Monday, 7 May 2018

The Great Indian Divide

The Great Indian Divide!

When it comes to preschools or preschool education in our country there are many divides: the ‘what to call it divide’, the rich and poor divide, the rural and urban divide, the parent and school divide, the central government and state government divide and the teacher training course divide! The future of preschools in our country can be great only once we bridge all these divides.

The first divide: what to call it divide- different names in different states?
Early childhood is divided into two areas, ECC- Early Childhood Care and ECE- Early Childhood Education. ECC is from inception to 3 years and ECE is from 3 to 6 years. First there is the divide about what to call it, preschool? Playschool? Early childhood education? Kindergarten? Early childhood development? Nursery school? Montessori school?

Preschool and playschool both have the word school, which in Latin may mean leisure but in India school is about academics, so it is better not to call it that as the pressure of learning to read, write and count will be forced down on these young babies. Fredrick Froebel, the father of Kindergarten, invented kindergarten but many don’t want it to be Froebelian! Montessori was the true mother of early childhood education but many don’t want it to be Montessorian! So we are left with early childhood education or early childhood development. Education would again bring the focus only on rote learning whereas development would bring the focus on developmentally appropriate Practice (DAP) Brain research and neuro science has proven that 98% of the brain develops in the first six years. So it is imperative that parents and teachers use this crucial period to teach the young brain ‘how to learn’ and not ‘what to learn’. When we teach children how to learn they learn to be independent thinkers, problem solvers and logic seekers. When we train their brains what to learn then we have only one result- rote learning, a brain that cannot think, understand or relate or conduct executive brain functions, it can only remember.

The second divide: central policy or state policy
Education is a concurrent subject in our country so the central ministry makes the policies and then the states have the right to draft their policies based on the same with changes etc.
But here comes the most important question early childhood comes under the Women and Child Development Ministry not HRD and at the state it does not come under the education department then why is it a concurrent subject? Why is each state redefining the policy and minimum non negotiable like minimum area required per child, teacher child ratio, safety and curriculum? Are we saying that the children in different states need different amount of space to sit? Culture and language can change but developmentally a child between the age of 2 to 6 years is on the same continuum whether in Delhi, Kerala, Tamilnadu or Maharashtra. Then why waste precious public money and reinvent the wheel in each state.
We have a well-defined policy for early childhood by the Women and Child Development Ministry and a well-drafted curriculum: National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Curriculum Framework. Not many preschools are aware about the same; it should be used as a textbook in early childhood teacher training courses. Which brings us to the next divide…

The third divide: the teacher-training course divide.

Unlike B.Ed. that is a common qualification across the country, to become an ECCE teacher there is no one common course. Different states have different courses, some are 2 years, some are 1 year, and some are ridiculously for 3 and 6 months! Some are after 10th standard, some after 12 standard and some are postgraduate. Its time to have a common course across the nation as these teachers would be laying the foundation of life skills and learning skills in young children.  Presently anganwadi teachers, private preschool teachers, balwadi teachers are all trained differently! There is also a need to define a common core teacher-training curriculum that should be implemented by all early childhood teacher-training courses in the country.

The fourth divide: the rich and poor and urban and rural divide.
At Early Childhood Association we are very worried about a ‘brain-drain’ that is draining the human resource of this country. The early years are most crucial as they are the brain development years, the foundation of all important life skills are during the early years, but because of lack of good early childhood centers, our ‘poor’ children are bereft of good early childhood care. So there is a marked difference in the quality care that a ‘rich child’ receives from a ‘poor child’, and it can be as simple as the number of words that these children are exposed to or the sensory stimulation that these children receive in the first 3 years, because that defines their future personalities and success. 80% of our population is growing up with inadequate early care and development whereas 20% are growing up with superb early care and development, how will our country progress when 80% of its population is already behind in their growth and development? Early Childhood Development – early education and care – makes a difference that persists well into adulthood. It shapes who you become. At that age, your brain is making new connections that will one day become the blueprint for your life. And at that age, if you don’t receive the right kind of care or learning, you will grow up with...  a few crayons missing from your life’s pencil box. And why should that happen to anybody?

