What If Early Childhood Professionals Pushed Back?

Last week I wrote about the uphill battle of advocating for children – especially around the topic of play. But, as you know, our battles these days concern not just play, but also developmentally appropriate practice in general! Sad but true.

This hit home recently, when I was conducting my third professional development training for a Virginia school district. In the middle of one of my (fabulous, I’m certain!) points, one young woman raised her hand and asked, “Why are you here?” As you can imagine, this was not exactly the kind of question I was expecting.

My confusion was obvious (I’m rarely speechless), so she expounded. “You come here and share all of these ideas of things we should be doing with the kids,” she said, “but what good is it if the county isn’t going to let us do them?”


That was a first…but I had to admit she had a point. What good is it, indeed, if the end result was only going to be frustration? Earlier in the day, in fact, another teacher had commented that she’d been called out (“dinged,” was the way she phrased it) by her principal for doing one of the activities I’d shared the last time I was there.

Rarely, if ever, do I get to hear such things – because it’s rare that I’m able to work with teachers often enough that they become sufficiently comfortable to say such things aloud. Plenty of teachers may have had these thoughts throughout the years, but that’s usually as far as it goes.

I have to say that, as hard as it is to hear comments like these, I’m very grateful to the two teachers who spoke up. I need to consider such issues. But I’m really grateful to another young (and feisty) teacher who also spoke up – because she gave me even greater food for thought. She said, “So what if they ding you? What are they going to do, fire you? They can’t hire enough teachers these days!”

We all had a good laugh. But considering it later, I realized that these opposite viewpoints represent two prevalent categories of early childhood professionals currently occupying classrooms. The first is the teacher who knows developmentally appropriate practice and is frustrated – often beyond tears – by her inability to offer it to the children. The second is the teacher who, when asked to implement developmentally inappropriate practices, does what she knows to be best anyway, damn the consequences. (There’s a third type: the teacher who doesn’t know developmentally appropriate practice. But that’s a blog for another time.)

Now, I realize it’s easy for me to say that we need far more of the second type. I’m self-employed and accountable only to myself. But I once heard a colleague say, “Teachers have been told for too long to shut up and do their job – and for too long they’ve done just that.” And I have to wonder: What if they hadn’t? What if they’d adopted the attitude of that feisty teacher in my training? What if they’d put the children’s needs first and foremost and stood up to those administrators who tried to bully them into harmful teaching practices?

I advocate for children (and animals) because they can’t speak for themselves. But today’s children need a lot more help than I can give them. So, although they may not have sworn the Hippocratic oath, as doctors do, I believe teachers in the trenches must also abide by the pledge to “first do no harm.”

Again, I realize it’s easier for me to push back than it is for someone whose livelihood may be threatened. So, for those in fear of losing their jobs, I have two suggestions.

The first is that you not stand alone. When teachers in Seattle decided to push back against the MAP test, they risked suspension or other disciplinary actions. But they banded together, garnering the support of parents and students and, eventually, thanks to social media, educators throughout the state and country. And they won their battle! It’s a wonderful story of the power of teachers who believed in what they were fighting for. A few years later, striking Seattle teachers refused to settle until all schools were guaranteed 30 minutes of daily recess.

My second suggestion, for those unwilling to engage in all-out war, is that you arm yourself with as much information as possible. Yes, I’m talking about research; we should always be armed with that. But I also mean that when an administrator comes to you and asks, “Why are you doing this stuff?” you will have an answer that is specific to the activity you’re doing.

For example, if the children are making geometric shapes with their bodies, you can tell your administrator exactly which math standard is being addressed. If the children are playing a cooperative game, you can point out the social studies standard it complements. If they are stomping, slithering, and stalking, you can specify exactly which literacy standard, relevant to word comprehension, is behind the activity.

I can’t guarantee you’ll get the results you’re/we’re hoping for. But at least you’ll know you tried. That you didn’t just “shut up and do your job.” And if you keep trying – and provide evidence that it works – you never know what miracles may occur.

Yes, it’s scary to push back. But the children are worth it. And at the end of the day, you’ll know you did your best to do no harm!


