Neha is a first-generation learner. Her mother, Hema, a maid, wants her only daughter to grow up to become a government servant. This, according to her, will give her family security, stable water and electricity connections, and also an attached toilet, apart from a better living environment.
The odds though, are stacked against Neha given the inter-generational nature of poverty, and the poor developmental outcomes that families like hers face. Unsurprisingly, despite Hema’s high aspirations, Neha isn’t performing well in school. She faces issues that most first generational learners face—poor academic achievement, an inferiority complex, lack of initiative, maladjustment, and an underdeveloped personality. Their poor performance in school is usually caused by an array of issues: lack of motivation, lack of support at home, their work outside home for income generation, being some examples.
“Whatever I do, she just isn’t able to cope. One day I got so angry that I tore her copy and threw it in the dustbin. Then I realised that it wasn’t Neha I was angry at. It was I who had failed her. I don’t know what else to do apart from sending my child to school”, contemplates Hema.
A majority of classrooms in more than eight lakh primary schools in India face this situation on a day to day basis. To do justice to the needs of these children: teachers and the school system need parents to be able partners. But parents like Hema, often find the environment at school completely alien. This presents a significant barrier in their communication with the school.
The attitude of schools and teachers (who are usually educated, and from a higher caste and class) sometimes makes it even more difficult for them to approach school. Therefore, in most cases, the partnerships between schools and families are deeply fractured.
Parents, disheartened by their own inadequacy and financial stress, are ill-equipped to adequately support their children and therefore end up making poor decisions. It is parental commitment to schooling that keeps children in schools, even at the cost of additional debts and hardships. But more often than not, surrounded by insurmountable odds, parents give up.
This is one of key reasons why children from low-income disadvantaged backgrounds underachieve, drop out, or do poorly academically.
The children’s home environment works against them
A child’s brain is built (not born) via a complex interplay of thousands of neural connections that are shaped by experience and environment. These connections shape the way children grow, learn, and flourish. Most children in disadvantaged communities are deprived of conditions that fuel these connections i.e. appropriate nutrition, protection from violence and abuse, responsive care giving, and availability of learning opportunities.
Non-availability of positive conditions can cause a lifetime of health and productivity issues including reduction in adult earnings by upto 25 percent. Simply put, the cumulative burden of poverty, neglect, and violence is astronomically larger than what most children, like Neha, can overcome.
They need support and guidance at a very early stage from their homes and communities. Our focus, therefore, has to be to provide a supportive environment and develop the capabilities of parents, like Hema, who can help children face these challenges before they enter school.
There is no support system for low-income parents
In most cases, low-income families are faced with a rather debilitating crisis of care. They’re usually trapped between the need of providing care for their children and the necessity of earning an income to support them.
Lack of quality daycare or pre-schools facilities, coupled with unsafe neighbourhoods that are not ideal for raising children, further exacerbate the issues of early childcare.
In contrast, middle- and higher-income parents, although confronted with their own unique challenges of raising children, are still much better equipped to setup quality proxies (pre-schools, child care facilities) to compensate for their lack of time, if at all. Additionally, they usually have easy access to, and support from teachers—during and beyond school hours—through informal networks as well as formal structures such as parent-teacher associations.
Low-income parents have been either unwilling or unable to participate in these rigid traditional parent involvement modes. They are, therefore in comparison, doubly disadvantaged—they lack the support structures that are available to higher-income households while also carrying an additional burden of leading lives characterised by financial and emotional stress.
It is therefore crucial that they have access to programmes focused on improving parent abilities to tackle adversity, reduce neglect, provide early learning experiences, and responsive relationships with their children.
Science has undeniably established the importance and urgency of investment in early childhood care and education as a way to improve outcomes later in life. It is also important to note that without this investment, interventions that seek to improve learning outcomes later in a child’s life are likely to hit a wall.
Building parent capabilities is non-negotiable
We know that the abilities of adults to tackle these challenges can be built over time. But from my experience at Meraki, it cannot be done via the traditional mode of giving information or advice to people who need active skill building.
To cater to the challenges and needs of low-income India, we need multiple early stage interventions focused on parents of very young children (especially 0-6 years of age).
Examples of such interventions can be those that focus on reducing neglect, improving parent-child relationships, improving parenting practices and mental health of parent caregivers, and capacity building to help build stable and caring environments at home.
From our experience, such skill building requires patience, longer term orientation as well as an intervention that uses principles of andragogy to engage with adults who haven’t been in a formal learning environment before.
Building long term capacity of parents to support their children will nudge the entire education system towards better outcomes. But the educational paradigm, in this case, needs to accommodate a slightly different view: to educate children let’s start with parents.