The urban and rural divide is amazing! I have seen many great early childhood rural programs and some horrible urban programs but yet the urban programs are a ‘benchmark’ whereas the rural program are looked down just because they are not in English?! Many of our best practices are in our rural centers but don’t make the mark because of the rural tag. And many of our urban centers are interviewing children, making their lives stressful and miserable with exams, tests, overburdening with ‘class hopping’ and are yet called centers of excellence!

The fifth divide: the parent and school divide.
Today in every state parents and schools are at loggerheads for various issues, the most important being fees. Parents also face a huge challenge in understanding what kind of ‘preschool’ to choose for their children, which philosophy, what should it should teach their child, what should be the safety measures, what is the school’s and parent’s responsibility etc. there is an urgent need for the government especially the women and child development ministry to come out with some parent education guidelines, these guidelines should define what parents can and should not do in parenting, a simple example is spanking children, parents are unaware of the harmful effects of the same.
Why is it left to the parent to decide whether to give early childhood care and education to their children? Who is the school to decide whether to admit a child for early childhood care and education? Every child is entitled to early childhood care and education, this is explicitly given in the preamble of our National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy it states: It clearly states that – the government of India recognized the significance of ECCE through the amended Article 45 of the Indian constitution that directs that “The state shall endeavor to provide ECCE for all children until they complete the age of six years.” The RTE act also states, “with a view to prepare children above the age of 3 years for elementary education and to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years, the appropriate government may make the necessary arrangement for providing free preschool education for such children.”

The sixth divide: the quality divide.
What should be the quality of any early childhood center, whether government run, privately run or run by an NGO? Who is monitoring this? Presently it is a chaotic state of affairs. So why can’t we learn from the world? Most developed and developing countries have the following, which is the need of the hour as of yesterday for India.
1.     A National Quality Framework includes: a national legislative framework that consists of: the Education and Care Services National Law (‘National Law’) the Education and Care Services National Regulations (‘National Regulations’)
2.     A National Quality Standard consisting of seven Quality Areas: Educational program and practice
·         Children’s health and safety
·         Physical environment
·         Staffing arrangements
·         Relationships with children
·         Collaborative partnerships with families and communities
·         Leadership and service management.
3.   A national quality rating and assessment process through which services are assessed against the National Quality Standard by Regulatory Authorities and provided with a rating from one of the five rating levels.
4.   A Regulatory Authority in each state and territory who have primary responsibility for the approval, monitoring and quality assessment of services in their jurisdiction in accordance with the national legislative framework and in relation to the National Quality Standard
5.     A national body—to oversee the system and guide its implementation in a nationally consistent way.

Keeping the above need in mind we at the Early Childhood Association strongly believe that having an affiliation board for preschools in our country would be a logical solution that would benefit all three stakeholders- children, parents and preschools. The government can still license the schools or take care of the NOC requirements but the curriculum, philosophy and other important aspects can be done by the affiliation/accreditation board of ECE. Early Childhood Association has now launched its ECE accreditation board and it will be rolled out with schools from August 2018
The process of affiliation/ accreditation is as follows:
¡  A self-study,
¡  An application (and fees),
¡  A validation visit to verify information,
¡  And yearly certification through written documentation.
¡  Upon receiving official accreditation, the provider receives a certificate that verifies status.

 With the recent spate of accidents, incidents and other safety related issues that have happened in preschools, it becomes the need of the hour to have an affiliation body that can accreditate the parameters affecting learning, safety and development of the child. Many parents are presently using preschool guide websites to find out the ‘review’ of the preschool but that is not a fool proof nor a realistic guide to the exact quality of learning and safety standard of a preschool.

For the future of early childhood development in our country, ECA strongly urges the Prime Minister  to look into these points  .

Over 40 percent of India’s children in the 0-6 age group are deprived of any early childhood care despite the Constitution and Parliament having recognized the importance of ECCE. Article 45 of the Constitution directs that “the State shall Endeavour to provide ECCE for all children until they complete the age of six years. The plain truth is that after more than 65 years since independence early childhood care, development and education in this country is still neglected. It’s time the country invested in taking care of its youngest citizens.