  • Gail Multop says:

    Rae, teachers who belong to NAEYC should be familiar with the NAEYC Code of Conduct. The first thing in the code is “Principles
    P-1.1—Above all, we shall not harm children. We shall not participate in practices that are emotionally dam- aging, physically harmful, disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, or intimidating to children. This principle has precedence over all others in this Code.” Do no harm.
    2d. Teachers can learn the principles of integrated curriculum which state that teaching various subjects can be inventive and creative, whole body, as long as standards are addressed. But a teacher, unfortunately, has the ball in their court. They must document what they are doing, showing how the activities meet the standards. That’s fighting back, I think.

    • Rae says:

      Thanks so much for this, Gail! I’m a member of NAEYC and didn’t know about the Code of Conduct. But that could very well be because I’m not in a classroom. Do you think these codes are commonly known by teachers?

      Of course, I’m not sure most teachers would necessarily consider developmentally inappropriate practices to fall under P-1.1. More likely they think of that in terms of bullying or hitting a child.

      At any rate, it’s good to know these principles are in place!

  • LeeAnn says:


  • K says:

    That’s great that teachers are willing to fight for kids. But at what cost? How long will teachers have to battle it out, while kids languish in a stifling situation, their precious few years a childhood wasted? Maybe future generations of kids will benefit, but that’s small consolation to the adorementioned children, as they will never recoup what they’ve lost.

    • Rae says:

      I believe there are many children who would benefit immediately if teachers were willing to push back. If teachers can ignore some of what they’re told to do and instead do what’s developmentally appropriate, the children in her class will be the happy recipients.

      Am I missing something in what you’ve said?

  • Thank you Rae for bringing us this topic. Circumstances vary from town to town, never mind from country to country. I do know from teachers in New York that the stress placed on frequent testing of even very young students takes up time that could be much better spent, and also that many teachers rely on their School Principal for extending their job to the next academic year. These teachers are under huge pressure to tick all the boxes because they don’t want to be part of the awful late Summer scramble for a job. Teacher Unions in Ireland are very strong. However, teachers here are also under increasing pressure to measure every attainment, achievement, developmental stage reached. There must be some record of a child’s early school career, but to be stressing young children with tests they cannot understand fully but know well when they have ‘failed’ somehow, is the dark side of bureaucracy, and is bullying in its very structure. I was delighted to read Gail Multrop’s excerpt from the NAEYC Code of Conduct which I have adopted for myself! Kind regards, Iseult.

    • Rae says:

      We can’t keep doing this to the children! And, as I often say in my keynotes, there are more of “us” than “them.” In other words, there are more teachers than administrators and policymakers. I realize that teachers rely on their principals for job security. But if they stand together — for the children — they have a much greater chance of winning the battle. It IS bullying — not to mention child abuse — when people who don’t understand young children bring them to grief with their lack of understanding…and caring. The impact of these awful policies will stay with children for a lifetime!

      As always, thanks for weighing in, Iseult.

  • Liz Jarvis says:

    Hi Rae, your blog has just been posted on a Facebook group Keeping Early Years Unique which is based in the UK but has international membership. We are fighting this exact pressure to go formal with some success, but it is heart-breaking to realise how much harder that fight is for our colleagues in the US. My own school… Carterhatch Infants School has just come through Inspection and Early Years has again achieved Outstanding with our VERY child-led provision. It took our Leader a LOT of hard and determined talking to demonstrate how the system meets the standards. Google us to see the journey. Getting Head Teachers to support is a journey in itself… getting the Govt dept, both local and National, representatives is another. But the results speak for themselves. In UK our children CAN achieve the standards in high enough numbers to prove the validity of the method.

    • Rae says:

      Liz, thank you for sharing my post! But thanks most of all to you and those teachers who fought so hard for the children! I find it so frustrating that early childhood professionals have to work so hard to convince people who know nothing about ECE about what’s right for ECE!

  • Donald Hamilton says:

    I find it highly relevant with the push for rapid expansion of ECE globally. The first concern is the risk of premature introduction of children to the 3 “Rs” in structured situations. Second, the benefits or harmful effects of applying certain “accepted” (western) ECE methods universally. This reminds me of a seminar I attended many years ago at the University of Edinburgh, that brought together psychiatrists and social scientists from commonwealth countries to discuss the challenges of applying psychotherapy in cross cultural situations. Part of the problem was, how does one use language and cultural symbols effectively to treat patients using methods alien to the particular culture. It has been claimed that students from some sub-cultures in western societies suffer disadvantages because of their unfamiliarity with the dominant culture in schools that should help promote social mobility. Further research is sorely need in countries like ours.

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