young Children wrote a position paper which stated that young children should not be subjected to standardized tests. Today, they have abandoned this position and talk instead about the different sorts of tests that young children appear now to need.

Is there anyone with a historical sensibility who can see how vastly we've shifted over two or three decades in our understanding of what children need? I believe we need to keep a historical perspective in order to see more clearly how the concept of "developmentally appropriate" has been perverted into a mandate to teach things that were clearly developmentally inappropriate 30 years ago. And those of us with the experience to see the broad view of education over 30 or 40 years ought to raise our voices and let it be known that what is going on with young children and academic learning is not OK and can only serve to harm their deeper sensibilities and interfere with their full development as whole human beings.

Watch Thomas Armstrong's archived webinar from last week where he explores multiple intelligences theory and the eight intelligences and explores the importance of utilizing the theory to reach a diverse group of learners.

Comments (12)

David N. Cox

November 23, 2010

There have been a lot of changes.  Back in the 70’s we went so far toward the constructivist philosophy, which has many incorrect suppositions, that many people reacted with the “Back to Basics” movement.  Schools moderated, but colleges of education didn’t, and began such programs as “Whole Language” and “Whole Math” that failed miserably.  That caused policy makers to push for accountability and standardization.

If we don’t like what’s happening today, WE need to change from the total belief in the constructivist philosophy and truly become “balanced” instead of merely pretending to have “balanced literacy” and “balanced math.”  We need to realize that the “instructivist” or transmission philosophies MUST be part of a truly “balanced” approach.


November 23, 2010

Thank you!  Thank you!  Please keep speaking out.  My recent research into Vygotsky’s work—which indicated that we should forget academics for very young kids; that what they need is a lot of time with role-playing and socialization; that kids who get a lot of academics very early, start out ahead but frequently end up behind and burnt out by their mid-elementary years—was a real eye-opener for me.  This is not necessarily intuitive.  We tend to think that if we need kids to be in a certain place academically by 4th grade, then they should be half-way there by 2nd grade; and it just isn’t necessarily so.

According to a recent article, a US delegation went to Scandinavia to learn what it was about their school systems that makes them so successful academically.  They discovered, “In all three countries, students start formal schooling at age seven after participating in extensive early-childhood and preschool programs focused on self-reflection and social behavior, rather than academic content. By focusing on self-reflection, students learn to become responsible for their own education, delegates said.”  (  It would be pretty neat if we could actually learn from these fact-finding trips…

Jim Hainer

November 23, 2010

Educators continue to search for the magic bullet that will solve all of the challenges our students face.  I agree with Dr. Armstrong that we need to develop our approach to education taking into consideration how children develop intellectually, emotionally and physically.

The educational system, both private and public, is preparing students for life not merchandise for the marketplace.

Cheryl Roberts

November 23, 2010

Good Start Thomas.  You’ve touched on some key points. (Did you mean Erikson instead of Freud? As I recall Erikson focused on psychosocial development and the conflicts encountered at each stage in development and Freud’s focus was psychosexual development including the id, ego and super ego…just wondering) So much more needs to be said.  The biology of human growth and development has not changed yet our teaching practices presuppose that it has and great harm is being done to children.  We will have lost a generation of children before someone decides we have made a big mistake….we need a loud collective voice that educates parents and decision makers.  True educational reform will not occur until we recognize and address how children grow and learn.

Alan Cooper

November 23, 2010

This is very timely. Somehow we have managed to throw the baby out with the bath water. By downgrading, even abandoning play, we have put children’s imagination at risk if not killed it off. Art Costa, for one, identifies imagination as important when he singles out wonderment and awe as one of the important thinking skills he has assembled as Habits of Mind. This is because imagination is essential to the entrepreneurial mind, essential to doing things differently, essential to survival, and essential to developing passion about what we set out to achieve.

Lisa Ibrahim-Joseph

November 23, 2010

It’s amazing that know matter how often people try to point out the differences that exist among us, how similar we are.  Whether developed, industrialised nation, developing economies or small island developing states, we all grapple with the question of how do we provide the best education that will maximise the potential of our children.  The French have a saying “plus ca change, plus ca meme chose”.  Dr. Armstrong, I do believe you are right.  We need to keep things in prespective. Biologically, how we grow and develop have not changed; the contexts of our growth and development have.

