Opinion

How to raise children to be healthy, happy and holistically developed individuals, contributing positively to the nation

Swati Popat Vats
How to raise children to be healthy, happy and holistically developed individuals, contributing positively to the nation

We say, ‘Children are the future’ – and that’s true – but there’s a fundamental problem with that idea. It suggests that... they’re just kids now, but later, when they become the future, we can start taking care of them... with colleges and universities, a better economy, a better job climate. But that’s wrong. The most critical time that you have with children is – ‘right now’.

It’s the first five years. Children go through a period of rapid learning in the first five years. The most embedded parts of our personality – our attitudes and moral values, our emotional tendencies, our learning abilities, potential to think rationally, persist with challenge, use language, suppress impulses, regulate emotions, respond to others’ distress, cooperate with peers, cognitive and social skills, healthy habits are all a product of experiences that we have between the ages of 0 and 5. That’s when we learn how to adapt and respond to the world.

Early childhood is divided into two areas, ECC - Early Childhood Care and ECE - Early Childhood Education. ECC is from inception to 3 years and ECE is from 3 to 6 years. Brain research and neuro science have proven that 98% of the brain develops in the first six years. A person’s personality is fixed by age 5, how he/she will handle emotions, learning, social issues, problem solving and how he/she will behave, all this is fixed by age 5 and so by not investing in early childhood we are somewhere happy with creating maladjusted youth, thinking school and college life will change them! Fool’s paradise! 

The importance of ECE is best understood, with an excerpt from New York Times editorial by Nicholas Kirstof in which he concluded..."Look, we'll have to confront the pathologies of poverty at some point. We can deal with them cheaply at the front end, in infancy. Or we can wait and jail a troubled adolescent at the tail end. To some extent, we face a choice between investing in preschools or prisons.

Countries around the world, even those as small as Belize and Malaysia have realized that investing in early childhood will mean better, well-adjusted, intelligent adults. Which would mean lesser investment in remedial centers, youth defects, and offences. Why spend crores on rectifying adolescents when a small part of the budget spent on early childhood could have saved us, as a country, a lot?

Our present ICDS program is one of the largest in the world; it has a strong reach across the length and breadth of India. One of its weakest points though is teacher training and ensuring that children enrolled are given stimulation and nurtured in a learning environment. It has a good nutrition programme but when it comes to giving these children a foundation for lifelong learning, we find this programme failing.

The most impressive advocacy and research to prove the long term benefits of ECCE was done by Nobel Laureate James Heckman. He highlighted in his report that "Governments should do more for children aged 0 to 5 years old, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and not wait till they get to ECE Programs or primary school. They ignore a powerful body of research in the economics of human development."...  "For early childhood programmes targeted at disadvantaged children, there is no trade-off between equity and efficiency as there is for most other social programmes. Every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood programmes for disadvantaged children produces a 7 to 10 percent annual return on investment through increased productivity and lower social costs."

The ACER report has always pointed out how our primary children in government schools are still struggling to learn the basics, well that would continue to be so if we don’t realize the important fact that the foundation of learning, teaching the brain ‘how to learn’ is laid in the early years, and that is why if the brain is not nurtured in ‘how to learn’ it will not be successful in ‘what to learn’. Analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) also shows that in most countries, students who had attended at least one year of early learning perform better than those who had not, accounting for students’ socioeconomic background (OECD, 2015, p. 326). Without clarity of purpose, our country risks another ‘brain drain’, in the early childhood years, when 98% of the brain develops. The vast differences in the early education experiences of a child in the ICDS programme and a private programme make it unlikely that the two children will ever perform equivalently in school and later employment arena.

And thus it makes sense in investing in Early Childhood Education, as highlighted by James Heckman, the following benefits of ECE:

Reduced costs in remedial education, healthcare, and criminal justice participation down the line.

Preschool helps develop the early building blocks of educational success – learning colours and numbers, understanding patterns, realizing that printed words hold meaning.

It socializes children.

Any language, hearing or developmental problems a child may have are picked up early.

If, for every rupee invested, we get back Rs.7 then how is it not economically viable? The problem is, in India, Childcare and Early Childhood Education (ECE) is traditionally viewed from welfare or education perspective; it’s time we viewed it from an economic perspective as well. A perspective that countries like USA, UK, Australia and many others have benefitted from.

