Preschoolers May Suffer Permanent Damage from the Pandemic

By Chan Xin Ying

August 2021 FEATURE
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COVID-19 HAS PERFORMED quite a time heist on everyone, and on preschoolers especially. Schools were once again forced to close last May as cases steadily rose. Devoid of social interactions and playtime with peers, these children’s parents worry about what this will do to their children’s early development and education.

Pause the Growing Up?

The first six years of a child’s life is the most crucial for brain development. Social and language skills are acquired through interaction, observation and the normalisation of daily habits during playtime at kindergartens.

There are now signs that the sporadic shuttering of schools may have already stunted growth in the cognitive, emotional, physical and literacy development of children. “Children are forgetting the routines of school, of how to share and to take turns,” says Chow Chee Keong, the founder of Learning Garden.

Chow Chee Keong is the founder of Learning Garden.

Datin Indranee Liew, a trainer and consultant at Curriculum & Classroom Behaviour Management, notes that without social interaction in a physical classroom setting, children may find it difficult to break out of toddling habits, and prefer to have their milk bottles with them all the time.

Then there is their academic growth to consider. The situation becomes disquieting indeed when some parents opt to remove their children from online classes. Senior principal of Jet Kinderland Sally Ng, who also heads Persatuan Guru Tadika Malaysia and Persatuan Guru-Guru Tadika Pulau Pinang, explains, “It is worrying that some B40 families think the shortened hours of online learning do not justify the kindergarten fee and so, children miss out on important skills like reading and writing that prepares them for primary schooling. Sooner or later, this becomes problematic for the young ones who’d have to play catch-up.”

Dato’ Dr. Lai Fong Hwa and Datin Indranee Liew.

Limited mobility and a lack of activities at home also encourage sedentary behaviour and are detrimental to the children’s gross motor development. Preschoolers are not achieving the motor competence and proficiencies of their age, notices Indranee. “Five-year-olds are walking with the stability of 3-year-olds because of too much time spent at home and this affects their gross motor development.”

What is School?

The current Malaysian preschool curriculum stipulates that children are expected to be well-equipped with literacy skills before beginning primary education. But for the 2021 and 2022 cohorts, the hurdles created by the pandemic may not be as easily surmountable as one might think, and for the following reasons: i) learning at kindergartens is progressing at varying paces and ii) children are still understanding the notion of “schooling”, e.g. in recognising the rules and regulations that they are to follow.

Primary school teacher Heng Jing Han confirms this, adding that she finds her 7-year-old students still conversing in “baby talk” and being prone to accidentally wetting themselves. “When schools were allowed to briefly reopen last April, there was also a growing reluctance among the timider students in attending physical classes.”

Sally Ng is the senior principal of Jet Kinderland.

A school routine is beneficial to students in that they also learn from adjunct classrooms. “Make it mandatory for students to wear school uniforms and to have their cameras on for easy communication between classmates; this reinforces the sense of togetherness,” says Chow. “Parents must also restrain themselves from interfering during online classes so that the children are aware that they have to continue to follow school rules, even if they are not physically present at school.”

Equally important is the consistent communication between teacher and student, adds Sally. “At Jet Kinderland, teachers are required to spend 10-20 minutes chatting with each child, to check on their progress. In some cases, the teachers will have a one-on-one session with the child.”

A Guiding Hand

Juliana and Zaki with their three children.

Inevitably, parental influence also gets magnified during the lockdowns. To ensure children’s emotional well-being, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and cognitive behaviour therapist, Dato’ Dr. Lai Fong Hwa encourages parents to enhance their children’s cognitive skills with fun-filled family activities. “Even playing board games or working on the garden spurs their curiosity.”

Juliana and Zaki are parents of three children, their youngest is six years old. They highlight how crucial communication and trust among parents and children have been during the pandemic: “Children need guidance from parents, but there is a fine line between us advising and controlling them. We need to also learn to trust our children.” The couple is likewise frank in acknowledging how the pandemic has impacted their overall well-being. “Times are tough but we need to press on.”

PM
Chan Xin Ying

is advocate for family inclusiveness. She is currently working at the Family and Children’s Affairs Department of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC).