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

By Wolfgang, Charles H. | Childhood Education, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Wolfgang, Charles H., Childhood Education


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. …

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