1.     Strong need for a separate ministry that focuses on early childhood care and education. (Our country is battling with crimes against women and children. If we want our national human resource, our young children to grow up as strong, healthy, and competent youth then it is time to invest in early childhood. Because there is too much work to be done regarding laws, policies, frameworks, trainings, support systems, health, nutrition etc. it’s time to dedicate a separate ministry to early childhood development, care and education. The ministry can look after pregnancy, birth, mothering, parenting, child and mother health, child health and nutrition, care and education of young children. The ministry can look into child rights, child laws and thus strengthen the generations that will grow up and take this country to become a super power Examples around the world- Australia has ministry for families and children, Singapore, has the Early Childhood Development Agency which is an independent agency charged with overseeing child care and kindergarten education.  In Scotland, governance is handled by the Ministry of Children and Young People.)
2.      The early childhood policy and curriculum framed by Women and Child Development Ministry at the center should be made non negotiable for all states to implement as the basic policy and curriculum, they can add points as per their state. This saves time in reinventing the wheel, as child development is not region, culture, or language specific. The language in which it is implemented can differ (example New Zeeland has a policy and curriculum in English and Maori the local language)
3.      Model early childhood development centers to replace present anganwadis to be set up in each state by the government. These centers must take care of parent education, pregnancy related health and nutrition, parent education classes, childcare, child nutrition and health and early childhood education.
4.     Be it Anganawadis, Balwadis, or private preschools the common core guidelines for Quality, safety, and curriculum should be the same. Example Head start program of USA. (Head Start was founded on the idea that every child -- no matter whom they are, what they look like, or where they grow up -- deserves the chance to reach their full potential.  Since 1965, it has given meaning to the simple truth that in America, where you start should not determine how far you can go.)
5.     Once early childhood centers mandatorily follow the curriculum guidelines in the national ECE policy then all educational boards to be advised by HRD ministry to sync their standard one curriculum to that of the ECE curriculum. Thus every child will begin with a strong foundation.
6.     The age to begin nursery and the age to begin standard one should be same across all states in India, presently it differs in many states. It should be 3 years by 30th September for nursery and 6 years by 30th September for standard one.
7.     There should be a common teacher-training course mandated for early childhood teachers across the country. Like B.Ed. is the common program for primary and secondary teachers, presently each state has a different course, course matter, and duration for the early childhood teacher-training program.
8.     Inclusive education and counseling to be important subjects in the teacher-training program.
9.     Assessment guidelines to be made clear and defined for preschools.
Young children are the other minority in our country, because they are presently just 20% of our population, have no voice, cannot vote so are being ignored when it comes to policy, laws, investments. But every business house, entertainment house, corporate company, uses young children for their benefit; crimes against young children are on the rise. Young children in our country are still battling with diseases, malnutrition, and lack of proper health facilities, childcare. Our country needs to set up child protective services to take care of them. We need to invest in our young children because they are going to grow up and become the youth of this country. It will be too late to take care of them then, because research has proven that the early years are when the foundation of all future growth is gained.

The author Dr. Swati Popat Vats is the founder President of Early Childhood Association India. As President of Podar Education Network she leads over 290 preschools and Daycares as founder Director of Podar Jumbo Kids. She is also National representative for the World Forum Foundation. She  is Nursery Director of Little Wonders Nursery (UAE) that has branches in Jumeirah and Sharjah.  She has received many accolades and awards for her contribution to Early Childhood Education and has been conferred the Fellowship of Honor from the New Zealand Tertiary College. She was the founder consultant for the Euro Kids preschool project in India and helped set up TATASKY’s children’s television activity channel- ACTVE WHIZKIDS. She is the founder expert on the world’s first video based parenting website that helps parents understand and nurture brain development in the first 1000 days. 
Swati has authored many books for parents and children and is a strong advocate of nature based learning in the early years and promotes brain research based teaching and parenting in her workshops across the globe. Swati tweets and blogs on education and parenting and can be followed on @swatipopat or 

Dr. Swati Popat Vats

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Technology and learning in toddlers

