Rethinking Early Childhood Practices
By Francis Wardle

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competencies that can be used for this article are:
  • To maintain a commitment to professionalism.
  • To ensure a well-run, purposeful program responsive to participant needs.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310. 

This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability areas:   

  • The ability to maintain a commitment to on-the-job professionalism.
  • The ability to demonstrate knowledge of child development theory, research, and practice.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161. 

All professions have a canon of beliefs and practices. Some of these come from research and best practices; many simply develop and are passed on without critical examination. The early childhood field is no exception. Not only should any “self-renewing” profession continually re-examine itself on a regular basis, but, in this period of post-modern thought, we have the opportunity to carefully evaluate many beliefs that our profession accepts as the truth. 

Critical theory is one way to examine our common beliefs and practices. Critical theory is, “an umbrella term for a range of perspectives…(that) all assume knowledge is socially constructed…From a critical theory perceptive, therefore, no universal truths or set of laws or principals can be applied to everyone.”(Ryan & Grieshaber, 2004, p. 45) However, this article does not suggest we simply deconstruct our profession from one specific point of view for several reasons. First, a critical theory critique presupposes our current early childhood practices come from some kind of logic and order – one of power and oppression. Secondly, the power orientation creates straw arguments: in early childhood education an attack on developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) (Hatch, Bowman, Jor’dan, Morgan, Hart, Soto, Lubeck & Hyson, 2002; Lubeck, 1998.). As you will see in this article, many early childhood practices should be more DAP, not less (particularly because, in spite of the view of many critics, most of our early childhood programs are not DAP) (Dunn & Kontos, 1997). Finally, when I teach my qualitative methods graduate classes I strongly advise students against threats to theoretical validity – the temptation to force or morph all data into an existing and popular theoretical orientation (Burke, 1997). It’s not hard to make ‘the data fit’. 

The question, of course, is where have our practices come from? Critical theorists say from research on white, middle class students, and from dead white men (Ryan & Grieshaber, 2004). I believe they have largely developed as a downward extension of school practices (Wardle, 2003). It seems to me, historically, that our approach to everything regarding young children – building design, playgrounds, health/safety, bus safety, scheduling, curriculum, etc., can be characterized as a reaction against the traditional home, farm and village upbringing, and a belief that school is better and early school is even better (Johnson, Christie & Wardle, 2005). 


Same-Age Grouping 

Part of the history of U.S. public schools is the one-room schoolhouse, which was characterized by vertical grouping of children, with older children assisting younger ones as they themselves learned about service and caring for others. But in 1843 Horace Mann returned from visiting the Prussian military, and decided the regimented, same-age grouping would be an improvement (Wiles & Bondi, 1998).  

While same-age grouping has dominated k-12 schools, it is slowly becoming the norm in most early childhood programs. Many Head Start programs, for example, have children grouped by “older 4s” and “younger 4s”. The pedagogical rationale for this approach is to target curricula content and instruction to specific age groups. However, the arguments against same-age grouping of children in early childhood programs are overwhelming: 

The tremendous diversity within age groups, due to gender, race/ethnicity, social-economic status, experience, and exceptionality (special needs and gifted) make curriculum targeting well nigh impossible. 

The reduced size of most U.S. families (Berger, 2005) requires that children have multiage experiences in their early childhood programs. 

Vygotsky argues learning takes place when an ‘expert’ assists the learner to learn within his zone of proximal development; and the best expert is often a child who is slightly more advanced than the learner (Berk & Winsler, 1995). 

Piaget argues that one of the best ways for a child to learn is when a child is ‘forced’ to expand his existing schemas to match overwhelming evidence from the environment. One of the best ways to expose a child to this evidence is by interacting with a child who is one level higher than the learner (Brainerd, 1978). 

It would seem that, along with language, race/ethnicity, and income, age differences are forms of diversity we should expose our children to.  

Character education curricula in early childhood programs stress a sense of caring and responsibility (Wardle, 2004). One of the best ways to develop these values is to have children practice helping, caring for, and protecting younger, more vulnerable children. The result may be fewer issues with bullying and harassment in the later school years. 