The problem is not that we don’t want to care for our children. People just need to know how. Parents, teachers, the government – all the stakeholders in the future of our children – we go about it on a trial-by-fire basis, learning each time as the child grows up. But we need a more structured, a more uniform way to do this. ...At the Early Childhood Association of India, that is our mission – to help the country invest in taking care of its youngest citizens.

We urge private players to ensure the following for quality in ECE by investing in and supporting the following basic quality standards in Early Childhood Education.

A well-researched and developmentally appropriate curriculum.

Play way holistic learning of not only the 3 R’s but also of life skills.

A round the year support and training for teachers.

A strong parent partnership programme.

Supporting each child’s overall growth with regular assessments and goal setting.

Safety and security.

Regular upgradation of curriculum and teacher training based on theory and recent research in the field.

 At ECA we have proposed ‘Adopt your nearest Anganwadi’ project to the private players. But again they are facing hurdles when they approach anganwadis for the same. So we suggest the government have a private sector partnership to improve the implementation of the ICDS program.

Our appeal to Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modiji…

At the Early Childhood Association we are worried about the future of early childhood care and education in our country. It is time the government stopped ‘babysitting’ this sector and started respecting and investing in it, both through proper budgetary investments and ‘thought through’ long term beneficial policies that serve both the privately run centers and the government run too. With multiple policies in multiple areas and states which are limited to only ‘outlining rules’, it will end up deterring the committed and passionate early childhood educator from setting up quality centers, which in turn leads to more ‘profiteering minded’ people coming into this sector who will bribe their way through all these so-called new laws and policies and end up giving low quality education and care to the children. We humbly and strongly urge the government to look into 10 key areas -

1

One nation-One Policy - Be it for starting preschools or curriculum or safety etc. there should be one common policy with defined non-negotiable points for every state to follow. States can then add relevant cultural or area specific points.

2

Create a lead Ministry for Early Childhood Care and Education or let Early Childhood Care and Education not be a concurrent subject.

3

Consultative process before defining policies, laws and regulations in Early Childhood Care and Education - government should involve important stakeholders before defining laws or policies, involve associations like Early Childhood Association, parents and center owners as we know the ground reality of how and what needs to and can be implemented.

4

Define the developmentally appropriate curriculum and assessment for all ages in the early years centers, so that a child in Delhi or Chennai is not being exposed to different learning expectations that are not in line with their age or stage of development.

5

No distinction between private and government programs in policy, when it comes to curriculum framework, minimum wages, safety standards and learning goals.

6

Minimum teacher qualification tied to minimum wages.

7

Teacher-child ratio to be defined with maximum in-group.

8

A curriculum framework to avoid schoolification of ECE.

9

Budget of ECCE to be increased and divided between care and education.

10

Parent education to be given importance

Several future presidents and prime ministers are in early childhood classrooms in our country today; so are the great writers of the next decades, and so are all the so-called ordinary people who will make the decisions in a democracy.  Now, more than ever, the nation is looking to its leaders and ministers at all levels to roll up their sleeves and get things done. Countries thrive when its leaders invest in smart, evidence-based programmes with proven success. Quality Early Childhood Education is a shining example. I hope our appeal for Quality in Early Childhood Care and Education reaches our dear Prime Minister and all the state leaders.

About Dr Swati Popat Vats:

President Early Childhood Association, Dr. Swati Popat Vats, authors this advocacy article. The Early Childhood Association aims to bring together all the stakeholders who are involved with children and childhood issues, be it parents, teachers, policy makers, doctors, law makers and lawyers, government, NGOs, media, corporate houses etc. to create a ‘village’ that will be able to raise the children of India to be healthy, happy and holistically developed individuals that contribute positively to the nation.

Mission Statement of The Early Childhood Association

To empower parents, teachers, and professionals to explore and develop holistic programmes and environments for children, that will look after their well-being, relationships, need for family and community, need to belong and communicate and thus helping each and every child grow up to be healthy in mind, body and spirit. www.eca-india.org, email- ecaadmn@gmail.co

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