Technology and learning in toddlers

“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies but the  period from birth to the age six” Maria Montessori

98% of the brain develops in the first five years. Parents and educators can create brain compatible environments to support this growth. The brain needs stimulation, complimented with brain compatible practices. Routines, rituals, stimulating toys, more choices, child led activities, open ended questions, logic games, toys, outdoor activities and more are many of the brain compatible practices to nurture brain development. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics states infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010).
Screens have become a babysitter or the third parent for many parents and families, but this result is definitely worrisome because it means that at the crucial brain development age our children are actually being exposed to unhealthy habits that lead to weak neural structures. What we are dealing with is a different kind of ‘brain drain’. We are draining the brain before it is built so the foundation of life skills, learning, memory, health, language, social skills are all affected and this leads to fractured childhood and children who will grow up to be weak in all areas and aspects required for life and learning.

According to Maria Montessori there are 6 sensitive periods during the early years which are crucial to the all round development of children, in neuro science circles this is what is called the critical period:

  1. Sensitivity to learning through the senses- sensory perception
  2. Sensitivity to language
  3. Sensitivity to order
  4. Sensitivity to small objects- small detail
  5. Sensitivity to walking- movement
  6. Sensitivity to the social aspects of life

I will now detail how each of these critical periods is affected due to exposure to screens and technology.

When very small children get hooked on tablets and smartphones, says Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, they can unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains. Too much screen time too soon, he says, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.” Between birth and age three, for example, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us.  (sensitivity to learning through sensory perception)
Learning through story telling v/s screen based story telling- Technology exposure too early can impact many cognitive skills in children. For example when a screen is used to tell stories to young toddlers then it feeds images, words, picutures and motion all at the same time, so something like ready- made thinking and imagination. But when an adult tells a story to a toddler the toddler brain would have to process the language, imagine the visuals, and exert some effort to follow the story, no ready-made thinking so this would exercise their cognitive muscles. With screen stories their cognitive muscles remain weak. (sensitivity to small objects- sensitivity to details )
Language development is crucial in toddlers and language is about having a conversation, language development cannot be a one-way process. Due to too much technology exposure, children are not spending enough time with other humans and instead are spending time with machines. Their language development would naturally suffer because of lack of ‘serve and return’ interactions, screens are a one way traffic so naturally children who grow up with screens as companions lack the necessary social skills to take part in conversations, they learn that if you don’t like it- change it with a swipe or a remote! (sensitivity to language)
Children are being pacified with screens so we are bonding them to machines instead of emotions! They naturally become materialistic because it is the screens that calmed them, cajoled them and not the humans. So human touch, empathy are all being reduced. If a child is calmed when upset with a screen then attachment is to the inanimate object and not a human being, as the child grows older the attachment will transfer to other things like drugs instead of seeking human help.
When young babies and children are exposed to screen voices, screen instructions more than real life voices and conversations, they naturally get attached and give more importance to screen world, a living example of it is the recent ‘blue whale’ addiction. It has its roots in childhood screen addiction. Today the screens and the world within are controlling these teenagers.
The brain’s pre frontal cortex or the thinking brain  is the area responsible for  understanding  social interactions. This part of the brain is the seat of empathy, non-verbal communication, logic, and understanding about the world.  And this part of the brain develops during toddler years, and is dependent on human interactions. So if  toddlers spends all the time with technology instead of playing, talking, interacting with humans then this part of the brain , so essential for future relationships , will be dulled, possibly for good. (sensitivity to social interactions)
Have you noticed how young toddlers who are exposed to screens, use the swipe motion even when given a book? well, it may look ‘aww, so cute’ to adults but it is a grave sign of addiction to technology and an ‘internalization’ which leads to ‘instant gratification’- that all my actions will have an immediate effect/response.   This quick response that they get from screens also gives the a quick dose of ‘dopamine’ a brain chemical that is associated with feelings of pleasure- thus the addiction to technology. But in real life when they don’t get ‘quick results’ or ‘cant change things as they want’ or ‘stop looking at what they don’t want to’ then this lack of ‘instant results’ and ‘pleasure chemical’ can lead to many disorders.