The Importance of a Daily Schedule 

A regular, daily schedule teaches children a needed sense of security, especially children from low-income and minority homes. Almost all early childhood textbooks and research articulate this belief. For example, “Daily routines form the framework for a young child’s day; some children depend on them for a sense of security….But no matter what type of schedule the early childhood program follows, there are certain routines that should occur daily” (Gonzalez-Mena, 2001, pp. 262). And, according to Gordon & Browne, (2004), “Children are more secure in a place that has a consistent schedule; they can begin to anticipate the regularity of what comes next and count on it” (p. 367) “Routines are the framework of programs for young children. A routine is a constant; each day certain events are repeated, providing continuity and a sense of order. Routines are reassuring to children, and they take pride in mastering them” (Gordon & Browne, 2004, p. 366). 

The argument for this canon goes something like this: “Children need regular routines to enable them to develop a sense of security in a predictable environment”. And, of course, the more “unstructured” their home life, the more they need structure and routine in a program. Argument against this fixation on routine include:   

Research has shown time and again that the most important form of security for young children is a consistent, warm, responsive, long-term relationship with a caregiver (Bowlby, 1969; Honig, 2002; Lally, 1998). Yet there is an embarrassing dearth of suggestions in the literature about ways to achieve this important relationship, which requires providing caregivers with adequate salaries, benefits, and working conditions. Is our fixation on schedules and routines due to the inability to provide consistent and long-term care with one provider? 

Children have no sense of time as adults know it. Certainly the sequence of activities provides important mental scripts that children use in cognitive and language development (Berger, 2005). Many argue that one reason for schedules is to teach children about time, and the behaviors needed to function in an adult world fixated on schedules. Members of one of my early childhood classes argued vehemently that children who don’t follow a strict timetable would not be able to function effectively in the adult world. After I pointed out that each of them were late for class, they dropped the argument!  

Children from less structured, more chaotic environments desperately need time to fully complete important projects they are personally and socially invested in, without being interrupted by a more powerful adult. Research suggests that children who lack a sense of control over their learning eventually reduce commitment to on-task behavior (Johnson, Christie & Wardle, 2005). Thus it would seem to me that all children, but particularly children from unstructured environments, need programs that encourage them to pursue projects and interactions until they decide they are finished. 

The new brain research has reinforced the need for stimulation, change, challenge, involvement, and meaningful learning (Shore, 1997), which is often much easier to achieve with a less structured schedule, and more difficult to achieve with more structure. Structure begets bored children, frustrated teachers, and stressful transitions. 

Learning is continuous. Young children learn in continuous ways, relating new learning to past experiences and accomplishments. Children learn best when a project, idea, or activity veers off into new and different directions, ‘emerging” into new and exciting learning (Dewey, 1938). 

The American workplace is less and less structured by traditional routines, and more often organized by projects, flextime, team activities, and self-directed problem solving. Early childhood programs need to develop workers who can structure their own time, and who do not feel confused when work demands require varied and flexible schedules. 


Meals Must be Provided at Regular Intervals  

One of the areas where early childhood programs insist on a schedule is eating. While this is often dictated by the reality of the kitchen schedule, catering service, and use of the cafeteria, we also seem to deeply believe that children should be fed ‘on schedule”. However, it is fairly well established that infants should be fed, “on demand”.  

Most of us will stop off at a store to pick up a snack when we get hungry, and go to the refrigerator when we cannot last till the next full meal. Why not allow children to do the same? Does our meal schedule – and the accompanying need for children to clean off their plate before they get desert – contribute to our child obesity problem? After all, if a child thinks they won’t get food until a specific time (or maybe, if they won’t get it till very late at home), they might “stuff themselves” so they won’t get hungry. Providing healthy snacks in a refrigerator in the classroom for children to eat when they are hungry might be a good idea. 


Sleep-Time Should be Scheduled  

The biggest struggle my wife and I had with our children’s child care was naptime. We insisted our children not have a nap because when they did they would not get tired until 11 at night. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some teachers complain that parents keep their children up so late that they fall asleep before naptime. Maybe early childhood programs should provide a quiet area away from the noise and activity of the classroom, where children can lie down when they get tired. 


A Curriculum is at the Center of All Good Educational Programs 

According to Diane Trister Dodge and Toni Bickart (2003), “Curriculum and assessment drive our work with young children every day. If we do them well, we achieve positive outcomes for children. Good input means good output” (p. 28). The No Child Left Behind Act and the Head Start outcomes have refueled this belief in the veracity of a curriculum. A curriculum is, “a plan for learning” (Wiles & Bondi, 1998), and most are driven by specific outcomes – those that some expert has decided are needed to reach the next rung on the educational ladder (usually developmentally inappropriate kindergarten entry-level skills). Several questions, however, must be asked:  

Does, in fact, input result in output? Is the educational model so simple, mechanical, linear, and businesslike? Doesn’t this kind of model deny any sense of inner direction, child-centered learning, and spirituality and soul? (Steiner, 1926).  

