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Sunday November 11, 2012

It’s good to start them early

Dr Chiam: The world today is so
much more complex. Preschool
education should teach children
intellectual skills — how to think,
reason, reflect, create, and solve
problems. Dr Chiam: The world today is so much more complex. Preschool education should teach children intellectual skills — how to think, reason, reflect, create, and solve problems.

The benefits to having a high-quality early childhood education are manifold.

WITH her son turning four next year, Amy (not her real name) is now on the hunt for a good kindergarten, but finding one which meets her expectations is proving to be more difficult than she had anticipated.

“It's surprisingly hard to find a kindergarten where everything fits. I want one which emphasises holistic learning, where children are allowed to learn through play.

“But so many of the kindergartens I've seen (near where I live) focus so much on classroom-based activities. It feels so rigid,” says Amy, 34, an accountant who studied and lived abroad for many years before returning to Malaysia.

Among the factors which will influence her decision include cleanliness, safety, a curriculum that looks at the holistic development of a child, and the quality of the teaching staff.

She adds that her son is a hyperactive child.

“I really don't think he'll be able to sit still for hours on end while at kindy. And I believe children learn so much faster if they're having fun while they're at it.

“Maybe I'm fussy, but I believe in him getting a good kindergarten experience as that sets the foundation for his education,” she says.

The experts, including Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Council president Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng, would agree with Amy.

According to Dr Chiam, quality early childhood education is extremely crucial.

“Psychologists have long noted the importance of early childhood education, because whatever later skills are acquired by the child, they are all built on this foundation. This is why psychologists call it the formative years',” she says.

She adds that neuroscience findings have shown that stressful experiences in a child's early years can harm the developing brain, and affect the brain architecture.

“This means the memory of the child, his learning ability, and even behaviour, like whether he's able to regulate his emotions all these will be affected if he's not provided with appropriate experiences,” says Dr Chiam, formerly Professor of Social Psychology at Universiti Malaya, and an authority in child development and early childhood education.

She says the benefits to having a high-quality early childhood education are manifold.

Citing studies in the United States, such as the Perry Preschool, which was conducted over a period of four decades, Dr Chiam says children who have high-quality early education tend to stay longer in school, compared with those who don't.

The Perry Preschool study found that “more of the group who received high-quality early education, particularly females, graduated from high school than the non-programme group”, and “the group who received high-quality early education had significantly fewer arrests than the non-programme group (36% vs 55% who were arrested five times or more)”.

“This is particularly important for children who come from low social economic status. With high-quality early education, they would be inclined to stay longer in school, with less likelihood of dropping out,” Dr Chiam says.

“This means that the country saves in terms of remedial measures, of criminal justice administration, in terms of security, and even healthcare (for example drop-outs who get involved in drugs), and so there is cost savings.”

Cost savings aside, she adds, the country would also benefit because these individuals would end up being productive members of society, instead of “social hang-ons”.

When she says “high-quality preschool education”, she means preschools that go beyond teaching children how to read, write and count.

Dr Zahari: How the children are
taught sets the mould to how they
will view learning as they grow older.
Traditional teaching methods will set
them up to have a very narrow view
on learning. Dr Zahari: How the children are taught sets the mould to how they will view learning as they grow older. Traditional teaching methods will set them up to have a very narrow view on learning.

“It's so much more than that. Overseas, children learn problem-solving skills through play. So when they go on to primary schools, they are already able to look for information. They are more resourceful.

“The world today is so much more complex. Preschool education should teach children intellectual skills how to think, reason, reflect, create, and solve problems. In today's society, just learning how to read and write, without actually learning how to think creatively, is not sufficient.”

Dr Chiam gives an example.

“In Malaysian kindergartens, when you talk about writing, it usually means that a teacher will write a word, and the child has to copy it and write neatly within the lines. That's not writing, that's just copying.

“Real writing means the child should be able to express him or herself. Even if they write phonetically, it's okay. If he doesn't have the word to express himself, and he draws to show what he means (half in words and half in pictures), that's okay too. As he grows older and his vocabulary increases, the pictures will be substituted into words. That's what writing really means,” she explains.

Dr Zahari Ishak, Universiti Malaya's Educational Psychology and Counselling Department head, concurs.

“At the age of three to six, it's their time to play. It's not supposed to be grading time.

“How the children are taught sets the mould to how they will view learning as they grow older. Traditional teaching methods will set them up to have a very narrow view on learning,” he says.

Realising the importance of quality early childhood education, the Government, through its Government Transformation Programme, has set the target to increase the number of preschool classes in the urban, rural and remote areas.

In line with this was the recent Budget 2013 announcement of an allocation of RM1.2bil to various government agencies in an effort to provide quality preschool education. In addition, RM380mil will be allocated to the Education Ministry for placement of kindergarten teachers.

Also announced was a provision for a launching grant of RM10,000 to assist operators of ECCE private centres in opening new high quality preschools. It is estimated that 1,000 new private ECCE centres will benefit from this initiative.

The announcement is timely in making preschool education more accessible to many children, but Dr Chiam and Dr Zahari say the quality of the childcare providers and educators still needs a lot of working on.

It was recently reported that only 3% of private preschool teachers have formal qualification in early childhood education. Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the rest only had workplace training, or had undergone courses which were not accredited by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency.

“It's so important for early child educators to have a good understanding of child development. By understanding child development, they will be able to conduct activities which are age appropriate,” Dr Chiam says.

“If it's too easy, you're not challenging them (the children). If it's too difficult, they will not be able to complete the task; it will be frustrating for the child, and it could affect their self-esteem.”

She adds that a ratio of one care-giver to three children should be sufficient “for normal children who do not have special needs”.

Citing examples of countries such as Russia, Finland and Canada, where early childhood educators are PhD holders (minimally with a masters degree), Dr Chiam says that Malaysia could learn a thing or two from them, and “adopt some of their best practices”.

“I believe early childhood educators should have a background in child development and child psychology,” Dr Zahari agrees.

In the grand scheme of things, early childhood education is possibly the best place to start when it comes to human capital investment, says M. Neela Mehan, a lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and Management in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM).

Neela Mehan, who is the former deputy chief executive officer of the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF), says 80% of Malaysia's 12 million strong workforce are unskilled workers.

“Only 20% of Malaysia's workforce are skilled workers. Compare this to Taiwan or Singapore, where about 50% of their workforce are skilled workers.

“If 80% of our workforce (are drop-outs and) don't even have SPM qualification, where do we correct this? In secondary school? I think it would be too late by then. I believe the best way it to tackle this as early possible at preschool stage,” he says.

Dr Chiam supports this by citing the Perry Preschool study, which found a return to society of more than US$17, for every US$1 invested in the early care and education programme, “primarily because of the large continuing effect on the reduction of male crime”.

“These are research based on economic models and human capital development, and they have found that there is definitely an economic gain by investing in quality early childhood education. But to me, this is a bonus. What's most important for me is how this benefits the individual child,” she says.

And perhaps the most important point of all is summarised in a question raised by Dr Chiam: “Overarching all of this is what society values. What do we want our children to become?”

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