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Family at the Forefront of Children’s Wellbeing and Happiness in COVID Times

Aneesh Kurian,Deepshikha Singh,Vrinda Datta


… whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value. – Hermann Karl Hesse


Coronavirus pandemic has inflicted every aspect of human life. Since the nationwide lockdown was declared in India, people started their journey of physical isolation. Looking at the positive side of the pandemic, this period of sudden proximity to our homes has allowed us to be conscious of ourselves, our loved ones, and the entire immediate environment, which we found difficult doing on normal days. Apart from domestic chores and professional work from home, this period has provided us some time to connect with our people and surroundings.

However, families across the globe are coping with the evolving changes in daily life caused by the pandemic. Like most countries, India declared its schools and places of public gatherings closed for an indefinite period. Families are navigating to help children adjust and adapt to the new situation in a child-friendly manner. Parents or other caregivers are trying to keep children engaged, feel safe, and keep up with schoolwork as best as possible and, at the same time, they continue to perform their professional and personal commitments. Certainly, it is not easy always and it requires lot of planning and management. But, instead of looking at this situation as uncertain series of problems, families can view it as a great opportunity to spend quality time with children and other members.

The first eight years of childhood, known as the early years, are globally acknowledged to be the most critical period for children’s lifelong growth and development. The human brain matures faster and is most malleable than ever in the first five years of life. Deprivation of nutrition, health, responsive care, and early learning stimulation during the early years can cause severe lifelong impacts. Worldwide, the negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic can profoundly affect young children’s development. These negative impacts could be related to rise in poverty levels, food insecurity, disrupted healthcare and other personal factors such as demise of caregivers and psychological stress.

In India, when 68-days long lockdown has been lifted, there was a government’s advisory for children below ten years of age to stay home. Children are usually expressing their wish to go out, but parents are apprehensive about any potential contact with the monstrosity of the virus. Unfortunately, children are deprived of outdoor play with their friends and peers for an indefinite period. Many children get cranky and confused on every failed attempt to visit their favourite outdoor spaces. It is going on, and there is no answer to when they can finally make to visit outdoor. This is something unusual for children who, on other days, could enjoy play sessions with friends in parks or playgrounds. Other routine outdoor activities such as free play on streets, fitness classes, outdoor classrooms, visiting friends or relatives, or having outings with family, are disrupted, among other things. Even structured play and hobby classes- music, dance, swimming, martial art, phonics, and so on, are all shut down. Children in the older age group are somewhat aware of the disrupted routine. They know that ‘stay home’ is a new reality because of the deadly outbreak. However, the younger children are unable to comprehend the situation and losing their familiarization with the outdoor. This is true especially in the case of toddlers who are disconnected with the outside world which could be otherwise a novel  experience for them if the situation would be normal. Infants and toddlers are unaware that a vast outdoor world exists waiting for these young ones to gain experiential learning.

COVID-19 has contained all outdoor play options for children. As children are confined to home, digital technology has a good chance to reveal its dark side. Most middle and upper-class families are tied up on their Smartphones, Computers, or Televisions, at least, if not other advanced digital technology. When adults keep absorbed into the digital world, children turn into their counterparts with increased screen time, often lacking any mindful use. Moreover, parents are increasingly using Television and Smartphones to keep children busy to compensate for the loss of outdoor play. More recently, OLX India survey revealed that about 84 percent parents are concerned about children’s increased screen time amid lockdown and about 57 percent have not taken any tangible online safety measures to protect children from security threats. With increased screen time, children would lose opportunities for physical movements, social interactions, exploration, construction, creativity, and experience of full range of human emotions.

Children’s routine life is upside down, and most of them are struggling to make sense out of it. We do not know when the situation would become fit for them to return to outdoor play without the slightest apprehension of the deadly virus. It is vague and no one exactly knows the answer because the virus is novel, and so is the situation.

Here, the role of families and parents becomes vital as home is now the only little world for children. Families are at the forefront of this new challenge to keep children happy and engaged in these tough times.

Parents’ engagement matters the most!

Family environment and parenting greatly influence children’s development, wellbeing, and learning.  Any humanitarian crisis poses responsibilities to nurture and protect children, continue their learning, cultivate gratitude, and support their resilience while building a safe community. During COVID times, we all work through adjusting daily schedules, balancing work and other activities, getting creative about how we spend time, processing new information from authorities, and connecting and supporting friends and family in new ways. Here is an excellent opportunity for adults to model for children’s exploration, problem-solving, flexibility, creativity, and compassion. Who can understand and encourage children better than the parents themselves?  Parents’ engagement matters the most!

When parental interactions with young children are supportive, and relationships are stable characterized by adequate responsiveness, stimulation, and play opportunities, it can positively shape the emotional and psychological development of children. As childcare and early education facilities are closed, and physical connection with acquaintances are disrupted, children remain deprived of social and cognitive stimulation, which they used to derive from their interaction with the outer world. Therefore, the current situation demands that parents develop deep connection and engagement with their children more than ever.