Does following the prescribed rungs of the ladder develop the kind of people we want? There are many examples of famous people who did not follow these rungs: Einstein, Erikson, Bill Gates, home-schooled students, and the very successful graduates of the free schools in the 1960s and 1970s. A mother told me a story of her daughter who dropped out of high school. When she finally decided to go to college she negotiated with the college to take the first two semesters on a trial bases – without ever getting a high school diploma or GED. Not only did she pass with flying colors, she is now a pediatrician!   

Who develops the plan, and how do they know what is best for our children? John Dewey (1938) talked a lot about basing curricula of children’s own experiences, interests, and aspirations. 

Why do we not trust children and teachers to collaborate with parents to develop their own curriculae? This reliance on a curriculum is a strong indictment against the professionalism of teachers; it’s also obviously a deep belief that children will not learn what is needed without a curriculum-by-numbers approach.  

What happens if the plan is wrong? More specifically, what happens if the plan misses important outcomes, such as teaching a second language beginning in preschool, focusing extensively on the epidemic of childhood obesity, spending more time and energy on emotional and social development and conflict resolution, and integrating effective diversity education? Are we developing a bunch of fat, asocial citizens who cannot relate to others, who are intolerant of differences, and who cannot compete in the global marketplace because they only speak English, but who can read, write, and work on a computer at home? 


Minority Students are Unsuccessful Due to a Eurocentric Approach to Education  

Multiculturalists insist that the failure of minority children in our educational programs is because these programs are Eurocentric – developed to work only for the white children. Early childhood multiculturalists have fully embraced this cannon  (Ramsey, 1998; York, 2003). Clearly, there is a tragic achievement gap between white and Asian students on the one hand, and Native American, Black and Hispanic students on the other hand. But is this gap due solely to an Eurocentric approach? 

Asian children as a group, who are clearly a minority, not only do as well as white children, but in some cases do better (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003). 

Picture young Mayan children in their ragged clothes and bare feet writing on small slate tablets with subs of chalk in a ‘school’ – a four-post structure with a laminar (corrugated iron) roof. These little children learned their lesson enthusiastically. The fact the building was primitive and lacked resources, the instructor white, and the material Eurocentic, did not bother them. They were motivated to learn because their parents were learning with them, and because they were starved for basic literacy instruction.  

We must admit that, while we have children in this country from a variety of cultural backgrounds, all of them are American – especially African American, Native American, and Hispanic families that have been here for generations. As such, these children and their families generally subscribe to the American values of competition, individualism, legal justice, materialism, gender differences, the value of education, and religious freedom.   

The fact a disproportionate number of minorities are placed in special education is, I believe, more of a function of the U.S. deficit approach to disabilities (IDEA), than a Eurocentric idea. After all, far fewer students in Europe are diagnosed with special needs than the U.S., and more boys, including white boys (the ultimate symbol of white privilege) are in special education (Berger, 2005). 

The strongest statistical correlation with school success is income (Hout, 2002). The problem is that minority families are statistically more represented in the low-income category. Schools in low-income areas tend to have fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and more discipline problems (Hout, 2002) 

School success is largely dependent on family support of education. I have proposed what I call a three-legged-stool model of school success: home, school and community. Each leg must provide the optimal stimulation, support, structure and expectations needed. The seat connects all 3 legs together, in a unified manner, much like Bronfenbrenner’s mesosystem (1979). Without the seat the stool falls; without open, supportive two-way communication between home, school and community, the minority child will not succeed. 

Is a Eurocentric approach really bad for our minority children? Many claim that because DAP is Eurocentric it is detrimental to minority children (Lubeck, 1998; Ramsey, 1998; York, 2003). But a DAP approach calls for adjusting the curriculum to meet individual needs, working closely with families and the community, responding to “the whole child”, and considering cultural and linguistic diversity (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). How is this bad? As our population becomes more and more diverse we need a more DAP approach, and a less standards-based approach (Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004). 

Further, our very approach to special needs, linguistic diversity, and the right of each individual child to succeed in our schools is based on this country’s Eurocentric belief in individual rights, educational opportunity, and legal justice. The academic divide is a tragedy in a society that depends heavily on its schools to provide equal opportunity. We must solve this dilemma. To do so, we must challenge our orthodoxies about the causes of the problem.  