Are we asking the right questions.  Should we be asking how can we get our young chidren to demonstrate academic competency earlier? Or, should we be asking, what are the best conditions that will facilitate the all-round, holistic development of early childhood learners that will lay a strong foundation for future and life long learning?

Young children play; that’s what they do, that’s how they learn.  If we want to do right by them, then let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water as Alan has suggested may have happened.  For centuries we have known what to do - let’s do it.

Kristina Gawrgy Campbell

November 23, 2010

We agree that our positions are modified to reflect the evolving research and evidence of how children learn and develop. (Read our position here:  NAEYC’s current position reflects the latest research as summarized in the National Academy of Sciences report (about:blank http:/ For more information on NAEYC’s positions on assessments and developmentally appropriate practice, visit


November 23, 2010

Nurturing constructivism, the epistomology of Piaget, proficient scaffolding as proposed by Vygotsky and the best of what came out of whole language and math are alive and well in the best of balanced American classrooms today.  As we are curricularly responsive to the demands of accountability and as we integrate new knowledge into our existant frameworks, it has to be about the approach we take.  For example, academic tasks are integrated into play-based environments in the best of preschools and kindergartens by teachers who know that children can do more than we’ve previously expected and that how we go about scaffolding them is key.

Jan Schotman

November 25, 2010

Hear hear Mr Armstrong. I agree aswell with FLD. I teach 9-10 yr olds along vygotskyan lines. In our school, there’s a lot of (role) playing for 4-8 yr olds, the older children are expected to formulate their own questions AND answers and are challenged to do so in a caring rather than a competitive environment. Aiding children in progressing from phase 1 to phase 2 is the biggest challenge educators in this field face (it requires a lot of scaffolding!). Sadly, given the present-day climate, our sort of education is under fire. Of course, there’s our old foe standardized testing, and the lack of continuous assesment. Also, there is a real reactionary side to the education debate in my country (the Netherlands). This, of course, is not helpful, and exposes young children to tasks they (or at least most of them) are developmentally unfit to perform. Our task is to balance history with the present and come up with some real answers!

Bob Valiant

November 26, 2010

These arguments need to be moved out of the cloisters of academia (How many non-school affiliated folks are reading this?) and into the mainstream media.  Those of us who know a bit about child development are appalled at what is being foisted on the public schools.  It would be great if ASCD would lead an effort to move the Whole Child discussion from here and Ed Leadership to the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. To NBC, CBS, and Newsweek.

Small groups of activists around the country are leading this fight with virtually no support from the major education organizations.  Step up to the plate, ASCD.

Sean Slade

November 29, 2010

I agree wholeheartedly Bob - this conversation and many of the conversations we have as part of the ASCD community need to get out into the mainstream media.

To this end ASCD’s Healthy School Communities and Whole Child Unit have been posting articles monthly to the Washington Post’s ‘The Answer Sheet’ (

Additionally many articles which are posted at both ASCD’s Inservice blog and the Whole Child Blog frequently get picked up by other blogs around the country. A recent example is an article from Inservice that was picked up by the DOE’s Safe and Drug Free School Newsletter (—_000_A0EB20F3695AD747B6401803941153468A7F9F3687EDUPTCEXMB03e_&T=text/html; charset=us-ascii).

ASCD Executive Director Dr. Gene Carter also wrote an open letter in September in response to Oprah’s show which highlighted Waiting For Superman which in turn appeared in more than 30 national blogs and media organizations (

But as you pointed out the conversations cannot be contained to ASCD members alone. Hopefully this blog and the ASCD Inservice blog position themselves as a launching place for further conversations.

A Historical Perspective of Whole Child Education

December 2, 2010

[...] Thirty-five years ago, when I was at the beginning of my teaching career, Piaget was all the rage. We read his books and puzzled over how observation of children interacting with real-life situations could enable us to understand the development of their minds. We also were able to catch the tail end of interest in the work of Freud and saw how children’s early struggles with issues like autonomy, jealousy, and initiative could affect their ability to emotionally manage the ups and downs of life later on in development. Read the rest of Armstrong’s article here [...]

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