Parents’ engagement would matter the most as they are the primary support system for their kids and are the most influential and significant people in children’s life. Parents know the best interest of their children and are capable of providing the best environment to them. However, the challenges put up by the current pandemic have led to find new ways for engaging children at home. Here, we suggest some techniques through which families and parents can mitigate the effects of home confinement on children through engaging with them in creative ways.

Parental wellbeing leads to child wellbeing

When parents’ address their own needs and concerns, children are more likely to receive sensitive response and care from them. Ensuring parental wellbeing is an effective strategy for promoting children’s wellbeing. Parents’ moods, behaviours, verbal and non-verbal communications determine how children feel and act. Thus, parents should prioritize their time and energy for the most meaningful and joyful activities for themselves and their family. Parents must eat right and sleep well. They should deliberately take adequate breaks from work and caregiving responsibilities at least for short durations for rest, exercise, meditation, reading, etc.). In case of stress and depression, parents must reach out to friends, family members, or professionals, wherever necessary, for any material or psychological support. During this difficult time, self-care is indispensable for physical and mental wellbeing. It would not amount to a selfish act instead it would enable parents to be mentally and emotionally available for their children with a stable, calm, and soothing composure. Parents’ own wellbeing would help them understand their children better and help them feel reassured, relaxed, and focused.

Mental health of children

Like adults, children are also experiencing the psychological impacts of the pandemic. However, they are not conscious of what exactly is happening. But, they are definitely experiencing a serious change. Most children, especially the youngest ones, are unaware of the intensity of their emotions and feelings and, thus, unable to express it through words. During this time, parents need to empathize with children more than ever and accept all emotions as valid. Irrational fear can breed into children’s mind as they cannot make sense of the information and discussions about the pandemic. Children may have fears emerging out of the kind of discussions going on at home, news coverage on media, and the bitter realities of seeing their acquaintances being sick or deceased. These unprocessed fears may expose children to psychological distress, anxiety or even depression which they may express in different ways. Some may become withdrawn, while others may feel extremely nervous and express anger and frustration. Parents need to be patient with children and understand their emotions. Avoid discussing negative news about the COVID-19 but share the right information from valid sources in an honest way, using age-appropriate language. Help children find positive ways to express their feelings such as fear and sadness and encourage them to engage in creative/collaborative activities, like playing or drawing, telling or enacting stories, singing, and playing games. Praising children for their strengths, supporting them, and reassuring them that you are prepared to keep them safe can help ensure positive mental health for children during the pandemic.

Establish and maintain a daily routine for children

Keeping a regular schedule provides a sense of self-control, predictability, calmness, and wellbeing for children. A productive routine lets children know what to expect from a given day. If children need to do their school/pre-school work, a routine can help them get through lessons and keep up with learning at home. Likewise, parents can make time for different kinds of play with their children – for example, quiet play, craft, reading, colouring, and so on. This can help children get the right balance of activities throughout the day at home.

Keep children active

Children have a great source of energy, and parents should facilitate them to direct their energy in positive manner.  Keeping children active and fit can help them become physically and mentally healthy. The World Health Organization recommends children and adolescents to be active for a minimum of 60 minutes a day that contributes to their physical health and provides brain benefits like increased ability to focus on learning, better sleep patterns, and improvement in the ability to balance emotions and stress. Even if the home space is confined, there are various ways to keep children active and having fun together. Some of the potential strategies are yoga, stretching exercises, freeze dance, musical chair, three-leg race, water balloon pass, and frog jump. You may also unleash your memories of childhood games through reliving those beautiful moments with your children.

Limit screen time

Children and teens are now spending a lot more time online which present many health risks and dangers. Parents should set the time limit for watching television, using internet, and social media. Continuously watching updates on COVID-19 and the information designed for adults may increase the fear and anxiety among children. Similarly, continuous engagement with media is not advisable for children. While providing access to media platforms (social media), parents should mediate to ensure its appropriate and mindful use. Parents should engage children in games or other exciting activities instead of spending great deal of time on digital media. Besides, parents can also plan some regular one-on-one time with each of their children.

Provide opportunities for play and play-based learning

Children need to play more than ever to activate their innate capacity for adaptations and, thus, to beat the psychological impacts of the pandemic. We, adults, are aware of our feelings or experiences, but children usually are not aware of their feelings or experiences. The natural medium of communication for adults is ‘verbalization’; the natural medium of communication for children is ‘play.’ There are so many different types of play that can be both fun and educational for children. The play based on concepts like language, numbers, objects, drama, and music can provide children opportunities to explore and express themselves in a safe and fun way. For example, children love stories. You can tell a story from your childhood and ask the child to tell you a story. Similarly, parents and children can develop a new story together where a person can add a new sentence to the story or enact a favourite story. You can be engaged with your child in a pretend play. You can be a customer, for instance, and your kid is a pizza delivery person. Similar pretend play schema can be developed by children based on their interests. Children would love when parents are playmates in their planned pretend play. During this time of heightened stress, play and creativity must be prioritized over formal learning methods. Play is therapeutic for all.

