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The importance of early education

Good childhood care and development is vital to the implementation of inclusive education as it addresses the needs and strengths of a child’s learning curve.

FROM the time a child is conceived till he or she is eight years of age, development and learning occur at a rapid rate as these are the years when a child should be most engaged in learning.


Counting beads: Tangible objects like beads are used to teach children abstract ideas such as Mathematics.

However, this is not the case in many education systems worldwide.

It is infants and children up to this age category who need attention and require the best teacher-nurturers.

They clearly observe and absorb information, and with more time spent with their teachers and caregivers, they will presumably be on the right track.

Broader definiti on: Dr Shaeffer says that inclusive education covers all barriers to education.Broader definiti on: Dr Shaeffer says that inclusive education covers all barriers to education.

During his keynote address at the International Montessori Forum Malaysia 2013, Dr Sheldon Shaeffer posed the question “Why do Year One classes usually have the least experienced and trained teachers, the highest pupil-teacher ratios, and the fewest contact hours? And why is it that Year Six is just the opposite?”

It was one of many “provocations” or issues that Dr Shaeffer brought up during his speech on inclusive education and early childhood care and development (ECCD).

Dr Shaeffer, formerly the director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, said that greater access to good quality ECCD programmes lead to more equal outcomes for children.

He added that these programmes are also “essential in achieving education which is truly inclusive”.

“So why do so many governments ignore this fact and pay little attention to early childhood?” he said in his speech.

“Based on evidence from neuroscience, genetics, and population studies, early childhood is the most important developmental phase in the human lifespan.

“Preventive early interventions yield higher returns compared to later remedial services,” he said.

Before providing suggestions for methods to implement inclusive education, Dr Shaeffer asked the audience why they thought students dropped out of school. Many cited issues such as the school being “too far” or that the students were “not interested”.

“Why is blame for school failure placed more often on children and their families rather than on the education system and school?” he asked.

No simple task: Transferring the peas from one bowl to another helps a young child develop motor skills and encourages development of traits like patience and concentration.No simple task: Transferring the peas from one bowl to another helps a young child develop motor skills and encourages development of traits like patience and concentration.

“Why do education authorities often push out ‘bad’ students but rarely push out bad teachers?

“Why do individual children usually need to adapt to the needs of the school rather than the school adapting to the individual needs of each child?”

There was silence as the audience paused to think about these provocations.

What is inclusive education?

UNESCO’S 48th International Conference on Education, which was held in Geneva in 2008, focused on inclusive education and defined it as “a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners”.

The conference recognised the need for change and modification in content, approaches, structures and strategies within education systems.

According to Dr Sheldon Shaeffer, formerly the director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, children with disabilities or special needs were initially placed in “special schools”.

Later, due to cost and their “right to education”, many were integrated into mainstream classrooms.However, schools did not change to help them learn. These students had to adapt to the needs of the school.

He said currently, there are even more “special needs” seen as obstacles to development and learning, including gender, health status, language, remoteness and poverty.

He added that the definition for inclusive education stressed on the need for equity in the provision of care and education systems, services and environments, while at the same time gets systems to respond to and even welcome difference and diversity.

“It focuses on all children normally excluded from early childhood care and development programmes,” he said.

The Montessori method

MARIA Montessori’s early research was conducted with children who would be considered “special needs” students and after using her methods on them, some later went on to pass the mainstream public school examinations.

According to Montessori Association of Malaysia president Aisha Z. Abdullah, due to its emphasis on “respecting the child”, the Montessori method allows each child to learn at his or her own pace.

“Children are brought into a very chaotic world and need to find order,” she said. Under the Montessori method, children are allowed to choose, state opinions and make decisions, as well as interact with the world around them.

Aisha said that the materials provided — blocks, textures, beads — are all tangible items that would enable the children to deduce the environment around them.

The children are also able to learn abstract topics like decimals using beads. “They’re introduced to the decimal system from as young as five years old,” said Aisha.

“They understand what the numerals mean. It’s not just an abstract idea. Sometimes the six-year-olds say that they don’t need the materials anymore when they’re solving the Math problems.”

However, she emphasised that within the Montessori method, what’s most important is “the process”. Results are not the most important thing, she said.

She explained that many of the skills learnt from Montessori activities could be translated into daily practical life.

There are even simple activities where children are allowed to transfer green beans from one bowl to another using a Chinese soup spoon.

Besides learning fine motor skills, it also allows the child to learn concentration, coordination and order, said Aisha.

“It encourages the child to be independent. If she spills anything, we teach the child to reverse the mistake,” she said, explaining that this “control of error” allows the child to figure out what is right and what is wrong.

She stressed that while Montessori is a very “down to earth” method, parents must play a role in it. However, she added that the “adult is just there to guide” and that the child has to be acknowledged.

“It allows the child to find their strengths. We give them freedom but apply limits. It’s not about doing what they like but liking what they do,” she said.

Creating good systems

ACCORDING to Dr Shaeffer, there are four cornerstones of programming for good early childhood care and development. They are listed below:

1. Start at the beginning

● Integrate, coordinate and improve services that are responsive to the needs and desires of — and accessible to — all young children and their families.

● Promote more positive caregiver-child interaction, stimulating environments, good health and nutrition, and better child care.

● Provide universal access to family support programmes that address holistic child development, with special attention to the most vulnerable.

2. Provide new opportunities for discovery and learning

● Ensure access to at least two years of quality early childhood services.

● Focus on developing a child’s sense of self, interactions with peers and adults, confidence, language competence, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

● Provide information and support to parents and caregivers, including fathers, through wide-ranging family support activities.

● Prioritise the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

3. Make schools ready for children

● Ensure a welcoming, appreciative and inclusive school environment which facilitates the transition from family or pre-school environment.

● Train and appoint capable teachers who understand the development needs and learning styles of young children to lower primary grades.

● Ensure smaller class sizes and a manageable teacher-child ratio in the early years of primary school.

4. Address the development of policies on early childhood

● Develop, implement and evaluate policies based on a national vision and strategies for young children, expanded investment in their development and stronger intersectoral coordination.

● Guarantee adequate resources by ensuring that early childhood is integral to national development policies and macroeconomic planning and budgeting.

● Address early childhood, across sectors, in all national and sub-national policies and plans.

● Invest in ECCD policies and programmes which will bring large immediate and future returns to individuals, families, communities and nations.

JEANNETTE GOON educate@thestar.com.my The STAR Online Home Education Sunday June 13. 2013
Tags: childhood, education, inclusive
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