Pandemic takes the fun out of preschool

Online preschools' focus on mere reading and writing, and not life skills, has experts worried about long term effects on children.

Ranjitha R and Varun Madhugiri, parents to three and a half-year-old twins, recall with wry humour what it has been like since the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. The daycare centre the twins went to, closed. For this working couple, the next year and a half was about juggling work, domestic chores, parenting, teaching and managing the pandemic.

They have now come to accept the new normal, albeit reluctantly. There are good days and bad days, but there is no rhythm to it. Like all parents, they are noticing behavioural challenges with their children, besides their own rising stress and deep anxiety about the future.

“The kids are now frustrated and annoyed as they have been indoors for over a year,” says Ranjitha. She feels guilty that she is unable to devote more time to them. “Before the lockdown, I would switch off work after coming home. But now my laptop is always on till I go to bed,” she says.

Varun points out how the children now refuse to follow instructions while learning standing lines and sleeping lines, their first writing lesson. “Initially I was able to manage the kids when Ranjitha worked because I have my own office but after a point when everything resumed, I had to start too,” says he.

In the background is the chirping of their toddlers, protesting his phone calls.

Read more: The reality of online learning in Bengaluru’s govt schools

When unlearning is learning

Most parents, working or otherwise, talk about not being able to maintain schedules, control screen time, and engage with their children. Preschool teachers have to deal with the online-offline predicament and rules that prevent preschools from online classes for children below 6 years. They say, despite these constraints, they are trying their best to create material that will help children.

Anuradha Sathish, Director, Crayons Preschool and Daycare, who is waiting to restart the centre, points out that children in their early years — pre-schoolers — are the worst affected in the pandemic. She says they could not be prepared for what was to come when the lockdown was announced. Worse, there was a complete mismatch between what children were taught and what was practiced.

“Online classes were allowed initially and then stopped. All the while, we taught them that screens were not good, but we had to go back to screens. We encourage children to go out and share and play with each other. But now, we had to train teachers to deliver the opposite message,” points out Anuradha.

Veena Galra, who also runs a preschool and daycare, says children are unable to process what is going on. “Children don’t know when to speak to their parents. They don’t have boundaries to be happy, sad, angry… They don’t know what a pandemic is,” she notes.

“We encourage children to go out and share and play with each other. But now, we had to train teachers to deliver the opposite message.”

Children can understand when things are explained to them, Veena says. “Children have a biological clock, but they don’t understand our clocks. When some children met me after the lockdown, they said ‘mama papa were busy, pappa said go away’. Both parents should discuss this and ensure that children don’t feel traumatised in any way.”

As life skill training — resource sharing, waiting for turns, etc., — stopped, the focus moved to reading and writing. Worse, pre-schools are now setting goalposts for the children, especially in lower KG and upper KG, to achieve. Such goals, apparently, are meant to be in preparation for their imminent entry to regular schools.

(It is important to note that there is still no notification for online classes or reopening of preschools from the government. All the activities – online or offline or home packages/kits – planned by preschools are neither recommended or mandated by any official authority.)

All work and no play at preschools

This shift of preschools to reading and writing has started to worry parents. For one, it has taken the fun out of learning. Children are unwilling to go through a recorded video, or an online class, or practice numbers and rhymes with parents when the parents get off their workstations.

Nidhi Agarwal’s son turned three on March 20 last year, just days before the lockdown began. From taking it easy initially, she’s now worried about the goalposts set by the pre-school.

“Last year neither the teachers nor the parents took it very seriously when the kids were not ready to take online classes or do homework. But now, when I look at the upper KG syllabus and the possibility of being unprepared for a big school next year, it is really worrying me.”

This year has been particularly bad for her family. Nidhi’s husband was hospitalised when he got COVID-19 in the second wave. She and her son recovered from the virus at home. Despite intermittent help from her parents, who live in another city, she went through extreme fatigue and mental stress. Her son endured much trauma as well. And now, he has to get competition-ready, to get into regular school.

Preschool management and teachers say they don’t have much of a choice as physical classes may not happen anytime soon.

children attending online classes
Online classes. File Pic

Read more: Delhi: The case of the missing class 5 students from corporation schools

Worst case scenario

While it is difficult to gauge the impact of the pandemic on such young children, there is no doubt at all that children in low-income families are even worse off.

Sushma C, who works as domestic help, has two daughters aged four-and-a-half and three years. Her husband, an autorickshaw driver, looked after the children through the lockdowns. He has been at home-bound since the first wave, as his income dwindled. They had paid the school fees for the elder daughter last year, but pulled her out of school this year. They haven’t enrolled the younger one anywhere.

“We don’t have much space outside the house where we live. The children are locked up the whole day and get very cranky. We tried sending them to the village a couple of times, but they can’t stay after a few days,” says Sushma.

Despite these constraints, she cannot afford to send them to school with her income alone. “We will see what to do next year,” she says.

Sharing and support

Meena Sivaraman, who ran day-care centres for corporates but closed them during the lockdown, says sharing of responsibilities between partners in the household holds the key to children’s well-being.

“We still are in a patriarchal society and women are bearing the brunt of it. Such families are struggling, but those who have a good understanding of each other are able to manage,” says she.

However, even those like Ranjitha and Varun, who have shared responsibilities are at their wits end in the changed reality. Clearly, without the pre-pandemic support systems, parents and children will continue to struggle until the new normal accommodates these new realities.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and school counselors are of the opinion that reopening of schools and safe spaces for socialisation for children is the need of the hour.

Mumbai-based psychiatrist, Dr. Harish Shetty, says: “Whether it is preschool or other classes, there is a sense of hopelessness as parents are tired of mimicking school environments at home.”

He points out that beating kids out of frustration has increased in many families. “Children are ignored and are suffering. Symptoms of fear, nightmares and depression are seen. We have seen that children don’t sleep, don’t eat, are irritable, get up with a startle and refuse to join online classes,” he says

Dr Shetty implores the State not to view children as virus-infected and virus-free. It is important to take cognisance that a mental health pandemic has hit the country, he cautions, adding that programmes to assist the emotional health of the family will help kids.

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