Implementation of Developmentally Appropriate Practices and Child Centered Theory

Spring 2004

By Jim Pelander

Developmentally appropriate practices are usually associated with primary grades. Teaching first graders my first 12 years in the profession, I exercised a conventional approach. Conventional is another name for traditional. After moving to third grade, I spent the next eleven years studying and implementing more developmentally appropriate practices with students. I often wondered if these practices could be implemented in the upper elementary grades. The only way I could truly find out was to move to fourth grade, after teaching primary age children for 23 years. To make for a smoother transition into fourth grade I looped with my last third grade class. Having the same children for two years would allow me to continue to implement the developmental practices children had been exposed to in third grade. Having the same set of parents would allow me go deeper in my communications about theory implementation.

After my initial year in fourth grade, I concluded that developmental practices and child-centered theory can be implemented in the upper elementary grades. I found two major challenges in fourth grades. There is an increase in parental expectations regarding content. There is also the issue of "time." With the addition of children having more time with the French, music and P.E. specialists I realized children are with their homeroom teacher two and a half hours less a week than in the primary grades. While this may seem unbalanced, children are learning a great deal when they have time with other specialists. Ultimately, despite the increased parent expectations and the issue of "contact time," I have found success in implementing child-centered practices with fourth graders.


One major component of child-centered theory is that the curriculum meets the needs, abilities and interests of students. This sharply contrasts a more conventional theory that expects all children to meet the same curriculum. It is also important to understand the term developmental . This term is often used when referring to academic readiness and achievement. Not understanding the term can cause misinterpretations and concerns about a child's growth.

Developmentally appropriate practice has two components: age and individuality. Age appropriateness refers to the universal physical, emotional, and cognitive predictable changes in children. Lessons are based on developmental readiness. Individual appropriateness reminds us that each child has a unique pattern and calendar of growth. The curriculum and teacher-child interactions are adjusted to developing abilities and this includes plans developed to enable students to work toward what is age appropriate in a manner that develops the student's confidence, self-esteem, and attitude toward learning.. Individually appropriate also includes challenging the more capable or developed child.

Understanding child-centered theory and developmentally appropriate practices doesn't happen overnight. After twelve years of being oblivious to alternative approaches, it took me an additional two years of researching and disagreeing with those who advocated the approach before I even considered the implementation phase.


Giving children choices is a major component of a child-centered approach. It is important to allow children to share in decision making, making choices and controlling of much of their learning. I believe this helps children develop self-esteem. Early in my teaching career I felt that self-esteem was just another buzzword; but the more I read and implemented theory, the more I realized how important it is in later life. Everyday we see in adults (even the most educated) the effects of low-self-esteem, --drug abuse, alcoholism, and unhealthy relationships.

Children in class are encouraged to make choices and decisions, to plan and are empowered by sharing control with the teacher in various ways. Each week a different student makes up the seating chart. During work periods children have the choice of sitting at their desks, on the floor, or even at the library. Students often volunteer to be homework checkers.

In my days of all "traditional" teaching students would enter the room and see on the chalkboard a list of assignments to complete in sequential order (for example: 1. Spelling – pages 19-21; 2. Cursive packet; Math workbook pages; 3. Reading workbook pages; 4. Dictionary words).

Many children never did finish their work. Unfinished work was often sent home or piled on to the next day's work. I never realized how this must have felt to those children who developmentally couldn't handle that type of workload!

I still have an agenda on the board each morning, and often we follow the agenda. There are also many times students are able to choose which agenda items they will work on. On these days an observer might see kids writing, others working on math or spelling, and some children reading independently. By doing this, students are practicing making choices and decisions and, at the same time, learning time management.

Some months the directions and agenda are written in a letter format. This not only models writing, but it also allows children to read and follow written directions. The letter format is also a way to introduce and reinforce curricular skills and concepts for fourth grade.

In fourth grade we read several novels. Students also have the opportunity during the week to select and read materials of their choice. Students log their reading choices and at times will write summaries or respond to teacher prompts about what they read.


In my formative years of teaching, kids could have "free time" when they finished their work. The kids that earned this time were the ones who were the most academically developed.