 Many parents want to take the screens away from the toddlers but when they do, it results in complete mayhem as toddler breaks into uncontrollable tantrums! And parents who are unable to calm them down, commit the grave error of giving them the screen just to pacify them. It’s important to understand why this happens- two parts of the brain are involved when your child is using a screen:
1. the visual system and 2. The vestibular system
so the visual system has to work overtime to take in all the stimuli that come from technology, in kids the visual system is still at the developing stage and this makes the brain work in ‘overdrive’ to keep up with the oncoming images, sounds etc. this means the brain is working in a hyper mode. 
Now the visual system is closely linked to the vestibular system, have you noticed how a toddler using a screen, can see nothing else and is completely focused on the screen?  The vestibular system also has a significant impact on mood.  So your hyper focused visual system locked up the vestibular system and your child was in a ‘no mood’ zone.
Now when you take away the screen, the visual system that was on hyperactive mode goes from ‘100 to 0’ in a spilt second and because it is released now it releases the vestibular system, so your child goes from ‘no mood’ to ‘too much emotion’ and all hell breaks loose. Your child does not know what to do with so much hyper focus and nothing to focus on and thus the huge tantrum! Because the brain is still in the hyper mode and has nothing to process your child will go berserk trying to calm a hyper brain!
The solution according to experts is to reset the  brain.  Get your child moving. Jump, swing, and run around. The vestibular system is in charge of motion so these kind of   linear acceleration activities will reset the vestibular system and calm the entire body.
Learning in toddlers can be damaged by technology but sadly we cannot keep technology away from our toddlers as they are born in a ‘tech bubble’, so I urge parents and teachers to do the following so that learning and brain growth are not affected in toddlers:
1.     Do not give hand held screens to children below the age of 2 years.  Because the young brain is developing at a fast rate during these years and you are actually ‘killing’ neurons with screen exposure.  If you are unable to do it then put the screen on airplane mode so that the harmful microwaves emanating from them don’t harm your child. Limit to two 15 minute slots per day
2.     Ensure that the content is non-violent and pro social. Maximum discipline issues happen when kids watch violent or abusive content, and since children learn by imitation they mimic these in their behavior.
3.     Be with your child during the screen viewing time and chat with your child during the show. This is because face to face conversations are a must in the early years to build the foundation of social skills, television is a one way process and so children don’t learn important social skills like waiting for the other person to speak.
4.     Absolutely no screen time 3 hours before bedtime.  The excessive blue light emanating from screens affects melatonin production thus reducing sleep in young babies and toddlers and making them cranky and unfocussed all the time. Sleep disruption also affects growth hormone.
5.     Avoid any kind of technology during meal time, meal time is a sensory process that starts with the taste in the mouth and the process of seeing different colours on the plate and feeling the same in the mouth. When children are hooked on a screen during meal time they lose out on the sensory experience that aids the release of digestive juices and may chew less or eat more leading to digestive and obesity issues.
6.     After playing with handheld screens ensure that your child is engaged in some sort of high physical activity like jumping, skipping etc. so that the extremely high focus reached by the brain during screen time is clamed down to avoid tantrums and a feeling of suddenly being bereft of stimulation. Ensure that babies and toddlers get at least 3 hours of physical play /outdoors play time.
7.     Children are great imitators and if they see you addicted to screens then they will follow in your footsteps. When interacting with your child do not have screens as the third party! Can you ask a child to keep away from sugar while you are merrily chomping on a bar of chocolate?
8.     Never use screens as a pacifier to calm them during a tantrum or to make them eat or listen to you or as a baby sitter as this makes them lose out on human emotional bonds and makes them connect to materialistic satisfaction of their emotions.
9.     The first 3 to 6 years are critical for brain development and brain requires hands-on stimuli, face-to-face conversations, and opportunities to think, explore and listen to new words. Ensure that you include story telling, rhymes, non-battery toys, and outdoor time in your child’s daily routine. Check out activities given on

The author, Dr. Swati Popat Vats is the President of Early Childhood Association (  and the Director of Podar Jumbo Kids Preschools and Daycares. She is also a parenting mentor and is the parenting expert on a unique parenting initiative called Born Smart,

Dr.Swati Popat Vats

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Fake news...keeping children safe from it.

