Critical importance of first five years

EducationWorld November 2019 | Anniversary Essay

Critical importance of first five yearsAn authoritative research study of the University of North Carolina indicates that the key to developing children’s learning skills is quality interactive communication with adults from birth.

Regrettably, there’s insufficient awareness in Indian society that the period before a child enters formal education is critical for success in school and beyond. These are the most formative years of every individual’s education.

Traditional practice, still prevalent in most societies, is for adults to tell children what they should learn, compel them to memorise it, and dismiss anything else they say as inconsequential. However, there’s a huge body of scientific research that proves the opposite. Indeed, the findings are unequivocal: language and communication skills acquired prior to class I have the most powerful impact on future academic performance. And as recently reiterated by an authoritative research study conducted by the University of North Carolina (https://mtbt.fpg.unc.edu), the key to developing children’s learning skills is quality interactive communication with adults from birth — as frequently as possible.

What does interactive communication mean? It mandates that communication must be two-way, back and forth. Parents and early childhood care and education (ECCE) providers must respond to the spontaneous vocalisations and gestures of infants, and engage them with matching language and gestures. Numerous research studies prove that the human brain has evolved from such interactive communication to learn languages.

As is true of adults, children learn more effectively when they are interested. But interest cannot be coerced. Trying to force their attention away from something that interests them to something that does not, is folly. Therefore, it’s advisable for parents and caregivers to focus full attention on children. They can easily detect when caregivers are not fully engaged.

Children’s demands on adults can be exhausting. Adults are likely to become frustrated and overwhelmed. In particular, parents who lack the education they wish to endow on their children may not be able to ramp up vocabulary and complexity, putting their children at a disadvantage. But even educated parents are often unable to devote the time, energy and attention towards discharging this duty adequately.

That’s precisely the argument for professionally administered preschool education. Conventional, formal schooling begins at age five or six. In the light of what we now know about the cognitive and linguistic development of children in the early years, and given escalating expectations of how education should prepare our children for the future, it is time to move that age down to three — provided it’s done well.

India’s ECCE policy recommends starting preschool at age three, and there is progress in that direction. However, there is scant evidence of the impact of this downward revision, principally because ECCE is usually deficient in terms of quality. According to an India Early Childhood Education (IECEI) Study, conducted by Pratham Education Foundation and Ambedkar University, Delhi, most preschool programmes don’t improve children’s readiness for primary school. That’s because they don’t recognise the central importance of interactive communication. Instead, the obsolete rote learning paradigm, still being used in most primary schools, begins earlier. But a failed pedagogy commenced earlier in life doesn’t help.

The national deficit of daycare with proper educational ingredients disadvantages the poor disproportionately, holding their children back from realising the full potential with which they were endowed at birth. Quality daycare could disproportionately enhance the development of children from poor households, placing them on a more equal- opportunity footing with peers from better off households.

Hearing-impaired children are dealt a particularly unfair hand in terms of interactive communication. However, research overwhelmingly shows that they could develop into fluent signers. There is still a bias in India against sign language, but the cognitive outcomes of children placed in stimulating environments with fluent signers are vastly better than for children who are isolated. Sign languages indigenous to different parts of the world are full blown natural languages with all the complexity and expressivity of spoken languages. Therefore, National Education Policy 2019 should provide fluent interactive signing for hearing challenged preschool children.

In the final analysis, good ECCE policy requires more than preschool programmes. It should laser focus on the best stimulation that preschool children need — frequent, high-quality interactive communication — with adults. There is enormous talent in India that can be used to train preschool teachers and caregivers to excel in this role. Two steps are critical. First, recruit, train and assess ECCE caregivers on their success in keeping preschoolers engaged in interactive communication during study and play. Second, regulators and policy makers should support frontline teachers and caregivers and then get out of their way, resisting the temptation to dictate curricular minutiae.

If governments and the public of India are looking for the best long-term return on investment in human capital, high-quality preschool education is the best bet.

(An alum of Harvard University and former professor of psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, USA, Dr. Jamshed Bharucha is currently vice chancellor of SRM University, Amravathi, Andhra Pradesh)

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