In a child-centered classroom choice is a planned part of the curricular day. Allowing kids is a means of meeting their human basic needs of fun, freedom, power and belonging. When children have choice they will engage in activities that fit their learning styles, do quality work, and practice being self-directed. If not done properly and without structure, no learning takes place and parents can view it as chaos and worthless.

It would be ideal to make choice part of the curriculum every day, but with the time issue I have been able to devote one hour on Fridays for what we call ACT – (Academic Choice Time).

In our choice time students write plans of what they would like to do.

As part of class discussions, we talk about appropriate types of choices for fourth grade. Some may use the time for writing workshop, researching topics of interest or working on areas they feel need improvement. Also, during our choice times kids are made aware that they should be able to explain how the activity is related to learning and how reading, writing or math will be incorporated. Many young children like to build; and, when it is choice time, it is not unusual for a child to say he/she is going to build a house out of popsicle sticks and cardboard. Learning to make appropriate choices takes guidance on the part of the teacher.

The teacher might ask the fourth grader who wants to build a house, "What kind of house do you want to build?" An actual response from a student was that he wanted to build a house the Plateau Indians lived in. Before building, the student was guided into doing some research on Plateau Indians. After using reference materials the student spent several choice periods constructing and painting his product. The third choice time period he then wrote information about his construction.

After students make a written plan, they carry out the plan. Following their activity, students write a review of what they did. At the end of the review, there is a class discussion about choices; and children have an opportunity to share their activity.

The second half of the year we do away with the written plans and reviews. Instead, students form small groups; and within the groups, a student leader will ask members to tell their plans. Students have been taught to ask other students questions about their choices and how they are related to learning. After carrying out plans, students gather again in their small groups and share their activities. Teaching children to make appropriate choices and having them understand self-directed behaviors during ACT takes time, but it does work!


It seems as though children's lives in today's society are filled to the brim with after--school activities. Homework, which is always a controversial topic, can be quite stressful for children. The idea of giving students choice can also be woven into homework, creating less stress and a more positive attitude about assignments. Homework takes on a variety of formats in fourth grade. At times assignments are given on a daily basis and students write them in their homework planners. Other times a menu of assignments is given, and the students plan out their assignments around their after school activities. Often assignments are tailored to individuals and their specific needs. Children who fall into the "expert" areas on the learning line in the 3-R's have the opportunity to devise their own homework assignments. This format is often challenging to kids because they have been accustomed to having the teacher give assignments. Being able to evaluate where one is in his/her learning and to plan appropriate work are more advanced skills, and are more meaningful to the child.


Another important component of child-centered education and developmentally appropriate practices is giving children the opportunity to do projects on topics of their choice. One form involves having students choose a topic within a teacher's choice. If studying planets, for example, children can choose a planet to research.

The other format, which may be more motivating, is giving students the freedom to select a topic of their choice. This is more in line with the child-centered theory mentioned earlier: A curriculum that meets the needs, abilities and interest of children. As part of the process, there are class discussions and teacher guidance about topics. We want topics to be of educational value and not the same topics researched in earlier grades. Some of the topics students have chosen over the years include The Brain; Japan; Summer Olympics; Atoms, Nuclear Energy; Levers and Pulleys; The Heart; Whales; Dolphins; Self-Directed Learning; and Endangered Species. While students can choose topics of interest, there is also a great deal of structure. Being able to plan is a very important part of the process. In the planning stage of doing a project students come up with activities that incorporate reading, writing, math, science and social studies – all centered around their topics. Adult guidance is helpful during this planning stage. Students use a monthly calendar to write their daily plans for each work period. On occasion students are asked to write a review about their work periods. There are a number of due dates built into projects before the final product is due. When all the research and related activities are completed, students put their work on display boards and present their projects to the class. We also have a Project Fair for parents and other students in the school. In past years several students presented their projects to education students at a local university and to students at another elementary school.


In a child-centered approach, it is important to understand where children are in their development. It is also important to understand the learning styles of children. In our class students take a learning style inventory. After they learn their main learning style(s), strategies are given for the three main styles-- visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

One way in which we have included learning styles into the curriculum is with our social studies unit on the state of Washington. Students receive a packet containing information about the state's physical features, climate, natural resources and political features. Students are grouped by the areas they chose to focus on. Students are asked to read from the packet information about their area. Following this, students are asked to make an activity about the information they read. The activities children choose would be related to their learning styles. When the activities are completed, groups are asked to create learning centers with their activities. Some of the activities for the various learning styles include puzzles, topographical maps of land features, diaries, dictionaries, word searches, treasure hunt, and a videotaped newscast. Even in a graded situation students can have choice and have opportunity to make their own decisions.

For example, in our Washington State unit, each student decides on the criteria of how he or she wants to be graded and assigns point values to each criteria. Students then evaluate their own work and give themselves a grade. During conferencing with each student about his or her work, together we decide on a final grade for the assignment. Giving kids ownership can be quite powerful!

In a student-centered environment teachers emphasize children understanding the meaning of a continuum. The continuum is a roadmap that shows where a child is in his or her learning. We also spend a great deal of time discussing a learning line continuum for everything we do, both academic and nonacademic. The learning line consists of four stages: Novice, Apprentice, Practitioner, and Expert. Students routinely evaluate themselves using this learning line and terminology. Descriptors for each stage will vary depending on what is being evaluated. Often students will participate in establishing descriptors for each stage. During ACT (Academic Choice time) student leaders may ask their peers where they are in their learning for any given academic area. When a child knows where he or she is on the learning line, it becomes easier to make better choices during choice time.


A child-centered environment fosters self-directed learners. Simply telling children to be self-directed and responsible doesn't work. They have to be taught and given opportunities to make choices and decisions. In class students are introduced to the skills that ,in theory, help kids become self-directed. I call them the "intellectual skills." They are also known as Intelligent Behaviors and Thinking Skills. They include attending, deliberateness, elaboration, empathy, flexibility, fluency, risking, precision, originality, inquisitiveness, persistence, metacognition, goal setting, problem solving, decision-making, observing, comparing and contrasting, classifying, finding patterns, sequencing, predicting, finding evidence, main idea, cause and effect, fact and opinion, detecting bias, point of view, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. These terms are part of our regular vocabulary throughout the day in class discussions and group work. Students also use them in their reading response journals, homework evaluations and ACT write-ups. Children often use the terms at home with parents and other siblings. These skills are a major part of the curriculum – some people may refer to them as life-skills.

The formula for helping kids become self-directed learners is as follows: When we give students choices they will have some of their human basic needs met; when giving choices children will engage in activities that relate to their style of learning; when being engaged in student choices children will be practicing many of the intellectual skills; when this happens students learn to become self-directed and do quality work. Children do need adult guidance in learning the intellectual skills and this takes time. This all sounds good in theory, but the implementation of this theory has proven successful with both third and fourth grade students!


I have found there to be four important elements in successfully implementing child-centered theory in the upper elementary grades. The first is to spend time researching and understanding the theory. It took me two years just to accept there was another approach to teaching and learning other than the traditional or conventional method. I spent close to 20 hours observing "expert teachers" at the elementary level implementing the theory and countless hours consulting with these same teachers. The conversations continue to be ongoing.

The second element is working for a Lower School Head who understands the theory, knows how children learn best and supports the approach. The Head is always asking questions that require me to think and evaluate the implementation process--making sure I balance process with content.

The third element is having the support of parents. Much of this information is new to parents, but they are very receptive to the information about the approach during Curriculum Night and take time to read all the related information sent home throughout the year. Hearing their children talk about school, seeing their positive attitude toward learning and reviewing class work has been valuable too!

The fourth element is the teacher being willing to share control with students. This concept of "control" isn't talked about very much - perhaps it is too personal, but it is so crucial. The teacher who needs to be in control all the time will find this approach quite challenging. In a student-centered environment, it is important that teachers empower their students. This can be achieved by the teacher sharing control with them. When students feel empowered, they feel much better about themselves and have a better attitude toward learning. This can be said for students in primary and upper elementary grades.

There are many visions that shape the landscape of what education should be. Without a doubt, achieving high academic expectations and maintaining a good attitude about school and learning are common objectives for most of those visions. I have found that child-centered theory and developmentally appropriate practices honor these objectives. These practices have been successfully implemented in our school which emphasizes high academic achievement, and I believe they can be successfully implemented at all grade levels. This certainly lays the foundation for successful study and life skills during a child's educational journey and beyond.

Jim Pelander

Jim Pelander is a fourth grade teacher at Charles Wright Academy (Washington). You can contact him at [email protected].