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Another View on "Reinforcement in Developmentally Appropriate Early Childhood Classrooms".

In the Summer 2000 issue of Childhood Education, the article written by Tashawna Duncan, Kristen Kemple, and Tina Smith supports reinforcement as a developmentally appropriate practice (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). In the present article, the author contrasts the Duncan-Kemple-Smith position with another view: How to use developmental theory to inform us of appropriate strategies for dealing with young children in the classroom. The use of behavioral techniques such as reinforcers often can produce desired behavior changes. Behavior modification through the use of reinforcers, however, is a superficial effort to lead the child down the road of development without using the road map of developmental theory, which views the child's actions with regard to developmental constructs.

Let's take the Duncan-Kemple-Smith example. "Five-year-old Rodney has recently joined Mr. Romero's kindergarten class. On his first day in his new class, Rodney punched a classmate and usurped the tricycle the other boy was riding. On Rodney's second day in the class, he shoved a child on a swing and dumped another out of her chair at the snack table" (Duncan, Kemple, & Smith, 2000, p. 194). In essence, the authors support behavioral theory and advocate addressing Rodney's negative actions through the use of social reinforcers (e.g., praise, and similar teacher attention), activity reinforcers (e.g., earning use of a toy such as a tricycle with "good" behavior), and tangible reinforcers (e.g., stickers). Unfortunately, applying reinforcers to extinguish Rodney's "aggression" overlooks the context of how children develop.

The developmentalist, by contrast, would attempt to change Rodney's antisocial behaviors by trying to understand his developmental needs--specifically, what may be causing such behaviors in the first place. As this is Rodney's first day in his new class, the first question for the developmentalist, knowing the literature on attachment and separation fears (Mahler, 1970, 1975; Speers, 1970a, 1970b), would be: Did the teacher help Rodney make a gradual transition from home to school, and allow time for him to bond with his new teacher and become comfortable in this strange new world of the kindergarten classroom? The developmentalists may use supportive actions to help the child make a successful transition (Jervis, 1999). In Rodney's case, the teacher could have made home visits, giving Rodney a chance to meet his teacher on his own "turf"; permitted Rodney to bring a "transitional object" (his cuddle toy or his "Linus" blanket) (Wolfgang & Wolfgang, 1999); and encouraged a parent to stay in the class the first day or two so that Rodney could "wean" himself from parental support.

Developmentalists may, in fact, view Rodney's aggressive actions as heroic attempts to get his needs met in a strange new world. The developmentalist might ask: Are there enough tricycles (or similar favorite items) that would permit him to play in parallel form as a developmental step into associative and cooperative play? (Parten, 1971). Or is the playground developmentally appropriate? Are back-and-forth swings, because of the preoperational child's inability to understand movement between states, or states vs. transformations (Piaget & Inhelder, 1958), appropriate at the kindergarten level? Is the organization of snacks and the arrangement of chairs done in such a manner that certain chairs (e.g., those that allow children to sit with the teacher) are favored, thus causing competition? In viewing Rodney's aggressive behaviors, a developmentalist also would ask: Are the environment, procedures, rules, and daily activities developmentally appropriate for this child, especially when we have children with special needs in our classroom?

The teacher who is armed with a repertoire of social reinforcers, activity reinforcers, and tangible reinforcers, and who uses them daily as the general mode of guidance for children, is missing an opportunity to understand how a child's actions may give us insight into his developmental needs. When we have a medical visit, the doctor says, "Where does it hurt?" We show where the pain is, and the doctor then considers each ailment suggested by pain in that location. Similarly, "punching, pushing, and taking others' possessions" should prompt us to learn about this child's developmental needs, to draw on our knowledge to give meaning to the child's "symptoms," and to use developmentally appropriate practices.

Rather than administering a reinforcer to change the child's behavior, the developmental teacher asks: How does that child separate and bond? Can he cuddle with supportive adults, such as the teacher? How does he eat and handle himself at snack or at rest time? Can he handle demanding activities such as finger painting, water play, or painting? Can he do socio-dramatic play? How do his social skills relate to typical developmental stages? Can he express his needs with words while under pressure in a social situation? (Wolfgang, 1977; Wolfgang & Wolfgang, 1999). These questions can be posed only from within an understanding of certain developmental theories--Mahler's theories of bonding and attachment (1970, 1975), Anna Freud's developmental lines (1968, 1971), play research and theory (Erikson, 1950; Freud, 1968; Peller, 1969; Smilansky, 1969), and Parten's social stages (1971).

Considering Rodney From a Developmentally Appropriate Perspective

Young children who do not feel empowered or do not believe they will get their needs met begin to deal with their world in an automatic, reflexive manner. They may respond through verbal aggression (swearing or using bathroom talk), physical aggression (punching, pushing, and taking others' possessions), or passivity (flat, expressionless behavior accompanied by excessive thumb sucking, masturbation, or even self-abusive activities, such a striking their own head) (Wolfgang, 1977).