Practice “serve and return” with children

Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture and facilitate responsive and attentive interaction between children and parents. Even before they learn to talk, infants and toddlers reach out for attention—babbling, cooing, gesturing, or making faces. When young children “serve up” a chance to engage with them, it is important to “return” with attention. Children try to engage with their parents in diverse ways. As a parent or caregiver, one should understand the child’s initiation and respond appropriately.

Stay connected

Staying connected with the extended family and friends is an integral part of maintaining the wellbeing and staying positive during physical distancing for both parents and children. Parents may try to support their children to get in touch with their social groups in an innovative and creative way. For instance, parents can support the child in handling video calls, phone calls, chats, emails, etc. to get in touch and play with their peers and relatives. Parents may also encourage children to stay connected with people in the bigger world. For example, they can express thanks through creating posters or greeting cards for doctors, frontline health workers, sanitization workers, essential supply delivery person, security guards, teachers, and all other people who are actively taking up their responsibilities at this difficult time for the wellbeing of others.

Be a Role-model

When parents model peaceful and loving relationships, children feel secured and loved. Positive language, active listening, and empathy help maintain a calm and happy family environment during these stressful moments. How parents talk and behave in front of others is a significant influence on how children observe and learn behaviours. Hence, parents need to cultivate kindness and use positive language while communicating with family members, children and other people. It is an enormous opportunity for parents to teach children about the importance of being kind to others and share concerns and responsibilities.

Let the child ‘support’ You!

In the words of Vince Gowmon, a famous therapeutic counsellor and play advocate, ‘The best education does not happen at a desk, but rather engaged in everyday living – hands-on, exploring, in an active relationship with life.’ Parents must encourage their young children to take part in simple household chores. The responsibilities for household chores, childcare, and other tasks can be divided equally among family members depending upon the age. Elder sibling can guide younger one to learn and carry out simple responsibilities. For instance, arranging books and toys, putting laundry in designated basket, matching socks, and fetching things from other room are some of the tasks a young child may enjoy doing. More interestingly, children can also give their little contributions when parents cook or care for pets and plants. These activities will connect children with nature and help them express daily gratitude. When children support us, we must value and appreciate their efforts. It will develop child’s confidence, sense of order, and independence.

It doesn’t matter how many play activities children do on daily basis, what really matter is parents’ engagement with the child in activities, the quality of those activities, and the derived fun and stress-free moments. However, some parents never left their children unsupervised or constantly nag because of the excessive overprotection or fear that children would damage the objects. It may result in control and limit children’s exploration. Children must be taught to remain safe and to handle the household objects with care while they play. They must be ensured autonomy to decide their own pace and schema for play. Parents’ role is to mediate and facilitate and not to interfere, control, or curtail children’s play options. The essence of child-centric activities, especially ‘play,’ can be promised only when it remains outside the adult control. While playing, parents must ensure that the play is initiated by the child and is developmentally appropriate. Your child’s wellbeing and happiness during the COVID-19 times largely depends on your own wellbeing and engagement.

Aneesh Kurian is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University Delhi aneesh@aud.ac.in

Deepshikha Singh is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University Delhi deepshikha@aud.ac.in

Vrinda Datta is Professor and Director at the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University Delhi. vrinda@aud.ac.in

Children of COVID Times: A Call to Address Vulnerabilities and Prioritize Inclusion

Image Courtesy: Author

Deepshikha Singh, Aneesh Kurian, Vrinda Datta

Humans across the world are severely affected by the cataclysm of COVID-19, which is unleashed in the form of economic and healthcare crisis. Though pandemic has posed an existential threat in the lives of all people across age and identities, children are the worst sufferers of this sudden unforeseen crisis of human existence. In a Press release on 16 April 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for countries to prioritize children’s safety and education amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,

I am especially concerned about the well-being of the world’s children.  Thankfully, children have so far been largely spared from the most severe symptoms of the disease.  But their lives are being totally upended.  I appeal to families everywhere, and leaders at all levels:  Protect our children. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Survival and health at stake

Though the available evidence suggests that COVID-19 infection would not cause a direct impact on child mortality, it may have a far-reaching and long-term negative impact on their physical, cognitive, social, and psychological development.

Pandemic has magnified the stressors of household poverty across the world. According to a recent analysis on estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty, COVID-19 has posed a severe challenge to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030. There would be a potential reversible of approximately a decade of global gains in reducing poverty. In the worst-case scenario based on high per capita income and consumption contraction, there would be an additional 450-580 million people in the world living in poverty, relative to the recorded figures in 2018 (Sumner, Hoy, & Ortiz-Juarez, 2020). Globally, an estimated 152 million children are already engaged as child labourers. The pandemic will push millions of children back to poverty and child labour. It is aggravating the living conditions for those who are below the poverty line in many low and middle-income countries. According to the latest estimates from UNICEF and Save the Children, the number of children living in household poverty across low and middle-income countries will increase by up to 86 million and reach a total of 672 million by the end of the year 2020 if no urgent actions are taken. Out of this figure, nearly 448 million children live in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Children with experiences of multidimensional poverty will be highly vulnerable, and their needs for nutrition, hygiene, sanitation, healthcare, learning, and social protection will be largely compromised.

