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Why preschool is important - By LEONG SIOK HUI

Education is an investment, and it pays off in the long run. But when do we start bankrolling our child’s education? From preschool, say child development and early education experts.

Apparently, juvenile delinquency and high dropout rates amongst adolescents are rooted in the early years, according to a 10-year study spearheaded by social psychologist Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng in the late-1980s. A collaboration between her and the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Malaya, the research involved 4,000 subjects, ages three to six, from four different backgrounds: Urban advantaged, urban disadvantaged, rural and estates.

Dr Chiam found that school dropout and delinquency rates can be traced back to the subjects’ childhood experiences.“From the study, we concluded that early childhood education is fundamental to a child’s development, and preschool teachers or childcare providers play a very critical role,” says Dr Chiam, who co-founded the first undergraduate programme in early childhood education in Malaysia in 1997.

The Malaysian expert is asked her opinions on early childhood education following Star2’s report last Wednesday about the 92-year-old German-founded Waldorf school. The system is based on the philosophy of Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner that children should experience the world through their hands, hearts and bodies, not just their minds. There are at present five Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired preschools/kindergartens in Malaysia: Pusat Jagaan Nania and Taska Lin in Penang; Waldorf Kelip-Kelip in Kota Kemuning, Selangor; Hilltop House Child Development Centre in Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Taska Cixin in Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur.

Long-term effects of early childhood education
In a breakthrough US research that looked at the long-term effects of early childhood education, studies revealed that those who went to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, get much better grades, make more money, are less likely to be arrested, and more likely to stay married.
Called the Perry Preschool Project, the Michigan-based study spanned almost four decades, tracking 123 low-income African-American students from the ages of three to 40. Students were divided into two groups: One enrolled in high-quality preschool education and the other, no preschool at all.When the experiment started in 1962, even the idea of preschool, non-existent in America at that time, was radical. The project’s initial aim was to increase the students’ ability to learn, to enrich their vocabulary and teach them the alphabet and numbers. But instead of direct instruction, teachers used play and hands-on activities to engage the students.

Interestingly, the Perry project disclosed that preschool may not increase one’s IQ scores but it makes one a better person.Preschool seemed to help develop one’s “noncognitive” skills like perseverance, motivation, sociability and the ability to work with and relate to others. And these are “critical skills that help people succeed in school, at work and in life,” according to economist James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, who documents the wisdom of investing in preschool.

Not just any preschool
But the million-dollar question is, what kind of preschool?
“The best form of early childhood education should be child-centred and focused on hands-on learning,” says Dr Chiam, who has more than 25 years’ experience in child development studies.
“We (early childhood educators, childcare providers and parents) need to understand the child’s stages of development and provide a nurturing environment for the child to grow.”

In 1975, a study in Germany compared play-oriented with academic -oriented kindergartens. A total of 1,000 children and 100 classes were monitored until they reached fourth grade (9/10 years old). The study found that children from play-oriented kindergartens excelled over the latter group in all areas of development – physical, social and emotional and mental. Though children from academic-oriented kindergartens had a head start and were accelerating, they lost interest in learning or suffered from burnout by the time they were nine or 10.Besides, “forcing” your child to learn ABCs or grasp the intricacies of maths before he is ready can be detrimental in the long run, experts warn.Asking children to handle material that their brain is not equipped for can cause frustration, according to a neuroendocrinologist at the US-based Rockefeller University. (Rockefeller is world-renowned for biomedical sciences research.)

“Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.” (Preschool Tests Take Time Away From Play And Learning; Scientific American, Nov 2, 2011.)

“If a child is forced to sit down and read flash cards but he is not capable of understanding the word yet, his brain is stressed and the body releases cortisol, the stress hormone,” Dr Chiam explains. If high levels of cortisol are released over prolonged periods, they will impair the brain’s performance.
“It is like soaking your child’s brain in formaldehyde,” Dr Chiam says. “If the brain is compromised, the child will find learning more difficult and his potential may be killed off.”

