The education of young children is something that many in India take for granted despite its foundational importance in preparing the next generation for their future studies. As the National Educational Policy states, “Over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6, indicating the critical importance of appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in the early years in order to ensure healthy brain development and growth”. Education done properly early on can potentially set up children to learn well for the rest of their lives. Conversely, education done improperly can cause lasting damage.
This week, we spoke to Dr Roopa Shetty, the Headmistress of the Early Foundation Years at Smt. Surajba Vidya Mandir, a state board school in Mumbai. Dr Shetty has done her Ph.D. in Education and is passionate about education in pre-primary schools. In this conversation, she detailed how her teachers attempted to adapt to the realities of COVID-19, how their struggles differed from those working with older students, as well as how the National Educational Policy (NEP) addresses systemic problems with the Early Childhood Care and Education system.
Much like the rest of the Indian teaching world, Dr Shetty’s teachers were forced to adapt from their physical classrooms to online learning when the nationwide lockdown began in April. Dr Shetty elaborates, “We did not expect schools to reopen in June, especially the Early Years. We were very sure of that. The research at the time showed that the Early Years age group would be difficult to get back to school. So we got to work and planned a program for the teachers in April to upgrade their technological skills, as many of our teachers were not used to working with Zoom and such platforms”. Getting the teachers ready to teach in this new reality was the first step.
In June, online classes by primary and pre-primary schools were banned by the State Government in response to concerns by parents that their young children were staring at their screens for too long, among other things. This hamstrung Dr Shetty and her teachers’ attempts to smoothly transition from physical to online classes. The initial work that they had done in redesigning their pedagogies and lesson plans had to be redone once more, as all they could do at the time was send across resources to their pupils. Questions regarding how teachers would send across their resources, as well as how they would make children understand what they were trying to tell them created numerous challenges.
“We sent learning resources with voiceovers in the early days, which was difficult for us to make. We had to vet the content going out to the students and redo things accordingly, which was stressful”. Dr Shetty points out that her teachers never even got a chance to take a break with all the learning and teaching they had to do. “This time, they were completely engrossed in upgrading their technological skills”.
Teaching younger children is different from teaching older children in that the teacher needs to take more responsibility for the child’s learning. As Dr Shetty explains, “Early years children need more handholding and more activity-based learning. The pedagogy needed a complete revamp considering what we wanted our kids to learn. We really struggled at first”.
The lessons had to be short, sharp and engaging, given the children’s short attention span and the absence of socio-emotional bonding, which are crucial factors in the early years. This requires more careful lesson planning and attention to detail. It is therefore more challenging for primary teachers as they have to continuously check whether the children are understanding what is being taught.
However, Dr Shetty was encouraged by the response from not only her teachers, but from the wider teaching community during this crisis. “The entire teaching community got together and pooled resources, and have grown stronger. A lot of discussion has happened and they are thinking differently. More research is happening now, and they no longer use their textbooks only, as they used to”. There were problems, but teachers were willing to give it their all and tackle them, with each other’s help if necessary.
In July, the government relented on its earlier bans on online classes for primary and pre-primary schools, permitting 30-minute sessions for online classes for those age groups.
Given the time restrictions teachers faced, the usual approach of talking and writing would not work. So how did Dr Shetty and her teachers make the most of this situation? “We focused on making lessons completely fun and actively engaging them. Most of our lessons are based on small interactions, which mean a lot to them. Things such as preparing for the next day alongside another pupil, or finding an object around the house that is short or long. We also plan home extension activities that they have to do with their parents to strengthen their bond. A child cannot be working alone; the parents should be involved. These interactions keep them going and that’s how we finally broke through”.
Nowadays, the teachers are a lot more settled. As Dr Shetty says, “At first, they were apprehensive about coming on-screen, worrying about whether they were being recorded. Early on, the parents would sit next to the children, making the teachers even more conscious, preventing them from being themselves. It can be awkward for pre-school teachers, trying to go beyond their usual demeanours; acting, singing and role-playing with parents watching. We had to talk the parents out of it, which worked. Now the teachers are comfortable. We also faced troubles with regard to some of our children not having good internet connections or not being in Mumbai. Therefore, we make sure we send across the material for the children to review at their own pace and try to keep everyone on the same page”.
Online classroom management was another challenge. Controlling several young children in a room can be problematic in person, but online, it’s a completely different ballgame! “On the online classes everyone spoke at the same time. It took a few days for teachers to bring in more classroom control. We had to teach them to go one at a time and how to listen, a skill which matters a lot. Listening is a skill the children must learn and something several of them struggle with. At first, it used to be chaos! However, after a few days, they got used to it. Now, they are good at using Zoom and sometimes unmute themselves when they are not supposed to!”.
Recognition from the Parents and NEP
Something that pleases Dr Shetty is the recognition that pre-primary education is finally getting from parents and policymakers alike. Regarding parents, Dr Shetty says, “Parents used to think pre-school is just playing and no learning. On the other hand, it is more play-based or activity-based learning. They used to be so busy with their own lives, but now that the children are at home, they are seeing just how important education at that stage in their life is. They are now much more involved and on Fridays, we set aside time specifically for them to help clear their doubts and help them out, which they appreciate. This pandemic has at least enhanced school-parent collaboration”.
And regarding policymakers? “The National Education Policy recognising the value and importance of early years education is massive. There are too many pre-schools that do not possess the proper qualifications or do not take early years education seriously enough. Sometimes, they just make children read and write mindlessly. This policy can signal a change in that it will create standards and expectations for pre-schools to follow, with no room for compromise”.
Something Dr Shetty is keen to point out within the NEP that could become a game-changer is the introduction of the 360-degree report card. There will be a conscious move away from the old “marks and remarks” style report that would give a very narrow view of how a child is developing. Peer, teacher and self-assessment will combine to give a holistic view of the child’s development.
Dr Shetty feels more could have been said about the training of early years teachers. We covered the policy’s recommendations for teacher training and recruitment in the first article of this series, and it is true that there is little specifically dedicated to the training of early years teachers. “3-month diplomas are not sufficient. There needs to be continuous professional development. The mandatory 50 hours of skill development is a good start but more is needed”.
That being said, Dr Shetty is very optimistic. “These are still early days, and the signs are very positive. The implementation will come in eventually. The change in intent itself is very refreshing. Let’s not dismiss it because it is not perfect”.
Going forward, Dr Shetty believes that there are aspects of the current reality that have helped both students and teachers during this pandemic and should be retained, even after the pandemic ends. “It's time to embrace the new blended learning format and ensure that it is healthy and impactful for children's cognitive, social and emotional development. Even the children are enjoying these sessions nowadays. I do not think we should simply go back to the way things were”.
We’ll give the final word to Dr Shetty: “The teachers really need a shoutout today because they have undergone so much drastic change and have come out of it fantastically. This applies not only in my school, but throughout India. On social media you can even see rural teachers trying to do things differently. I’m really thankful for the kind of teachers we have”.
Dr Roopa Shetty