In India, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a fall in income for many families. The households in the lowest income quintile have suffered the most due to lockdown measures. Small-scale businesses and occupations in the informal sector are worst hit, where remote working was not at all possible in most cases. More than 90 percent of families with a monthly income in the range of Rs 3801 to 12734 have experienced a loss in income. The deprivation and disadvantages associated with forgone income will have a devastating impact on children. There will be a decline in consumption and access to essential healthcare services for these families. Child survival and health would be at stake, which will increase child mortality and morbidity in the country.

Additionally, children in poor households will be exposed to the increased risks of violence, abuse, and neglect over a long time. The burden of lost income is a catalyst for an increase in domestic violence and maltreatment of women and children. These sudden household economic shocks are generally endured by family members who have limited power and autonomy. In this adverse situation, the oppressions of patriarchy and gender power relations will be reinforced and become more receptive to traditional Indian societies. There are chances that children will be bonded and controlled within the family. For instance, in India, household poverty indicates an impending risk of child marriage, especially for the girl child, to escape the onus of responsibility or to gain monetary benefits in exchange for child marriage. It is likely that many cases of child marriages have gone unnoticed due to the lockdown. In a country like India where the number of child marriages is more than the total population of countries like Germany and the Philippines, a potential rise in child marriages is alarming. It would lead to a higher rate of early childbearing and poor birth and developmental outcomes causing maternal and child deaths. Child marriages leading to poor development outcomes for children will ultimately drive the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

 

In addition to imperilled survival and health, COVID-19 has exacerbated the learning crisis in the world. Globally, around 1.5 billion children are out of school due to containment measures. While children’s learning in many high- to middle-income households is continued through distance learning measures, learning of children in low-income families is impeded. Home schooling is not a reality for these children who have no access to distance learning materials, toys, computers, and a reliable internet connection. Moreover, children and parents in low-income households, especially in rural or peri-urban regions, are not skilled enough in using technology for distance learning. Unfortunately, for many of them, education is only a last thing in mind when they are grappling with bare subsistence and survival. This learning crisis is related not only to a temporary school or preschool shutdown but also linked to the likelihood of a sharp increase in school dropout rate. Once the schools or ECCE centres are open, there is a risk that millions of children would not be able to join back amid an economic crisis. This holds particularly for female children who would be at primary risk of school dropout due to shared responsibilities of agriculture support, household chores, and caregiving. Male children will be at higher risk of doing child labour or supporting family heads in a struggle to earn income. To the least, children’s attendance would fall due to their engagement in carrying out the household or economic responsibilities, if not the complete school withdrawal. Children of migrant workers who returned to villages or towns with their parents are now disconnected with their schools in cities, and there is only a little possibility that their parents would turn back anytime soon and the children would attend the school. School closures have not only caused learning crisis for these children but also deprived some 370 million children worldwide who depend on schools and shelters for meals. Now, many children from low-income families are likely to live through hunger and starvation, bringing malnutrition close at hand.

 

Young children in the age group of 0-6 years are more likely to experience the negative socioeconomic impact of COVID-19. In many parts of the world, public provision of early childhood development has met with serious challenges of timely and effective service delivery. This has seized early stimulation opportunities for health, nutrition, responsive care, learning, and play.

Young children will likely be the most harmed by the pandemic. With greater vulnerabilities, less emotional preparation and resilience, and fewer immunities in the case of health, their nutritional status will be damaged, their sense of security threatened, their health compromised, and their cognitive and social-emotional development seriously disrupted. Sheldon Shaeffer, Member, Chair of the ARNEC Board of Directors

 

On 14 April 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India has released guidelines on Enabling Delivery of Essential Health Services during COVID-19 outbreak. The guidelines ensure the delivery of essential services related to pregnancy and newborn care, childhood illness, and immunization, along with other critical services in family planning and adolescent healthcare. The guidelines suggest the alternative service delivery mechanism, including teleconsultation, modified outreach and home visits, ambulance triaging, and ensuring essential supplies of medicines and diagnostics. However, the ground realities were much harder. The community health workers faced serious challenges in reaching out to the most vulnerable in the containment and buffer zones and delivering the essential healthcare services amid the contagion. In many cases, the frontline health workers informed that people in informal settlements are reluctant to receive door-to-door services due to the fear of being shifted to isolation wards or contracting the virus from healthcare workers. At the ground level, healthcare and other frontline workers are facing practical challenges till today. Many healthcare/sanitization workers with substandard quality personal protective equipment (raincoats in some cases) are often scared about their safety. However, the need for income is more prominent than the fear of contracting the disease. Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANM), and Anganwadi Workers (AWW) are entrusted mainly with conducting household survey for suspected cases and spreading community awareness about COVID-19. Their role and responsibilities are now concentrated more on COVID-19 related activities, and the routine provision of ECD services has taken a back seat. A large proportion of children under five years of age, particularly those who are marginalized, could not access essential early childhood development services or could only access the fragmented services being delivered in bits and pieces.