Kids are naturally curious. Dr Chiam believes that when you provide the child with the right environment (for example, cultivate the enjoyment of reading through storytelling), he may be interested to learn or figure out what is in the book.

“We should encourage but not force the child,” she adds.

Although some children are far smarter and possess superior reasoning or language skills compared to their peers, their tiny bodies can’t cope and their maturity level isn’t up to par, cautions clinical and educational psychologist Selina Ding.

“Just like gifted kids, they can reason things very well yet they can’t fit in with their peer groups,” says the Klang Valley-based Ding. “For example, they know so much yet their tiny hands are not ready to write fast or they can’t express themselves verbally.” Some precocious kids lack the social skills or the ability to handle their emotions in times of crisis.

“Parents and educators need to respect the child’s need to be a child,” Ding adds.

Students of Waldorf Kelip-Kelip in Kota Kemuning, Selangor. Children have different talents and develop at different rates, but they should all be given a chance to cultivate their interests and talents. Learning through play versus direct instruction is also a hotly-debated topic amongst early education experts today.In the same article published by the Scientific American magazine, a study is quoted as showing that direct instruction inhibits children’s natural curiosity and their ability to learn. Unlike older children, very young children are not designed for focused, goal-directed behaviour. But preschool-age kidsare great at learning from the things and the people around them.

“Parents shouldn’t be over-anxious about their child not being able to catch up with their peers,” Dr Chiam advises. “Children develop at different rates and many are late bloomers. We must also recognise that they are given different talents.

“More importantly, parents should be observant and expose their child to as vast an experience as possible for him to develop his interests and allow his talents a chance to grow.”

A child who has low verbal IQ (i.e. can’t process language well) or who doesn’t excel in academics may be an adroit person or musically-inclined.

“But will these abilities be tapped into and appreciated by our mainstream education system? Sadly, I would say 90% no!” remarks Ding. “It doesn’t help that recruitment companies and big corporations put so much emphasis on good grades. It forces parents to work on cognitive development and makes them forget the other aspects of the child.”

Changing society’s mindset
As the president of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) council, Dr Chiam has visited numerous childcare centres and preschools/kindergartens in Malaysia and abroad. (A government initiative, ECCE’s role is to ramp up the quality of early childcare and education in Malaysia.)
“Many preschools in Malaysia are teaching children the wrong way and not providing the right environment,” says Dr Chiam.

What needs to change?
“We need to change society’s mindset about (undervaluing) preschool,” she opines.
“Early childhood educators must have the knowledge, attitude and skills to provide the kind of experiences for children to nurture their potential. Hence, we need properly-trained educators from quality institutes. And, parents have to be willing to pay for quality education!”

Choosing a preschool
With the plethora of teaching methods, price range and “brands” of preschools/kindergartens, how do parents make the right choices? Whether it is Waldorf, Montessori or Reggio Emilia, does it matter which model you choose?Dr Chiam: ‘The best form of early childhood education should be child-centred and focused on hands-on learning.' They are just different approaches and methods, Dr Chiam says, emphasising “as long as the school focuses on the development of the child.”

Dr Chiam offers more tips:
> The school curriculum must be appropriate for the child’s development.
> Children are individuals who develop at different paces so the ratio of students to teacher should be small to allow the teacher to pay sufficient attention to each child. For example, the class should not have more than 15 students to a teacher.
> Be wary of schools that claim: “I guarantee your child will be able to read by the end of the school year or at the age of two.” Parents should ask what “techniques” are being employed.
> If the kindergarten is deadly quiet, something isn’t right. Children are naturally active and lively. Parents should not expect them to sit still and keep quiet. When the child is interested in an activity, he will naturally be absorbed in what he’s doing.
> Observe how the teachers handle the kids. If they have to yell and scream to discipline the children, they are bad role models.
> A good educator should be able to assess each child individually and track the child’s progress. Standardised testing is a big no-no.
> Equipment alone doesn’t make a good school. It is how the child utilises the material that is important. Good equipment allows the child to develop physically, mentally (imagination and critical thinking) and emotionally. Parents should also check to make sure the equipment is safe and non-toxic.

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