Early childhood education: A silent victim of COVID-19?

Although there is evidence that spending a long period in front of a screen can impact children, the effect of zero learning year on a child’s long-term development is more harmful

By K. V. S. Seshasai

Early childhood, the years from birth to age six, has been medically proven to be the most critical period that sets the stage for a child’s growth and learning trajectory. Research from neurobiology and cognitive development experts suggests that 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first six years of life. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in school and later in the workplace and community. Unicef has stated that “during the critical early years, children need responsive care, adequate nutrition, stimulation and protection to develop their social, emotional and cognitive skills.” It is thus the reason why early childhood education is imperative for the development of our nation’s youngest citizens.

While every educational institution in India shut down in March 2020 and most moved online to ensure continued learning during the pandemic, we have approximately 165 million children in the 0-5 years age group who have lost out on early childhood care and learning as centres dedicated to their development continue to remain closed. According to Unicef, school closures can lead to drastically negative outcomes for children. Closing schools exposes children to multiple risks. The longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long-term negative impacts, including future income and health. Depending on their age, gender, and disability or socio-economic status, many children (especially adolescents) do not return to school after long closures and many more are expected to suffer permanent losses to their learning. In addition, children rely on schools for nutrition, psychosocial support and health services.

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While some pre-school operators across the country shifted to an online format to offer uninterrupted learning, a certain section of parents voiced their concerns about the increase in the time young children would spend in front of a screen and its impact and did not enroll their children into an online program for the rest of 2020. Although there is evidence that spending a long period in front of a screen can impact children, the effect of zero learning year on a child’s long-term development is more harmful and can cause a multiplier effect as a child grows up.

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According to a recent survey, parents of toddlers are quite worried about their children losing out on learning, and believe that it is very important to keep a child’s education going during this pandemic. Nearly 95 percent of the parents surveyed stated that they have enrolled their child in some form of learning – online or home schooling, to ensure continuity in their education. For those who took up an online format in 2020 for their toddlers, there is evidence that this format has been a viable substitute for their toddlers to avoid a near zero-learning year. When asked about the achievement of learning outcomes of their children, parents cited that their children were able to grasp important pre-academic skills such as recognising colours, printed names, letters of the alphabet, numbers, etc. more than any other skills. The survey also reveals that many parents believe that while academic learning is being somewhat managed and learning outcomes are being addressed, parents are also worried about their child’s social and physical development. As per the survey findings, 80 percent of parents who had enrolled in online pre-schooling saw delivery of clear learning outcomes and 75 percent of these parents were willing to recommend online pre-schooling to their friends and families.

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Making sure that preschoolers get a high quality early childhood education, whether online or offline, is the most important priority for parents as it impacts the childrens’ ability to learn, manage their own behaviours and get along well with others and also acts as a foundation for success in adult life.

(The writer is CEO, Pre-K Division, EuroKids International)

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