Early Child Development - Can India compete with Western Nations?
Early childhood is considered to be the most significant developmental phase of one’s lifespan. Healthy and hearty early child development comprises of physical, social/emotional, and language/cognitive domains. These aspects greatly influence the wellbeing -- both in terms of physical and mental health, and competence -- literacy, numeracy, criminality, economic participation, etc, throughout one’s life. In short, the events that take place in the early years lay the foundation for entire life.
Brain develops with age. However, the basic architecture is laid out in the early years, where-in every single experience affects the quality of this architecture. In the first 2 to 3 years after birth, 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Sensory pathways such as vision and hearing develop first, followed by language skills and cognitive functions. With age, connections expand and more complex brain circuits get built on the earlier simpler ones. Post that period however, connections get reduced through a process called pruning. In simpler terms, the early brain is like clay which can be molded easily to accommodate a wide variety of environments and interactions. And as it matures, it becomes less capable of managing unexpected challenges if not built otherwise.
Researchers opine that 90% of this brain development occurs by the age of six. Early experiences and positive interactions during the age of 3 to 7 determines the overall development of children and shape their personalities. For a holistic development, they need to be actively engaged in 12 different areas. However, in the modern fast paced lifestyle, with nuclear families, parents don’t get enough time to ensure their children are engaged effectively. This constraint often leads to children resorting to watching TV or getting addicted to internet games.
Reports by Harvard School of Public Health link inadequate growth in the early years of childhood to weak academic performance which in turn leads to poor earning power later on in life. Infact, cognitive and noncognitive skills are more often linked to economic outcomes in adulthood. Therefore, there is no doubt that administrative policies targeted at the development of young children are not just ethical but imperative.
But despite this realisation, countries like India have progressed slowly in shifting their focus to this issue, compared to the western counterparts. Insufficient funding and several regulatory oversights still hinder the nation’s early child development measures.
In the recent years, the Government has taken several steps in the domain of educational reforms -- free of cost education, mid-day meal schemes, etc. These in essence, signal the national priority which is now being attached to early child education. Early education programs are mostly driven by the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012) and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. Some of the initiatives involve, delivery of preschool education through the Integrated Child Development Service, community based child development support through Accredited Social Health Activists, and the Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme. These national programs have the capacity to work in unison in order to promote early childhood development. But a lot is yet to be done. Education is just one part! Heath is another, and cognitive development, yet another. What India needs is – a holistic approach encompassing all these components.
It is evident that India has made gigantic strides in strengthening its primary education infrastructure. However, as far as learning is concerned, there is but little progress. This is especially true for Government schools where more than half of India goes to. The number of children completing their primary education with a severe lack in literacy and numeric skills is surprisingly high. The situation is the same in majority of the states, with the exception of a few.
The reasons are diverse -- poor quality of teaching, inadequate teacher qualification and support, low teacher motivation and high absenteeism. Apart from a few well-to-do urban schools, which are scarce, the vast majority of the India’s population goes to the rural ones plagued by such limitations. In economic terms, one may attribute it to India’s lower productivity growth, when compared to other East Asian economies. Other factors include low remuneration and a highly bureaucratic administrative system,that discourage radical decision making and makes implementation greatly challenging, to say the least.
The linguistic diversity and erratic teaching methodology makes things even harder. Rote learning has become the primary teaching methodology. As a result, students often fall prey to limited reading comprehension skills, in turn affecting their overall development.
A few measures by the present Government in this direction are noteworthy. The Right to Education (RTE) Act, to name one, mandates free and compulsory education for every child between the age 6 and 14. The reduced non-teaching duties assigned to government school teachers, freed up their valuable time and brought down absenteeism. However, challenges with regards to implementation, cultural and socioeconomic barriers, funding, limited use of technology in classrooms etc, still remain. Limitations, which are non-existent in western nations.
It may seem as though we have digressed from the topic, but early child development cannot be treated in a silo. Overall holistic development must include primary education. The Government must take measures to spread the awareness of early age development and its impact on children. Since early learning happens only through pre-schools, which are again largely unstructured and available only in limited cities and towns, a proper regulatory system should be brought in place. Systematic curriculum, well trained teachers, proper wages, and more importantly easy accessibility for one and all should be the prime focus!