Children slowly "learn to be the cause" of events in their world over the first three years of life. The young infant attaches to a significant person, then begins a gradual separation process: first learning causality as a baby by throwing a spoon in order to get others to pick it up, acting upon objects during toddlerhood by opening all the kitchen cabinet doors and banging on pots and pans, and using language to achieve a goal in late toddlerhood by asking mommy for something. Thus, the child becomes socially adaptive. If development went well during these first three years, children will enter kindergarten expecting the best, with the confidence that they can master what lies before them. If this development has not gone well, they may enter kindergarten as Rodney did--by "punching, pushing, and taking others' possessions."

In behavioral theory, we address children's inappropriate behavior by moving away when the child acts out; otherwise, we would be reinforcing the behavior by attending to them. For example, we may ignore a child when he cries, in an effort to eliminate the crying. Developmentalists take just the opposite approach. The kindergarten teacher's first goal should be to rebond with Rodney, then gradually teach him to channel his energy (aggression is simply misdirected energy) from the body to the toy, from the toy to play, and from play to work (Freud, 1968).

On the third day of school, the developmental teacher would direct Rodney into a host of activities that permit him to divert his aggression (energy) from his body into the toy (pounding at the carpentry table, pounding with clay, or pursuing aggressive play themes in the safe, make-believe world of small animal toys). At the same time, the teacher would attempt to bond with Rodney (even to the point of cuddling him), so that he would begin to realize that he can depend on this caring adult to help get what he needs (Wolfgang, 1977; Wolfgang & Wolfgang, 1999).

Instead of permitting Rodney to have the tricycle after he goes for a period of time without pushing or hitting as a reinforcement (activity reinforcers), the developmental teacher might allow Rodney to use a tricycle whenever he wants, because it is an excellent outlet for his energy. Thus, Rodney can transfer his aggression from other children to the toy. The teacher may tape his picture or name to a chair at snack time so that he will know that this seat will always be reserved for him, and thus know that he does not need to fight for one.

Next, after Rodney has aggressively used the carpentry equipment, clay, or the make-believe rubber animal toys (such as lions and tigers), the teacher would help him cross the bridge into "making something" with the clay, or "making a story" with the animals. He then will move from the toy to play. Once he learns isolated play (Parten, 1971), the teacher can encourage others to join him; he will then move from parallel to associative play, and then to cooperative play (Smilansky, 1968; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990), whereby he becomes a role-player with others and practices the social skills of give-and-take.

Rodney pushes, shoves, and hits because he does not yet have the social skills to work with others and to get his needs met. Reinforcing "good" behavior does not teach him the developmental skills he needs to function. Through role-play (as in socio-dramatic play), the child moves from isolated play into cooperation with others, which requires sophisticated social and language skills. Rodney, through such play, would be empowered and, therefore, would not need the teacher reinforcements, or control. He can develop effective adaptive skills.

As part of their advice for Rodney's teacher, Duncan, Kemple, and Smith write, "Mr. Romero is concerned for the emotional and physical safety of the other children, and he believes that Rodney will have a hard time making friends if his reputation as an aggressor is allowed to solidify. He feels the need to act fast. Deciding that a system of reinforcement, along with other strategies, may help Rodney control his aggressive behavior, Mr. Romero implements a token reinforcement system. Rodney earns a ticket, accompanied by praise, for each 30-minute period during which he does not behave aggressively. At the end of the day, Rodney can trade a specified number of earned tickets for his choice of small toys" (p. 194).

While it is certainly necessary to protect the other children and ensure fairness, the authors' advice fails to incorporate developmentally appropriate practice. At circle time, and possibly even before Rodney has arrived, a teacher using a developmentalist approach would have discussed Rodney's arrival with the other kindergarten children to help them develop empathy for Rodney, who is, after all, getting accustomed to a new place. The teacher could ask the children to think about how Rodney might feel, why he might push and shove and take other children's toys, and why the teacher might need to do special things for this new person. Young children can understand these concepts, and as they watch the developmental teacher guiding the "misbehaving" child they will become secure in the knowledge that the teacher will not punish them for similar actions. Thus, they can learn to master their own aggressive impulses as they watch Rodney strive for self-control and social skills.

The Duncan-Kemple-Smith article includes a short review of studies (e.g., Schloss & Smith, 1998; Zirpoli, 1995) demonstrating that reinforcers are effective in eliminating unwanted behaviors in early childhood settings. It is often true that behavioral techniques are powerful and effective when they are used with the narrow goal of changing a particular behavior. These brief targeted studies, however, do not answer the following questions: Should this behavior be extinguished? What caused the behavior in the first place? What are the new behaviors that result when this behavior is extinguished? There is no doubt that an experienced behavioral teacher using reinforcers can extinguish Rodney's aggression.