In many cases, the beneficiaries are reluctant to use the services to avoid contact with the health workers. The routine Reproductive, Maternal, New born, Child and Adolescent Health + Nutrition (RMNCAH+N) services are also disrupted due to the measures to contain the virus. Screening of children through mobile health workers is deferred, and services at district early intervention centres are being provided on-demand and available to a few walk-in beneficiaries. The absence of transport to reach the facilities is a significant challenge faced by beneficiaries to contact for healthcare services. Though birth-dose vaccination is continued at all health facilities as the newborns are already in hospitals, the community outreach for routine immunization services during Village/Urban Health Sanitation and Nutrition Day is limited to facility-based on-demand immunizations. Beneficiaries are kept on the waiting list because of the modified outreach. The disrupted mobilization for active immunization in villages would lead to a further fall in vaccination rates and children at higher risk of health and wellbeing. Overall, the suspended or delayed government’s essential routine services for young children would cause long-term health consequences. Though the price of COVID treatment is capped in many states, the treatment costs of non-COVID diseases have skyrocketed, especially in private clinics and hospitals. The exorbitant prices charged covering ambulance to the treatment of non-COVID patients have generated a fear of out-of-pocket expenditure among the low-income families. Such localized economic catastrophe will severely affect children with any pre-existing illnesses or comorbidities who need urgent medical attention.

 

The looming global recession resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic could cause hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths this year, effectively reversing recent gains in reducing infant mortality. And this alarming figure does not even take into account services disrupted due to the crisis – it only reflects the current relationship between economies and mortality, so is likely an under-estimate of the impact. UN Report, 16 April 2020

 

Before the pandemic affected the world, the World Health Organization has reported that globally 85 percent of the deaths among children and young adolescents in 2018 occurred in the first five years of life, accounting for 5.3 million deaths. Out of this, 2.5 million children died in the first month of life in 2018, and an estimated 250 million children are at risk of not receiving the appropriate developmental interventions in the very first year of their lives. COVID-19-related disruption of early childhood development services is likely to increase the maternal and child death rate across the world, particularly in low-income countries. More recently, UNICEF reported a study covering 118 low and middle-income countries conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This study indicates that there will be an increase in child wasting, and an additional 1.2 million under-five deaths could occur in just six months due to the suspension of the primary healthcare system and early childhood health screening.
COVID-19 has caused severe challenges for the continuation of routine health services in India. According to the recent estimates of UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN-IGME), India has made significant progress in reducing the neonatal mortality rate with a decline from 57 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 23 deaths per 1000 live births in 2018. India has been accelerating the progress towards achieving SDG target of ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years by 2030. This sudden onslaught of COVID-19 outbreak, if not addressed timely through targeted interventions, may wipe off the impressive gains and downturn the progress to achieve SDG targets.

 

Vulnerabilities superimposed

 

COVID-19 has not created a set of new vulnerabilities in children’s lives; rather, it reveals how pre-existing vulnerabilities cascade a chain of risks during any disaster. In COVID times, the pre-existing vulnerabilities have gained momentum and build upon one another to produce unprecedented challenges. Worldwide, many children have been living in precarious conditions resulting from socioeconomic inequalities. In India, millions of children have been deprived of their basic developmental needs. Their fundamental rights were violated even before the pandemic hit. An outbreak of such an unheard-of scale like COVID-19 has employed pre-existing vulnerabilities to generate multiple risks in the lives of children. Deprivations caused by the COVID-induced social and economic upheavals are gradually shaping the course of social exclusion for millions of children in India. Pandemic has posed challenges of basic survival for those who were already at the margins of society, comprising children living in extreme poverty and cultural impoverishment.

Childhood as a socio-cultural construction with distinct experiences reflects that some children will be worst affected by the pandemic both in the immediate and long term. These different experiences of many childhoods stem from social identities, including age, gender, ability, poverty, caste, ethnicity, geographical location, regional socio-political environment, and other personal and family background factors. The intersection of one or more factors across and between cultures may produce profound vulnerabilities for children who live a most marginalized and excluded life. These vulnerabilities are not caused by the pandemic episodes alone; instead, they emerge due to the life conditions arising out of the social inequalities, producing extensive sufferings and making some children more vulnerable than others. For instance, children in their early years growing up in a refugee camp and experiencing the impacts of poverty, together with the risks of exploitation and abuse, are distinctively vulnerable to the additional dangers of the pandemic. COVID-19 disaster indeed intimidated all, but those with increased exposure and vulnerabilities are likely to face myriad of risks. Children in vulnerable conditions would experience significant inequalities in opportunities for growth, development, and learning as well as protection and safety because of the limited resources available to them to recover from the negative experiences.

