Age Appropriateness in School: Balancing Individual Needs and Developmental Levels

How Important is Age Appropriateness in School?

Whether an activity or interest is age-appropriate is an ongoing argument in SEND education. Frustratingly it seems to only apply to children with SEN. Particularly regarding activities for PMLD learners and the special interests of autistic children. Even more annoying is when we label something “not age-appropriate”. The person doing so is usually concerned only about the perception of others. We immediately discount the needs and enjoyment of the individual. It then falls on the teachers, parents or carers to justify this choice.

What is Age Appropriateness?

Age appropriateness in school contexts refers to the idea that educational materials, activities, and expectations should be tailored to the age and typical developmental level of the students. This means that the curriculum, teaching methods, and assessments should be designed to meet the unique needs and abilities of students at different ages and stages of development. It is the rejection that these elements of education should be more stage-appropriate. Meeting the learner’s interests regardless of chronological age.

I don’t agree with the application of age appropriateness for PMLD or Sensory Beings. Why, when everything in life is a barrier for them would we add to these limits and boundaries with petty concerns about age appropriateness? Are we that desperate for control over every aspect of their life we need to ban things that bring joy because they are designed primarily for young children? It gets a bit more nuanced for some other SEND learners but the basic concept is the same.

Age-Appropriate VS Infantilisation

To clarify, I do have a huge problem with the infantilisation of SEND young people/adults. However, there is a subtle difference. Denying access to learning and opportunities because of their disability is abusive. Likewise using baby-talk and only providing access to limited stimuli is disrespectful to that person. Infantilisation occurs because that individual is not seen to be capable of development or self-determination.

Infantilisation is how you interact with someone to keep them in a state that does not allow for progression. It denies the natural physical changes that occur in life. This can include not providing meaningful lessons on puberty. Not developing a communication system. Not providing choices etc.

Forcing age-appropriate only interests or activities is an attempt to control and force your will and worldview on them. Denying access to or belittling interests shames the individual. As adults with all the access, benefits and opportunities our lives have we must never fall into that trap. Too often people with disabilities are viewed as a “perpetual child”. This needs to be challenged but not at the expense of their interests.

Expanding Opportunities For Age-Appropriate Experiences.

You may agree that “age-appropriate” is a concept we need to drop but what can we do to enhance the lives of those with limited interests? This section is very specifically called expanding opportunities it is not about replacing current interests. Providing new experiences widens their world, it does not devalue current interests. We need to be aware of and sensitive to knowing that how we present new things will always play a part in influencing preferences. We can determine the individual’s willingness to try new things. How often do we hear a new music track and grow to love it with repeated listening? It also works the other way – they may be sick of hearing the same few things but no one has allowed them to reject it.

How to expand a child’s range of interests.

  • Evaluate what it is that they enjoy about the current interest, if they love nursery rhymes try adding a new upbeat pop song to your routine. Watch for reactions. Or try a remix – this is one a child in my class chose. Soon we had progressed to a Spongebob Squarepants Trap remix – Don’t ask! But this is more age appropriate or age acceptable.
  • Encourage shared experiences with peers – as above, I can’t count the number of times interests have spread within a class when the children can share theirs. If working with pre-verbal or PMLD learners you can use a DISDAT passport to ensure you know how they communicate joy or interest,
  • Build familiarity. Often people like things that are familiar and comfortable. An object, song, TV Show may have strong associative memories to positive experiences. The more we seek to create positive memories in our setting the more likely an individual is to seek out those experiences again.
  • Don’t just put known choices into communication systems. This is so limiting add a new or unexpected option to the eye-gaze screen or etrans frame.

Age Appropriate and Planned Learning for SEND Children.

In SEND education engagement is king. Get that child engaged and the learning can be introduced around that. It is common for SEND learners to be undertaking “work” that mainstream children complete in lower-year groups. This is more likely to be those pupils with learning disabilities and autism (sorry about the labels). There are two pitfalls it is easy to fall into.

Using pre-made resources that are labelled with the national curriculum year group they are designed for. This is poor practice. I have seen many year 1/2 labelled worksheets used with key stage 4 pupils. Don’t do this it is hugely disrespectful and damaging to a child’s self-esteem

Creating activities that involve infantile elements. If the child is still learning numbers 1-5 at 14 please do not use the song 5 little ducks. Get a bit more creative. Like the example above this differs the learners so overtly. If your learners respond to singing write your song.

This said special interests are a great way into the child’s world. If it is trains we can count them, sort them, use them to share and play with the child. Really enhance communication by describing them and introducing new vocabulary. We can use toys to make videos, explain concepts and write stories visually. Much better than worksheets.

age appropriate teaching resources

Age Appropriate or Person Appropriate

In my school I want the team to be ‘Person appropriate’. This ensures the pupil is motivated to take part in your planned learning activities. This is what will lead to progress. Being age (or stage-appropriate) is about offering something and accepting someone’s choice about it. Meet the person where they are and make the human connection. Then offer and present new things over time. Expose your learners to the richest of environments they can access. If they make new choices or reject old favourites then go with it.

Is Age Appropriateness Appropriate for SEN Learners?

As I was writing this article I realised that this discussion will rumble on in special education, the concept of age appropriateness can be quite divisive in schools. It’s a topic that sparks debates and raises questions about how we approach learning for individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID). So I thought I would write out my thoughts on both sides of this argument.

The Case for Age Appropriateness

  1. Social Norms and Stigma:
    • Some argue that adhering to age-appropriate themes ensures that individuals with ID fit societal norms. It prevents them from engaging in activities or interests perceived as “childish” or “immature.”
    • Parents may request age-appropriate content due to social stigma or cultural expectations.
  2. Transition to Adulthood:
    • Preparing SEN learners for adulthood involves introducing age-relevant skills and experiences.
    • Age-appropriate lessons gradually bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood.
  3. National Curriculum Alignment:
    • Aligning with age-appropriate content ensures that SEN pupils can access the national curriculum.
    • Professionals argue that consistency matters for educational standards.

The Case Against Age Appropriateness

  1. Individualized Learning:
  2. Learning Opportunities and Engagement:
    • Enforcing age-appropriate themes can limit learning opportunities. Instead of using meaningful themes, educators might impose less familiar content.
    • Engagement suffers when learners can’t connect with the material.
  3. The Flawed Concept:
    • Age-appropriate enforcement often relies on personal biases. It’s someone else’s perception of what’s “normal.”
    • Restricting access to nursery rhymes or resources based on age denies learners valuable experiences.
  4. None of the Learning Is ‘Age Appropriate’:
    • In progressive special schools, learning adapts to the individual’s developmental level. It’s not about age-appropriate content but meaningful learning experiences


Age appropriateness is a complex issue. While some contexts warrant consideration (such as parental preferences), professionals should prioritize individualized learning. Let’s focus on what truly matters: empowering SEN learners to thrive, regardless of societal norms

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