A Holistic Approach to Educating Young Children with Disabilities: Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Posted in Disability  |  Tagged ,

by Audrey Fung (GU, School of Nursing ‘24)

Strong advocacy of inclusive education for children with disabilities must continue and expand globally. It is essential to employ effective and inclusive teaching strategies that cater to the unique needs of all children, fostering their holistic development. One method, Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP), aims to promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach. This blog post explores the history, major characteristics, research-backed effectiveness, and applicability of DAP to children with disabilities.

Historically, Developmentally Appropriate Practice emerged in the United States during the mid-1980s championed by early childhood educators and researchers, led by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in response to two issues (NAEYC, 2023). Specifically, concerns grew regarding inappropriate teaching practices and expectations for preschool and kindergarten teachers as public prekindergarten programs grew (NAEYC, 2023). Additionally, interpretation of the term “developmentally appropriate” as seen in NAEYC’s national accreditation system varied among the population, calling for clarification (NAEYC, 2023). Over time, DAP gained global recognition, and its principles have been embraced by educators and professionals in various regions worldwide, including Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

DAP has several defining characteristics that make it such a successful approach, including three core considerations: commonality, individuality, and context.

Commonality entails understanding that all development and learning occur within specific social, cultural, linguistic, and historical contexts (NAEYC, 2023). Individuality refers to the way that characteristics and experiences are unique to each child, making the implications for how to best support their development also unique (NAEYC, 2023). This individualized approach provides “opportunity for critical thinking, the expression of ideas through creativity and imagination […] and the engagement in multiple experiences that create neurological networks and develop emotional regulation (Cade, et. al., 2022). Lastly, context means that everything socially and culturally related for each child, educator, and the program must be considered during education, including each child’s families’ values, expectations, and priorities are taken into account (Mohan Nahak, et. al., 2022).

One other key characteristic of DAP is Play-Based Learning. DAP emphasizes the significance of play in children’s learning and development. Play provides a natural context for exploration, problem-solving, social interaction, and creativity. With DAP, “teachers and children need to create an inclusive and supportive space for children with and without disabilities to play and learn together” (Danniels, 2022). This is extremely valuable and something that is unique to the fun of Play-Based Learning.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of DAP in enhancing the educational outcomes of young children, specifically including those with disabilities. This effectiveness is measured by the degree to which it “extends children’s interests and learning in meaningful ways and educators’ sensitivity to changes in children’s interest” (NAEYC, 2023). Research has shown that DAP promotes higher levels of engagement, motivation, and enjoyment in learning, leading to improved academic achievement. For example, it has been found that students in classrooms that incorporate DAP score higher on tests of basic skills, such as receptive, expressive, and written communication skills; daily living skills; interpersonal relationship and social skills (Marcon, 2002).

Developmentally Appropriate Practice is highly applicable to children with disabilities due to its flexible and inclusive nature. By tailoring instruction to individual needs, educators can create meaningful learning experiences for children with diverse abilities. DAP provides opportunities for children with disabilities to develop skills at their own pace, promoting a sense of autonomy and self-confidence. Moreover, the play-based approach within DAP allows children with disabilities to engage in hands-on, experiential learning, promoting cognitive, motor, and social development. Through play, children can explore their abilities, develop problem-solving skills, and build relationships with peers. They can also begin to show specific strengths through play, which can be used to continue to foster their confidence and development.

Inclusive environments that prioritize social and emotional development, a key component of DAP, can foster positive relationships between children with disabilities and all of their peers. This integration can promote empathy, understanding, and collaboration, while reducing stigma and fostering a sense of belonging for children with disabilities. The characteristics of DAP make it an ideal framework to incorporate into inclusive preschools. Play-based learning is emphasized in order for children to become more independent and engaged in their activity. Individualization a key aspect of family-centered care that should be initiated in all schools recognizing that every child and their family situations are unique and require different forms of guidance to thrive. Its emphasis on play-based learning, context, commonality, and individualization makes DAP an effective approach in fostering an inclusive education system. More work needs to be done in order to continue advocating for inclusive education, but the use of approaches such as DAP, helps to eliminate the stigma surrounding disabilities. Rather, recognizing that everyone needs something a little bit different than the next person to live a fulfilled life, and that is what makes every individual unique and special.


Cade, J., Wardle, F., & Otter, J. (2022). Toddler and preschool teachers’ beliefs and perceptions about the use of developmentally appropriate practice. Cogent Education, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186x.2021.2018908

Danniels, E., & Pyle, A. (2022). Inclusive play-based learning: Approaches from enacting Kindergarten Teachers. Early Childhood Education Journal.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-022-01369-4

Marcon, R. (2002, March). Moving up the grades: Relationship between preschool model and later … ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26390914_Moving_up_the_Grades_Relationship_between_Preschool_Model_and_Later_School_Success

Mohan Nahak, F., Effendy, F., & Choudhury, S. (2022, May). Significance of developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) for … ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/360318428_Significance_of_Developmentally   Appropriate_Practices_DAP_for_learning_and_development_of_learners

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (n.d.-b). Appendix A: History and context. NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/dap/history-context#:~:text=NAE%20released%20its%20original%20position,response%20to%20two%20specific%20issues