What happens, however, if we return the next month to observe Rodney and find that new problem behaviors have developed? In short, targeting one behavior obscures the perspective on the dynamic aspect of human behavior and the interdependence of social, emotional, and cognitive development. When we narrow our view of children's growth to one observable behavior, we lose the holistic view of the child.

Another Look at Specific Behavioral Techniques

In light of recommended developmentally appropriate practices, behavioral constructs of reinforcement raise some concerns.

Social Reinforcers (e.g., praise and similar teacher attention). The narrow behavioral nature of a social reinforcer, such as teacher praise and attention, boxes the teacher into scripted behavior when used with young children. Teacher attention toward the child should be based on the teacher's insights into, and empathy with, the child's real development needs, as well as on an understanding of the necessary steps for the child to gradually gain autonomy.

Activity Reinforcers (e.g., earning use of a toy with "good" behavior). In a developmental classroom, there are no activities, materials, and toys that are considered "treats." Instead, these items and processes are basic to the educational developmental model itself. One example of activity reinforcers from the Duncan, Kemple, and Smith article shows the teacher reminding the children that they must first clean up before they are permitted to go out to the playground. No one can disagree with the need to teach young children to clean up; with a child like Rodney, however, cleaning up will only come after he has become a co-player and a worker with others. This will take time. He should never be barred from a play activity, especially during his first days of kindergarten. Following the developmental construct of Anna Freud (1968), activities on the playground, with the guidance of an informed developmental teacher, are exactly what Rodney needs to help him gain control of his own behavior and attain true maturity. The developmentally appropriate classroom does not use toys, materials, and activities as "activity treats" or activity reinforcers; all toys, materials, and activities as are there to contribute to children's development.

Tangible Reinforcers (e.g., stickers). One kindergarten teacher once stated, "My students would kill for a sticker." Because Rodney does not yet have the developmental social skills to function at an age-appropriate level, he will miss out on such tangible reinforcers as stickers and feel resentment and anger toward those who do receive them. In fact, Rodney may push and hit to get a sticker. The use of stickers as a tangible reinforcer may achieve short-term success, but bring about unintended, long-term consequences for the children who do not, as yet, have the social skills to merit the reward.


The behavioral constructs of social reinforcers, activity reinforcers, and tangible reinforcers can be learned quickly by beginning teachers of young children, provide them with feelings of empowerment and control, and may help, in the short term, to curb children's aggressive behavior. It may be helpful, however, to view aggression from a developmental point of view--as children's attempts to adapt to new situations. Behavioral techniques that shape and change children's surface behaviors without placing these behaviors within a developmental context may, in the long run, interfere with the child's developmental needs and cause much harm.


Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Duncan, T. K., Kemple, K. M., & Smith, T. M. (2000). Reinforcement in developmentally appropriate early childhood classrooms. Childhood Education, 76, 194-203.

Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton Press.

Freud, A. (1968). Normality and pathology in childhood: Assessments of development. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, A. (1971). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.

Jervis, K. (1999). Separation: Strategies for helping two- to four-year-olds. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Mahler, M. S. (1970). On human symbiosis and the vicissitudes of individuation. New York: International Universities Press.

Mahler, M. S. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.

Parten, M. B. (1971). Social play among preschool children. In R. E. Herron & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Child's play (pp. 83-95). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Peller, L. E. (1969). Libidinal phases, ego development and play. In Psychoanalytic study of the child, no. 9 (pp. 178-197). New York: International Universities Press.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1958). The growth of logical thinking: From childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books.

Smilansky, S. (1969). The effects of sociodramatic play on disadvantaged preschool children. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Smilansky, S. J., & Shefatya, L. (1990). Facilitating play: Medium for promoting cognitive, social-emotional and academic development in young children. Gaithersburg, MD: Psychosocial & Educational Publishing.

Speers, R. W. (1970a). Recapitulation of separation-individuation processes when the normal three-year-old enters nursery school. In J. McDevitt (Ed.), Separation-individuation: Essays in honor of Margaret Mahler (pp. 38-67). New York: International Universities Press.

Speers, R. W. (1970b). Variations in Separation -- Individuation and implications for play abilities and learning as studied in the three-year-old in nursery school. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Wolfgang, C. H. (1977). Helping aggressive and passive preschoolers through play. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing.

Wolfgang, C. H., & Wolfgang, M. E. (1999). School for young children: Developmentally appropriate practices. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Charles H. Wolfgang is Professor of Early Childhood Education, Florida State University, Tallahassee.
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Title Annotation:education research
Author:Wolfgang, Charles H.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Next Article:Early Childhood Care, Work, and Family in Japan: Trends in a Society of Smaller Families.

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