The crippling effect

Family and social environment of children have a greater impact on their performance than the quality of teaching at school.

India has made appreciable progress in primary education in recent decades as for as enrolment of children in school is concerned. But drop-out rate and poor performance of children in government schools, where most of the poor students study, are problems evading solution.

Studies have shown that even after 4-5 years of schooling, children fail in simple tests of reading, addition and subtraction. Inadequate infrastructure, high student–teacher ratio and poor quality of teaching are the reasons traditionally attributed for this situation. While these reasons are valid enough, there is increasing realisation across the world that poverty is the major factor affecting educational outcomes especially at the primary stage.

It is now recognised in many countries that family and social environment of the children have a greater impact on the performance of children than the quality of teaching at school (Unicef). Children from poor families score significantly lower in vocabulary, communication skills, simple arithmetic and the ability to concentrate compared to children from higher income households.

The differences start showing up at the age of 3-4, even before the start of schooling and are found to last even in later years as shown by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which assessed reading, math and science scores of 15-year old children in 43 countries. The traditional misconception that underperformance is due to genetic or hereditary factors was challenged by child psychologists in the second half of the 20th century who came to the conclusion that intelligence is shaped more by the environment in which the children grow up.

A study by World Health Organisation has shown that maternal health during pregnancy and the quality of antenatal and postnatal care she receives are important factors affecting child’s physical and mental development. Lack of adequate nutrition for the pregnant mother can affect normal brain development of the child. Most women and children from poor families are deprived of medical care and nourishing food when it is most needed.

As a result, premature birth and low birth weight are more common among the poor which in turn leads to disabilities like attention and memory deficit (Commission on the Social Determinants of Health-Early Child Development of the WHO). As the development of brain occurs mainly during the early phase of life, nutritional deficiency at this stage has a lasting effect on the psychological and intellectual growth of the child.

Early years are crucial for the development of cognitive and social skills in children. Along with nutrition and medical care, nurturing relationships and inspiring role models also play a vital role in the early phase of a child’s life. But being over worked and over stressed, poor parents are unable to show warmth and sensitivity and tend to be harsh and high-handed with their children. The consequent emotional disturbance affects the child’s social adaptability and learning capability. Hence, poor parents need to be helped to learn parenting skills so that their frustrations are not passed on to the children.

Playing with toys, reading and listening to stories, reciting rhymes etc develop curiosity, imagination and a sense of exploration in children. But having been deprived of these joys in their childhood, the poor parents don’t realise its importance. Even the few who realise its value, find themselves helpless for want of money and time.

A number of countries have carried out extensive research for finding ways to mitigate the negative effects of poverty on child development and at least two worthwhile approaches have emerged out of this quest. One of these approaches adopted by countries like Mexico and Nicaragua is the Conditional Cash Transfer programme which is linked to immunisation, nutrition and school attendance. This approach has resulted in significant improvements in educational outcomes of poor children. Another approach which is found equally effective is the Early Childhood Intervention programme (ECIP) adopted in countries like Canada and USA.

Comprehensive development
Apart from improving the school performance of children, the implementation of ECIP has also contributed, over a period, to general prosperity according to researchers who monitored the project on a continual basis. The National Head Start Programme of USA is one of the earliest and most successful Early Childhood Intervention programmes. The NHSP aims at comprehensive development of preschool children (3-5 years) of poor parents.

The programme designed by paediatrician Dr Robert Cooke and professor of psychology Dr Edward Zigler prepares children for school while also focussing on involving parents in the education of children. It also focuses on prenatal and postnatal care of mother and nutritional needs and immunisation of children. The programme tries to develop cognitive and social skills in children by a combination of play and instruction.

In course of time, many countries adopted similar programmes although with some variations. But the focus everywhere was to provide support to children in the form of learning activities and training the parents to enhance their capacity for providing a care giving environment at home.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement studied the Early Childhood Intervention Programmes of eight countries and published the findings in February 2016. Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Poland, the Russian Federation and the United States participated in the programme and submitted data on their early childhood development programmes. The study of the data proves conclusively that well designed interventions can advance child development and education in the early years and a successful adult life later.

India needs to replicate such interventions much more vigorously as the severity of poverty here is more acute in the absence of comparable social security measures. While it is worthwhile to replicate interventions whose efficacy has already been proved elsewhere, it is necessary to adopt the interventions to suit the local conditions. First generation learners, whose parents and forefathers were denied education for economic, religious and cultural reasons, need special care and attention to ensure that they don’t lag behind others.

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