Early Childhood Education: Are we there yet?

– By Rahul Raina, City Programme Manager, ISLI Hyderabad

On a cold winter morning in Hyderabad, while on my way for a monthly school visit to one of our ISLI schools, I happened to pass by another colourful school building. Curious, I leaned inside to see a group of Nursery school children, sitting in a circle and singing rhymes with their teacher. Colourful walls brightened the room, as did the smiles of the children. I smiled and continued walking to the school I was supposed to visit. Here, as I entered the pre-primary block, I could see students with their finger on the lips and a teacher carrying a stick. The walls were dull as were the children’s faces. The blackboard was donned with dusty A-Z’s. On this 100-meter spectrum laid the quintessence of early childhood education in India.

What is Early Childhood Education?

‘The first 6–8 years of a child’s life, known as the early childhood stage, are globally acknowledged to be the most critical years for lifelong development since the pace of development during these years is extremely rapid. The recent research in the field of neuroscience, particularly on the brain, has provided very convincing evidence of the ‘critical periods’ located within these early years, particularly the first three years, for the formation of synaptic connections in the brain and the full development of the brain’s potential’.1 In short, early childhood education is very critical; and if the brain is not stimulated efficiently in the early years, the chances of child’s brain reaching full potential is considerably and often irreversibly reduced.

Developmental Areas in Early Childhood Education

There are few critical areas which need to be addressed on priority basis. How do we enrich the minds of students who are simply made to sit and write in the classroom? Can we provide different avenues to generate a positive atmosphere inside the classroom? There needs to be a positive impact of learning the process on the impressionable minds, especially the children who are coming to schools for the first time. Four areas of development or ‘domains’ have been identified for Pre-primary children to ensure the overall development of skills in children. These domains are intimately interrelated and interdependent.

The developmental domains are:

  1. Motor Skills
  2. Language Skills
  3. Cognitive Skills
  4. Social-Emotional Skills
  1. Motor Skills: Motor skills are movements and actions of the muscles. They are categorized into two groups: gross motor skills and fine motor skills.Gross motor skillsare involved in movement and coordination of the arms, legs, and other large body parts and movements. They participate in actions such as running, crawling, swimming, etc. Fine motor skills are involved in smaller movements that occur in the wrists, hands, fingers, and the feet and toes. They participate in smaller actions such as picking up objects between the thumb and finger, writing carefully, and even blinking. These two motor skills work together to provide coordination. A child with good fine motor skills can grip the pencil better and eventually write more effectively.
  2. Language Skills: This pertains to the development of alphabets, phonetics, oral and written expression. It’s not limited to making children read or write but creating an environment of expression. Mere writing of ABC’s is not the complete development of language. It includes all the modes of expression, including listening, speaking, reading and writing. Even though the child may not be reading in the initial years, but reading to them or providing the opportunity to handle books is equally important.
  3. Cognitive Skills: Cognitive skills involve identifying patterns, numbers, cause-effect, early math, reasoning, etc. Schools have currently been limiting Math to just numbers. Understanding of patterns, colours, matching and linking concrete to abstract mathematics (objects to numbers) encompass true cognitive development.
  4. Social Emotional Skills: Our children are social beings, and a school is a social environment. Being social involves feelings, emotions, behaviors, attachments and relationships with others, independence, self-esteem, and temperament. Schools need to provide time and opportunity for students to build these skills as well.

In our current system in India, we are satisfied with children merely being able to write, even if they cannot express themselves correctly. We are content when children alphabets by rote, even though he/she might be having trouble holding the pencil. This hampers students’ ability to fully develop their brains and see learning as a joyful activity, and not drudgery.

The Way Forward

Many schools have been exploring ways to build the skills mentioned above in young children. However, in low-income schools that ISLI works with, there aren’t enough resources to ensure that students are challenged and enabled in all the four developmental areas. Therefore, the need of the hour is to find ways to simplify this process, enabling school leaders and teachers to learn these strategies and implement them in their classrooms.

From our experience of working with various low-income schools, a sustained focus on three key areas in the classroom can help us:

  1. Resources: Any classroom should mirror the real world for children. It should provide resources that help children to interact with the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean buying expensive toys, but simpler resources like old clothes, books, utensils, vegetables, fruits or crayons work just as effectively. Apart from these, providing time and opportunity for students to engage is equally important. This helps children develop cognitive, motor, language and socio-emotional skills.
  2. Rituals: Rituals are repeated activities. Rituals help young children to cope with the anxiety as they become aware of what is expected of the day. It provides a rhythm to their day, e.g. a simple ritual like students putting their shoes on a rack daily, or picking up the materials after any activity and tidying up. Welcome rituals, rhyme rituals, play rituals, snack time rituals, phonics ritual, story time ritual- all help build a rhythm in students’ day. It is always best to plan rituals based on the developmental areas so that you make sure all the skills are focussed each day.
  3. Expectations: A huge marker of success for children is the expectations we have for them. Expectations like ‘Children should only write’ or ‘Everyone should know counting’ do not help our pre-primary children. We need to recalibrate our expectations based on the developmental domains, to ensure that in the race for making children better students, we don’t ruin the learning process for them. Instead, making sure that children are participating in the class is more useful. Provide opportunities for children to build socio-emotional skills. Help them to think for themselves, rather than just follow others. Remember, what we expect of them is what they will be.

These steps pave the way to build classrooms that help these young children become lifelong learners. We don’t want this‘100-metre spectrum’ to differentiate what our children eventually become in life. Early-years education, if done well, can sow the seeds of a prosperous future for the students and, in turn, our nation.

References:

Position Paper on ECE NCERT

Ritual and pedagogy: teachers’ use of ritual in pre-primary classroom settings Carmel Maloney Edith Cowan University

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