Early Childhood Education …Because the early bird catches the success curve

Nichola Pais
Early Childhood Education …Because the early bird catches the success curve

Preschool teachers are nothing more than babysitters. Preschool is way too expensive. Early childhood education is ineffective. Children should be able to play and not have a structured environment…Just some of the many misconceptions floating around about Early Childhood Education (ECE).

Research however proves that we commit the gravest mistake by writing off the early years of a child as an unimportant period; and ECE, as an inconsequential filler before ‘real life’ begins. Truly, it is real life, itself! A child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional skill development occurs most during this period, which sows the seeds of success in later life. It is the child’s experiences during these crucial early years, which determines its survival and success in life, laying the grounds for learning and holistic development. Supportive family and community care practices, proper nutrition and healthcare, and the right learning opportunities make all the difference to a child’s development in this key phase.

Early Childhood Education (ECE) has a positive impact on attendance, retention, and learning of children in elementary and higher education. More importantly, interventions in early childhood are seen to have long-term effects on future social adjustment and economic success, and are even passed on to subsequent generations. ECE provides sustained benefits in terms of cognitive learning and socio-emotional adjustment, particularly for children at risk. Yes, it is time ECE received the attention it deserves, from the government, educators and parents.

While challenges continue to loom, a quick point-wise overview of the realm of ECE in India…

A – Anganwadis
Since 1975, the ministry of Women and Child Development has been providing free-of-charge integrated child development services (ICDS) in the areas of health, nutrition, community awareness and non-formal preschool education to children in rural areas, minority groups, slums, and underdeveloped areas through the Early Childhood Care and Education centres called Anganwadis. As of December 2015, there were more than 13 lakh operational Anganwadis (courtyard shelter) centres in India.

B – Basic Goals
Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) has been included as a specific target in the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. The objective is to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education. India is among the 193 countries that have endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is committed to working towards the achievement of these basic goals. The SDG goals recognize that children are agents of change when they channel their infinite potential to create a better world.

C – Common Standard
A common standard in ECE is what is urgently required across India. While Early Childhood Care is handled by the ministry of Women and Child Development, the states do not manage the same. Preschools thus create their own curriculum, or become ‘preparatory centres’ for standard one. The lack of a clear-cut policy on quality or curriculum means state governments are unable to regulate preschools. A common standard across India would ensure children get the uniform care and education they deserve.

D – Dropout rate
Despite the recognition of the importance of ECE by the Government of India, the challenges in implementation still remain. There are still substantial numbers of children not enrolled in preschools. Even in elementary education, while there is a significant rise in enrolments, the dropout rate continues to be a matter of concern, with dropouts being highest in the first two grades of elementary schooling.

E – Educational facility
While choosing an ideal early childhood care and educational facility, a parent must look for qualities like consideration, awareness, alertness and compassion. This age group is still not monitored under the Right to Education (RTE), however, owing to the fact that a healthy learning environment greatly impacts a child’s future, ECCE lead institutions have to create a moral compass for themselves. Early childhood educational facilities must instil in children the flexibility to adapt to changing technologies, while teachers must foster learning environments that encourage critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, global awareness, and social responsibility.

F - Franchisee models
The concept of private preschooling is fast developing in India. Franchisee models like Kidzee, Podar Jumbo Kids, Eurokids, Kangaroo Kids, Shemrock and Mother’s Pride have made a niche presence in the lucrative and imperative educational scenario. Many of them follow a unique blend of Montessori and Paige’s Early Childhood Learning models and continue to innovate their curricula year-after-year. The focus is on overall holistic development of the child.

G - Grassroots
Educational institutions and government bodies worldwide admit that even if a child from the marginal strata of society is exposed to proper ECCE facilities, over the next 20 years of such a child, his or her presence would have significantly contributed to the future of that country’s economy. The child population is a part of the wealth of a nation, if has been exposed to holistic education from the earliest years. This sees the need for investment in ECCE centres at the grassroots level.

H – Holistic development

Early childhood care and education is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. ECCE has the possibility to nurture caring, capable and responsible future citizens.

I – Integrated Child Development Services

India supports perhaps the world’s largest public sector integrated programme for children below 6 years of age, known as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). This programme was initiated in 1975 on a pilot basis in 35 administrative blocks of the country. A centrally sponsored scheme, the programme has evolved over time and has now been universalized. The services they provide include health, education and nutritional support, community mobilization and non-formal preschool education for 3- to 6-year-olds.

J – Justiciable right
The Government of India brought in a Constitutional Amendment to the original Article 45 which now states that “The State shall endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years.” Section 11 was inserted in the RTE Act to address this gap, which directs the appropriate governments “to endeavour to provide preschool education to all children from 3 to 6 years of age so as to prepare them for primary education”. However, in order to make it a justiciable right, the National Law Commission (2015) submitted its report to the government recommending the need for legislation to make Early Childhood Development a fundamental right of every Indian child below 6 years. It also recommended that preschool education be made part of the RTE Act (2009).

K – Key phase
The earliest years of a child’s life are a key phase in the child’s development. These years determine a child’s survival and thriving in life, and lay the foundations for her/ his learning and development. It is during the early years that children develop the cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills that they need to succeed in life. Research in neuroscience provides strong evidence that the pace of development of the brain is most rapid in the earliest years of life, to the extent that 90 per cent of the brain’s growth has already occurred by the time a child is 6 years old. Research has further demonstrated that children’s early experiences influence brain development, by affecting the formation of the synapses or neural pathways of the brain. Early experiences thus have far-reaching effects on the overall development of the brain and on behaviour.