Fake news?

All of us at some time have been taken in by fake news! Fake forwards, fake news, fake brands, and fake people!

But our teenagers and young children need our support and guidance to understand how to differentiate fake news from real news, fake ads from real facts. Because it is a world that works on fake facts to sell, create communities and create fear.

I recently conducted a workshop for teenagers and their parents on how to verify if any news that they are reading about or have received is fake or real.  

It all started with a teenager excitedly telling his friends that the Prime Minister follows him on twitter! His friends had two reactions, one group were in awe of him, ‘Wow! He is followed by the Prime Minister’, another group chanted, ‘faketa hai’ (he is fibbing). And soon the two groups were arguing and almost came to blows.

The school decided to hold a workshop for children and their parents after a lot of fake news about schools closed, airports closed, bandh declared etc. during the recent riots in Mumbai. Parents and teachers all fell prey to fake forwards doing their rounds on WhatsApp.

In my workshop with the group of children and parents, I helped them understand how to differentiate between fake and real news by using a verification process. So where all do we encounter or use a verification process? On your phone, on your email, on your social media accounts, there are passwords. What is aadhar card, pan card, passport? These are verification documents. They help only the real user avail of the services so that fake users cannot get access.

So we must always verify any news in three steps:
1.     Who did I get the news from? Is a trusted core group member? So trusted core group members are your parents, siblings, best friends, and teachers.
2.     How did they get the news? From where? Was it a forward?
3.     Why do I believe it is true? Can I check it on other sources or with other people?

In the example of the child who thought that our Prime Minister was following him on Twitter, we asked the child what makes you believe it is the Prime minister? The child said the profile has his photo, his name. Now, lets ‘verify’ further, how many followers does this profile have? Is there any other profile of our Prime Minister? Check that. How many followers? Which has more? Ask an adult or compare both profiles, which one do you think would be the real one? This is a verification process that starts by asking relevant questions. Go to the source before believing the fake news.

Fake news is floated to create mischief, to create unrest, tension, stress. It is for us to ensure that we are smart to question before we forward or believe. In parents and educator whats app groups a common fake news is about a predator with his photo and a message that says “This man kidnaps from schools, watch out for him.” And such messages always have in bold letters- FORWARD TO AS MANY AS POSSIBLE. Or there will be news about someone needing an organ or blood and it would be going viral pan India. Out of our fear or need to help we respond to these only to realize that they were fake news. And then like the proverbial story of the ‘Boy who cried Wolf’, when we do receive a real cry for help we ignore thinking of it as clutter and fake news.

I then showed them photos of branded goods, watches, bags, jackets, phones, with their logos tweaked a wee bit. Now identify which is the original and which is the fake. This activity helped them understand how to scrutinize and verify before accepting something as real.

At this point a young teenage girl stood up and said, “Ma’am, there is a news channel that does a viral sach”, to verify all WhatsApp news. The girl’s comment meant that she and the group have now understood that news received as a forward or not from a trusted source can be fake and needs a verification process before believing the same.

Our young children and adolescents use the net; social media and can get taken in by fake profiles, fake news, and fake people. It is for us to ensure that we teach them how to differentiate between the real and the fake and when to differentiate. It is important for us and our young children to understand that everything that is printed, in a photo or in a video need not be real or correct. Remember Photoshop?

And this is what is most difficult for children to understand, they assume that anything that comes on TV, News, on Google search is real, but well times have changed and with it have sadly changed the moral values of many sites, channels and ads.

Teach verification to children, teach it to yourself too, and don’t forward anything till you are not sure. Don’t be in a hurry to forward, or accept friends on social media. Children learn by imitation so give them good habits to imitate.

I have taken this a step further and included it for our early years program, now each class has a password, a word that is chosen every day by the class and if you want to enter the class then you have to give the password to enter. A fun and early starting point for children to grow up understanding about verification.

Let us create a real world for our children.

Dr.Swati Popat Vats