The Calendar Activity 

In 1996 I was asked by Partners of the Americas to build a playground for a low-income crèche in Brazil (Wardle, 1999). While I was checking out the site I toured the dingy classrooms. There were no books, building blocks, or paints. There was no housekeeping area or place for the children to nap, and the kitchen was very poorly equipped. But they did have a calendar proudly affixed to the wall (with names and numbers in Portuguese, of course). Recently in a graduate psychology class I discussed with my students that, according to Piaget, preoperational children cannot possibly do the calendar activity in a meaningful way (Wardle, 2001). Then a kindergarten teacher asked me the obvious question: why do we teach this activity? And it seems like we teach it all over the world! 

I have already discussed that children’s ideas of time are based on activity – what we do – not the passage of time. Further, in today’s world it’s extremely easy to know the date by checking a watch, computer or newspaper. Important concepts of such as past, present and future, sequence, repetition, can all be taught in much more effective ways. 


Universal ECE Standards Will Improve the Image of Our Profession 

Clearly our profession is not well regarded by much of the public. Many see us as “just babysitters”; the teaching profession still perpetuates the notion that school starts at kindergarten. I recently met a Head Start education manager who believes the new outcomes are very positive, “because now we are not just baby sitters”. And many colleges prefer to graduate teachers with an elementary education degree with a few ECE classes tacked on, rather than a full ECE degree (Silva & Johnson, 1999). Others deeply believe if it’s something that any parent can do, then it can’t be that difficult. 

When the public’s view of the counseling profession plummeted after the ‘free love’ approach of many therapists during the sixties, counseling organizations quickly established professional codes of ethics and developed training standards for their field. The early childhood profession is doing the same thing, creating codes of ethics (NAEYC, 1989, 1992, 1998), codifying a ladder of professional development, and professing the value of standards. Head Start now requires college degrees for teachers; the No Child Left Behind act requires degrees for public school paraprofessionals. 

But this will not increase the status of the early childhood profession. First, professionals must be paid like professionals and get the kind of benefits professionals deserve. In France ECE teachers are paid the same as regular teachers, have the same professional requirements, are paid the same benefits, and have the same number of paid in-service and further education classes each year (and, of course, paid substitutes) (Hurless, 2004). Secondly, in my mind one of the things that perpetuate the public’s low view of our profession is a total lack of ethical behavior. And I’m not talking about teachers. From my personal experience in Head Start, corporate child care, and early childhood leadership groups, I have come to realize that members at the top of our profession do not follow the ethical standards that we ask of our teachers.  

And, as we are discovering with K-12 standards, the negatives of standards for the early childhood field far outweighs any positives. These include: 

Children who cannot achieve the standards are viewed as failures or placed in special education. 

All the school’s resources – space, energy, professional support, money – are focused 100 percent toward the standards. Everything else is secondary: special education, emotional/mental health, school climate, diversity, anti-obesity efforts, working with parents, etc. 

The standards are not DAP. A central component of DAP is individual differences (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Declaring that every child should be reading at a third grade level denies this individual difference.  

The entire concept of standard implies lack of a standard. While we are trying to change the stigma of children with special needs, we are creating a stigma that children who cannot meet a standard are somewhat abnormal. In some states, for example, special education students are still required to take each of the standardized tests.  

There are many instances where important learning activities are being withheld from children because they have performed poorly on a standardized test. This includes withholding recess, physical education, computers, and extra classes such as music and art. These activities are the very thing these children desperately need; yet they are being withheld to improve their scores in literacy, math, and science. 

Since we teach to the standards and their tests, an area that is not tested is simply unimportant. Thus art, music, dance, social development, emotional development, character education, conflict resolution, and physical education are shortchanged. 



All professions develop a canon of beliefs and practices that are passed from generation to generation. Unfortunately, if these canons are not carefully examined, we can end up perpetuating harmful practices in the name of professional behavior. This article highlighted areas important for careful examination, and most importantly areas where a change of approach might be beneficial to the children in early childhood programs.  

 Francis Wardle, Ph.D., teaches for the University of Phoenix (Colorado) and is the executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children. He has just published the book with Marta Cruz-Jansen, Meeting the Needs of Multiethnic and Multiracial Children, available from Allyn & Bacon,




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