L Life-skills
Promoting life skills in the preschool classroom is equally important. Mastering any kind of life skill takes time and experience. As young children learn in a safe environment to play cooperatively with others, or take care of their belongings, they build important skills and feel successful and valued in doing things independently.

M - Methods
Well-intentioned activities and engagement is important for any Early Childhood Care and Education programme. While specialised systems of teaching such as Montessori have formed the basis for many a preschool for decades, newer systems and philosophies like the Playway method, multiple intelligence mapping, and the Reggio Emilia approach of learning through experiencing nature have also been incorporated into the curriculum for children up to 6 years.

N - National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy
The government of India, in recent years, has taken steps to strengthen the policy framework for early childhood. The National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy in 2013, and the National Curriculum Framework and Quality Standards provide a comprehensive framework for promoting access, equity and quality in ECCE. State governments have designed their own curricula in the light of this national framework.

O - Outcomes
Investments in high quality interventions for young children are thought to be cost effective ways of improving outcomes both for individual children, especially in the case of vulnerable or disadvantaged children, and for society as a whole. Compelling evidence in developing countries shows that almost 215 million children below the age of 5 have not achieved their full potential due to adverse early experiences and are at risk of developmental delays and school failure. Long-term follow-up of children from birth shows that growth failure in the first 2 years of life has harmful effects on adult health and human capital, including chronic disease, and lower educational attainment and adult earning.

P - Primary Grades
Learning assessments show that literacy skills are poor in early primary grades. This shows the importance of helping children, particularly from first generation families, to develop adequate academic and social preparedness for formal schooling through a good quality ECE programme, in order for them to make a smooth transition. Evidence indicates that Early Childhood Education (ECE) programmes can “change the development trajectory of children by the time of entering school”.

Q - Quality
The benefits from Early Childhood Education accrue only if the quality of the programme is ensured in terms of standards related to qualified teachers, a validated and developmentally appropriate curriculum, parental involvement, and utilization of feedback from assessments. Good quality ECE programmes have a strong track record of ensuring smooth transition from home/preschool to school. They facilitate adjustment in school, reduce dropout and retention at initial stages and improve learning achievements, thus narrowing inequalities in education.

R - Readiness
According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report (2007), the consensus from research is that school readiness encompasses development in five distinct but interconnected domains – physical wellbeing and motor development, social and emotional development, approach to learning/language development, cognitive development, and general knowledge.

S - Strictly informal
In terms of quality and curriculum for ECE, the National ECCE Policy (2013) lays down some priority areas for children, which include early stimulation experiences for children below 3 years; developmentally appropriate, play-based preschool education for the age group of 3 to 6 years; and a structured school readiness component for 5- to 6-year-olds. Even prior to this policy, the National Policy on Education (1986) clearly discouraged any formal instruction of the 3R’s at this early stage of education and emphasized strictly informal play-based learning. The National Curriculum Framework (2013) defined age-specific curricular objectives for each of the subgroups within the under-six age range and laid out the basic principles of providing age-appropriate, play-based, integrated, experiential, contextual and inclusive teaching-learning experiences.

T - Trained teachers
Meaningful Early Childhood Education cannot be delivered without a battery of well trained teachers. Teachers’ training programmes need to comprise international best practices and ways and means to adapt them in schools. In India, there is no legal framework that specifies requirements and standards of ECCE teacher training programmes; instead various education channels provide different types of training.

In the words of UNESCO, “Early childhood care and education is more than a preparatory stage assisting the child’s transition to formal schooling. It places emphasis on developing the whole child - attending to his or her social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs - to establish a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing.”

V - Varying frameworks

The National Early Childhood Care and Education policy led to the development of state level curricula for ECCE across states, but implementation has been uneven due to variations in state priorities and capacities. The policy recommends institutionalization of a regulatory and accreditation framework for quality, particularly for the private sector, but this has not yet been initiated.

W - Willing parents

Parental involvement plays a vital role in enhancing literacy skills and development of children even more so when their involvement begins in the cradle and extends to the early childhood education centre. Parents are the prime educators until the child attends nursery or starts school and remain a major influence on their children’s learning through preschool period. When parents get involved, children’s schooling is affected through their acquisition of knowledge, skills and an increased sense of confidence that they can succeed in school. There is a need to educate parents regarding preschool education as they might not have a clear idea regarding the purpose of Early Childhood Education and its vital role in preschool years.

Y - Yawning gap
Currently around 60% of children below 6 years of age do not avail of any preschool education in the country. In a country as diverse and large as India, achieving universal access is not an easy task. The sheer magnitude in terms of numbers is a major dimension of the problem. The Eleventh Plan has recommended setting up of one ECCE centre for every 40 children in the proximity of approximately 300 people. The yawning gap in provision is estimated to be almost 1.1 million, indicating a requirement of approximately 53 percent of institutions.

Z - Zero to five
From the age of zero to five years, healthy positive reinforcement and a happy environment makes a huge impact on the overall development of a child. Such experiences affect all aspects of their development – physical, intellectual, socio-emotional and spiritual. The early years are the brain development years, when attention should be given to a child’s health, nutrition, stimulation, language and emotional development.

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