In India, COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc on millions of vulnerable children and would jeopardize their lives in multiple ways rendering some children traumatized. Urban disadvantaged children in ultra-poverty, child labours, abandoned and homeless children, children in disaster or conflict-affected areas, children in institutions- foster homes, refugee camps, children of migrant workers, prisoners and sex workers, children in conflict with law or children with pre-existing chronic diseases, developmental delays or disabilities form some of the most vulnerable groups of children.

The mass exodus of migrant workers in India is an instance which discloses that for some pandemic is a disturbance in routine life, but for others who are underprivileged, it is a disaster. Due to the lockdown-induced migrant crisis in the country, we have witnessed the incidences of adversity, morbidity, and deaths occurred within two months. Many children have lost their lives, and some were orphaned during this arduous journey back home. This proves that disaster’s impact is distributed disproportionately based on the economic layers of the society. The ones with higher vulnerabilities absorb enormous consequences. During the pandemic, children of migrant workers are most vulnerable as they survived the shocks of the economic, social, and psychological disorder ever-present in our society. Such incidence has exposed to view society’s insensitivity towards children who belong to weaker economic sections. This has revealed how ‘childhood’ receives differential interpretation, institutionalization, and treatment by society.

COVID-19 has not only affected the health and nutrition services for vulnerable children but has also put their psychological well-being at greater risk, including that of very young ones. Children in difficult circumstances are increasingly experiencing the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic events. There is a sharp increase in the perpetration of violence against children, including physical, verbal, and sexual violence. In most cases, the perpetrator was a child’s acquaintance. Intimate partner violence has become rampant in families, and children are witnessing acts of violence more frequently. This would wage damaging effects on their mental as well as spiritual health. There is a risk of internalized fear of safety, and children themselves may adopt an aggressive and violent behavior of adults.

Child safety is threatened by and large. Children in difficult circumstances who are more vulnerable than before may fall an easy prey into the clutches of organized crimes like drugs and human trafficking. The decision of some States to relax the labour laws in the face of the pandemic will put children at high risk of child labour and trafficking. Child protection services from government and non-government organizations are trying to rescue children who have become the victims of child-related offenses amid COVID. However, due to the containment measures, many children are still invisible who are in distress and need legal protection. According to the latest research brief launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the economic consequences of COVID-19 would likely cause an increase in migrant smuggling and cross-border trafficking in longer-term across the continents.

This paints a picture of how intense and overlapped are the vulnerabilities for some group of children who belong to underprivileged economic, social, environmental, and cultural groups. Inequalities and exclusion of vulnerable children should not be viewed in isolation to COVID-exclusive risks instead as a cumulative risk of pre-existing conditions, pandemic, and other events happening concurrently.

Mitigating the Impacts of COVID-19 on Children

Response to the impacts of COVID-19 requires strategic planning and targeted interventions to counteract the negative consequences and gain substantial benefits in the immediate and long term. However, this crisis demands a rapid response, which could speed the short term positive developmental gains for children. It is crucial to find solutions for immediate mitigation of COVID-19 impacts on children, particularly for those who are vulnerable because of their age, location, or circumstances. This is a time to prioritize actions to address the pre-existing vulnerabilities and prioritize inclusion of marginalized.

Some measures to mitigate the humanitarian crisis of COVID-19 in the lives of vulnerable children and their families are discussed-

Ensure Continuation of Critical Early Childhood Development Services. Children in the first eight years of their life facing impacts of COVID-19 need immediate intervention as the foundation stage of life cannot wait. If missed, there will be no other alternative to compensate for the lost window of opportunity. It is crucial to ensure that young children receive regular ECD interventions. Routine services of health check-up, immunization, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, and responsive care have to be resumed and continued with all necessary precautions against the virus. Public healthcare centres and ECD facilities need to acknowledge their transformed role to provide safe and effective service delivery to beneficiaries amid the pandemic.

ECD services need to integrate mental health services for caregivers and children to ensure that young children thrive in healthy families. Ways for smooth teleconsultation and counselling need to be extended to families in need of support. Caregivers must be equipped with adequate knowledge and resources on how to sustain early learning activities for young children at home. Play and early learning strategies need to be transacted through tele/online modules on ways to engage young children at home. These efforts are much required to ensure that COVID-19 does not interfere with the most critical period of child development.

Support and Sensitize ECD Workforce. ECD workforce, including public, private, and NGO sector, need massive support from the authorities to ensure the smooth and effective delivery of ECD services amid the COVID-19 crisis. Frontline community health workers like ASHA, ANM, AWW need support in the form of guidance and capacity building to overcome the challenges they face in reaching out to the community in most disadvantaged locations. Ways to gain community’s and people’s cooperation need to be worked out. Health and economic concerns of ECD workforce are at stake, and this needs to be addressed so that they feel encouraged to take up their responsibilities during these challenging times.

