Commentary

To give lagging kids a leg-up, give them a hand much earlier

What accounts for the different developmental trajectories of Lim Qi, Nora and Anna?

Six years ago when the three children were featured in The Straits Times, there was already a gap between Qi, who had rich learning development opportunities, and Anna and Nora, who had far less support.

At Kindergarten 1, Qi surprised many ST readers with her advanced vocabulary. She is still referred to as the "oxymoron girl", because not only did she know the word, but she could also give examples to illustrate she understood its meaning.

Anna, on the other hand, was able to string together only simple sentences. However, her housewife mother and lorry driver father drummed into her the importance of education and ensured that she had two full years at the PAP Community Foundation kindergarten in the neighbourhood.

Although they were not educated beyond primary school, they sought help for Anna from her teachers in pre-school and primary school, as well as relatives and neighbours.

Anna was also coached by her polytechnic student cousin and a neighbour who was attending university.

Nora was trailing, having had a patchy attendance record during her kindergarten years, as her family consisting of her single mother and four siblings have moved house three times since she was two years old. In all, she attended kindergarten for just nine months over two years, and her language and numeracy skills were poor.

She was being helped by a reading programme called Flair, or Focused Language Assistance in Reading, for pre-school pupils struggling in their reading.

In the six years that passed, the gap between these girls has only grown. Then, as now, experts interviewed attributed the different levels of development for Qi, Anna and Nora to their home circumstances and the varying quality of their early childhood education and care.

National Institute of Education Associate Professor Jason Tan pointed out that not only did Qi attend a good kindergarten, but she also grew up in a home where there is "concerted cultivation", a term coined by American sociologist Annette Lareau to describe the parenting style used by middle-class parents that enables their children to gain advantages in life.

EFFECTIVE LEARNING

While quality can be an elusive goal in education, on the ground level, much of it is dependent on the calibre and ability of teachers to connect with their students, make them feel safe and help them process their emotions and behaviour. It is only when children feel secure and happy that learning takes place most effectively. 

MR LEE POH WAH, who heads Lien Foundation which runs the Circle of Care programme for disadvantaged children.

 
 
 

Calling it "parentocracy", he said that parents' wealth and social capital have greater bearing on a child's success.

"They are able to use their economic resources and tap their social networks to gain advantages for their children - everything from attending the right schools to getting the best tutors."

He added: "Anna and Nora, on the other hand, did not have as strong a start because their parents were not well-to-do and were not able to provide their children with a rich learning environment or opportunities."

So how can Singapore's education system and help schemes be tweaked to enable Anna and Nora to level up to their peers like Qi? After all, education at its best is a solution for disadvantages and a route to well-paid jobs and opportunities.

In his recent parliamentary speech, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke on what can be done in schools to lift the children lagging behind.

But, as research and the stories of Qi, Anna and Nora show, this process must start even earlier, and early childhood development and education hold the key in helping poor children level up.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has studied research on the subject and a few years ago took a big step by launching its own kindergartens to build a good foundation for children. MOE must be applauded for setting up many of these kindergartens in the heartland, and setting aside 30 per cent of the places for children from low-income homes.

There are now 18 such kindergartens, but by 2023 there will be 50 such centres with well-trained teachers and top-notch facilities providing high-quality kindergarten education.

But is kindergarten too late?

Studies suggest that the process of levelling up must start well before that.

A landmark study in the 1990s in the United States found that by age four, privileged children whose parents were professionals would have heard almost 30 million more words spoken in their presence, compared with children from homes on welfare. Not only were these words more complex, but better-off children also heard many more words of praise.

Language is the currency of education and children who start out with weaker language skills lag behind in school.

Singapore needs to look at community projects, such as the 30 Million Word Gap where volunteers are sent out to homes to educate parents on the importance of interacting with their children - what some experts call the "verbal ping-pong", the serve and return between the parent and child which develops the child's brain.

Singapore should heed the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, a passionate advocate of early childhood education, who has argued that the education authorities are also emphasising the wrong things when they target boosting cognitive skills or raising academic scores.

"They ignore a powerful body of research in the economics of human development," he had stressed in a previous interview with The Sunday Times.

Take, for example, the Carolina Abecedarian Project - better known as ABC - which provided cognitive stimulation to children but also went well beyond that.

From the time they were just a few months old, the children were trained in self-control and social skills. They were also given health checks and their parents were also educated on dealing with them.

This programme was found to have lasting effects on IQ, parenting practices and child attachment, leading to higher educational attainment and more skilled employment.

More recent evidence has shown that quality early childhood programmes can also prevent chronic disease and lead to substantially lower healthcare costs.

Now in their 30s and early 40s, those in the ABC programme have lower blood pressure, less hypertension and less likelihood of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular conditions than their peers. Also, the benefits of boosts in their character, self-control and cognition levels percolate all domains of life.

Mr Lee Poh Wah, who heads Lien Foundation which runs the Circle of Care programme for disadvantaged children, said: "While quality can be an elusive goal in education, on the ground level, much of it is dependent on the calibre and ability of teachers to connect with their students, make them feel safe and help them process their emotions and behaviour.

"It is only when children feel secure and happy that learning takes place most effectively."

The best programmes help parents become better and provide "scaffolding" for disadvantaged children.

Mr Lee noted that the Circle of Care programme that provides holistic childcare and pre-school education for disadvantaged children also focuses its efforts on helping parents improve their parenting skills.

He said: "Parents' love for their children is a powerful but underutilised resource.

"Having to cope with the stresses of daily survival makes it hard for parents to see the need to forge critical bonds with their children.

"But it is this bond that lays the foundations for learning, emotional regulation and relationships."

As for the children, it is qualities such as persistence, grit and self-awareness - which can be taught from a very young age - that are more important than efforts to boost academic scores.

And they would not cost very much. As Professor Heckman has said: "Quality early childhood programmes for disadvantaged children are not bottomless wells of social spending."

The investments we make today in disadvantaged young children will help them to soar and society to reap the benefits.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 15, 2018, with the headline 'To give lagging kids a leg-up, give them a hand much earlier'. Print Edition | Subscribe