Focussing on the critical years of a child's life -KR Antony

-The Hindu

What the draft National Education Policy omits in its chapter on early childhood care and education

The draft National Education Policy starts its opening sentence with a hitherto little-known fact: “The learning process for a child commences immediately at birth.” Many believe that children start learning only in school. It is true that language and numerical proficiency, and analytical skills, are attained in school, but the foundation for such a learning capacity is laid much earlier, and it happens without our knowledge. Higher cognitive functions attain their peak of growth between the ages of one and three — before school education begins.

However, the next sentence of the draft says, “Evidence from neuroscience shows that over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs prior to the age of 6”. This is grossly inaccurate because the global focus for optimal brain development is on the first 1,000 days of a person’s life (The Lancet, 2007). Stretching the window of opportunity to six years is a mistake. This wrong understanding leads to misplaced priorities for a nation to boost its human development potential.

Laying the foundation

These 1,000 days are when rapid and dramatic changes take place in the brain and fundamental cognitive and interpersonal skills are developed. The centres for vision and hearing in the cerebrum develop between the second and fifth months of one’s life. In these areas, the formation of nerve connections peaks by the fourth month, and is followed by a gradual retraction or “blooming and pruning” until the end of the preschool period. Similarly, the centres for language and speech proficiency develop maximally between the sixth and tenth month even before the child’s speech and language makes any sense to us. Even as a toddler, a child’s spoken vocabulary increases significantly.

Pregnancy and infancy are important periods for the formation of the brain. This is when the foundation is laid for the development of cognitive, motor and socio-emotional skills. Apart from genetic determinants, environmental determinants play an equally critical role in shaping personality. In essence, an infant is born with the capacity to learn, but how much and what all the infant can learn is influenced by the environment.

The drafting committee of the National Education Policy should have consulted a paediatrician or developmental neurologist on what needs to be done in the first 1,000 days. The policy has rightly categorised early childhood education into two parts. The first focuses on children below the age of three years; the second on children aged three to six years. While Anganwadi centres target children in the second category, the section on Early Childhood Care and Education up to three years is sketchy and inadequate. It only mentions health and nutrition services for both mothers and children. Take-home ration that is provided for children up to three years by the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme only helps physical growth; it does not provide psycho-social stimulation for development. That responsibility is left entirely to the parents or family members.

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The Hindu, 31 July, 2019,

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