Empower Families in Disadvantaged Conditions. ECD centres are more likely to remain close for an indefinite period. This has made the collaboration of parents and ECD workforce a necessary condition to support children at home for an extended period. Parents are now the vanguards steering their child’s development at home. ECD workforce has a new role in providing continuous and engaged support to families for creating an enabling environment at home. Family-empowerment programs need to be developed to focus on building parents’ skills on ways to promote child development at home and, at the same time, cope with the negative impacts of COVID-19. Underprivileged and low-income families need livelihood support in the form of vouchers/cash transfers without discrepancies. This would enable them to meet their essential requirements and overcome the pressure of lost income. Families of migrant workers, domestic help, and others working in informal sectors must be provided skill development to enable them to sustain their families and take care of the development needs of children. Children in slums and other informal urban spaces need resources to meet the challenges of a limited supply of essential services, including healthcare.

Provide Mental Health Support to Families. COVID-19 is a time to prioritize the mental health of children and families. Families are dealing with increased anxiety, frustration, and depression over the economic, health, or any other associated reasons. A disturbed psychological environment in families could be detrimental for a child’s holistic development, especially the socioemotional development. Family-centred mental health services are highly needed during this humanitarian crisis. There is an emerging need to address parental or maternal depression, especially for newly delivered mothers suffering from post-partum depression amid COVID-19. Regular mental health support can be provided through counselling and psychosocial therapy in tele/online mode or direct intervention wherever necessary. The support from mental health organizations at the community-level could be life-saver for families who had undergone traumatic experiences and at-risk of breakdown and suicide. Families, especially women, must be empowered with right information about safe platforms to seek help against violence or depression.

Sensitize Community. Vulnerable communities must be provided with the right information, counselling, and advice through improved access to digital technology. There is a need to monitor that caregivers, children, family members, and community workers had received knowledge resources on maternal and child care, nutrition, hygiene, sanitation, COVID-specific information, and coping strategies.

Involve Community Members as Partners and Leaders. Government and civil society initiatives must engage families and communities as partners for collective actions to ensure that health services, nutrition, care, and protection reach all children. This will help to develop the local resilience among families and children in the community and support self-organize skills for crisis management. Community-led projects must be promoted to fulfill the targeted goals of child development and learning. Local mitigation measures would prove useful as local needs can be heard and acted. Mobilizing community participation to prevent the outbreak in the region and safeguarding children’s rights to health, development, and protection would prevent the potential reverse of developmental gains.

Provide Rapid Response to Children in Difficult Circumstances. Children in disadvantaged circumstances form a group whose rights have been violated to the most. Thus, they must be a priority for State parties for now onwards towards fulfilling the obligations ratified under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. COVID-19 is a warning that social justice and human rights be delivered to most vulnerable children. Rapid response with stringent actions are required within the social protection system to ensure safety and justice for most vulnerable children who fall victim to exploitation, trafficking, substance abuse, and sexual assault. Children in refugee camps, shelter homes, observation homes, children in conflict-affected areas and children with disabilities need special attention as they often remain invisible and unheard. Children on streets, abandoned, orphaned, and homeless children must be safely rehabilitated to child care centres. These centres must ensure adequate measures for food, hygiene, sanitation, recreational opportunities, psychosocial counselling for all children, and psychological therapy for traumatized children. Timely response must reach to distress calls made on behalf of children in need of protection from harm and violence. There must be an active outreach in liaison with government, police, and local welfare bodies to rescue children who are exploited and falling victim to crimes amid the crisis of COVID-19.

Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019

14th January 2020

 

At least 25% of school children in the 4-8 age group do not have age-appropriate and essential cognitive and numeracy skills, which then makes for a massive ‘’learning crisis” at a very early stage, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019 released on 14th January 2020 in New Delhi.
Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University appreciates the ASER Centre for the Early years Survey 2019 focusing on the status of early childhood education in India, and is pleased with the fact that with the release of the survey and recognition of the early years in the National Education Policy alongwith the mention of the Índia Early Childhood Education Impact Study’ in the policy with rightly highlighting the early stage from 3 to 8 years as the foundational stage, early childhood care and education is likely to get its due.
This year the conference was focused to address the child as a whole and to bring all fields together to have new thinking, new skills and strengths so that the synergy will strengthen programs and practices and create opportunities for children to grow and develop to their fullest in whichever context they are.
CECED at the same time, shares the concerns with the findings of the report on how the lack of age-appropriate skills is alarming as this gap at an early age and how this can impact the entire education supply chain in India. The entire age band from 4 to 8 needs to be seen as a continuum, and curriculum progression across grades and schooling stages designed accordingly. For an effective and implementable curriculum, the process of designing, planning, piloting, and finalizing needs to keep ground realities in mind.
CECED, also agrees on some of the findings which suggest how Lack of school-preparedness, too little curricular emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy, teacher capacity and health and nutrition are the primary factors of the learning crisis in India. Research has shown that the significant opportunity of interventions is lost if we miss out the early years especially under 3 age group. There is also an essential need to leverage the existing network of anganwadi centres to implement school readiness.
Focus and factoids of the report
  1. Only 16% of children in Class 1 in 26 surveyed rural districts can read text at the prescribed level, while almost 40% cannot even recognise letters
  2. Only 41% of these children could recognise two digit numbers.
  3. Only 41% of these children could recognise two digit numbers.
  4. Many Indian parents choose government schools for girls in the age group of 4 to 8 years while they favour private schools for boys.
  5. More than 90% of children in the 4-8 age group are enrolled in some type of educational institution. This proportion increases with age, from 91.3% of all 4-year-olds to 99.5% of all 8-year-olds in sampled districts.
  6. Children from less advantaged homes are disproportionately affected. Although almost half of all 4-year-olds and more than a quarter of all 5-year-olds are enrolled in anganwadis, these children have far lower levels of cognitive skill and foundational ability than their counterparts in private LKG/UKG classes.
  7. Overall, 41.7% of children in class I are of the RTE-mandated age.
  8. Also, what was interesting to note was the Role of mothers and their education in impacting the learning of the children: Among the pre-primary section, children with mothers who completed eight or fewer years of schooling are more likely to be attending anganwadis or government pre-primary classes. Whereas their peers whose mothers studied beyond the elementary stage are more likely to be enrolled in private LKG/UKG classes.

The ‘Best of UNICEF Research 2019’ awards were announced on the UNICEF website 

The Indian Early Childhood Education Impact (IECEI) Study: Longitudinal research study in the States of Rajasthan, Assam and Telangana

 

Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development (CECED) at Ambedkar University Delhi and ASER Centre, with support from UNICEF India, conducted an Indian Early Childhood Education Impact (IECEI) study, a longitudinal, mixed method research study which is perhaps the first of its kind in India in several respects. The study was conducted in three very different states ofthe country: Assam, Rajasthan and Telangana (erstwhile Andhra Pradesh), and followed a cohort of 12000 four year old children about 12,000 four-year-old children in rural India for four years, from age 4 to age 8. The study aimed to estimate the immediate impact of early childhood education experience on school readiness levels (assessed in terms of cognitive and language concepts and psycho-social skills) of children at the age of entry to grade one and the sustained impact (of preschool experience) on children’s educational and behavioural outcomes during primary grades.
The study followed a mix method design. While the largest fraction of data collectionemployed survey methodology, a significantproportion involved the use of comprehensiveobservation tools to collect detailed informationon the quality of preschool and school facilities,staff andclassroom processes. In addition, case studiesand qualitative interviews at different pointsduring the study provide a rich and layeredunderstanding of some key ingredients of agood quality preschool, how parents think aboutwhat their young children should be doing andthe decisions they take with respect to theirchildren’s education.
The study was coordinated by CECED in partnership with Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Centre. It is multi donor study and largely funded by UNICEF
Some of the key findings were that seven out of every ten sampled four-year olds were already attending a preschool program. Participation in good quality preschools leads to higher readiness levels, which in turn lead to better early grades outcomes, but the school readiness at age 5 during school entry, the children’s school readiness is far below expectations. It was also seen that from” multi-tasked Anganwadi worker to a ‘Demand-driven private schools, the quality of preschool education is not developmentally appropriate for children. The study report was launched in 2017 by UNICEF at Central and Regional levels.
Each year, UNICEF offices around the world – including country offices, regional offices, national committees, and headquarters – are invited to submit their best and most recent examples of research for children. The aim is to bring attention to work that contributes to shifting policy agendas and has a high potential for impact on policies and programmes that benefit children. Recently, the study has been acknowledged as one of the three research projects for special recognition among the 10 finalists in the ‘Best of UNICEF Research 2019’ awards. Rigorous international selection process is followed to identify three top studies from among ten finalists.

Showcasing some of the most innovative and rigorous research coming out of UNICEF, this year’s winners cover a range of topics, locations, cultures and levels of economic development, including education in India, violence in the Middle East and North Africa, humanitarian aid in the Democratic Republic of Congo, migration, child rights, sanitation and more. This year, UNICEF Innocenti identified 10 finalists which were then independently reviewed by an external panel of international experts.

Acknowledging their originality, strong conceptualization, sound methodology, and high potential for impact, the 2019, the panel commended the rigorous nature of this research as well as the methods adopted to assess the quality of early childhood education programs.

It has been stated while announcing the award, “the choice of measures and assessment tools are considered appropriate and clearly highlight the links between school readiness and subsequent early grade outcomes.”

The ‘Best of UNICEF Research 2019’ awards were announced on the UNICEF website: https://www.unicef-irc.org/article/1921-best-of-unicef-research-2019-winners-announced.html

In 2019, CECED has also published a book on IECEI study in collaboration with ASER based on further analysis of data and findings of this study. The title of the book is “Going to school but not ready: Early childhood education and school readiness in India” and the publisher is Springer Publication. The Editors of the book was are Venita Kaul and Suman Bhattacharjea.

This book has been conceptualized primarily around the concept of school readiness which emerges as a very potent factor in the study, particularly in the context of addressing the decline in learning levels of children which is becoming a national concern.

It considers school readiness from a threefold perspective of:

(a) Are children ready for school?

(b) Are schools ready for children and

(c) Are families ready for preparing children for school?

Link of the book: https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9789811370052