14 October 2020

Getting an Early Start

By Cassandra Lau

Taska, Tabika
and Tadika are acronyms that are associated with Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in Malaysia. Although their focus group slightly differs from each other, they all function under the overarching umbrella of childcare provider for early learners. Swinburne Sarawak is planning to offer a suite of new diploma and Bachelor’s degree courses, and Early Childhood Education is in the planning.

ECCE in Sarawak has come a long way. From private proprietorship, religious organisations to government run, early childhood care providers focus on an integrated curriculum that encapsulate the holistic approach. It is a focus that builds the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual growth of these junior learners. 

One of the fundamentals is to introduce basic literacy skills. From the association of sounds to words, from words to meaning, teachers of ECCE aim to make junior learners comprehend these integral relationships. The teaching of distinct units of sound in the forms of phonemes or suku kata for each specific language namely Bahasa Melayu, English and Mandarin is introduced.  It is in this early age, these three languages that are widely used in Malaysia are first introduced formally to the junior learners with the hope that they can recognise, read and remember simple words and subsequently simple sentences.

In addition, the concepts of addition and subtraction are also introduced. The pedagogy of teaching these basic math concepts differs based on the creativity and skills of the teacher. Math can be introduced by using games and props or aids as well as taught through series of problems that require solutions thus encouraging junior learners to think deeply into realistic and authentic life problems.   

Another fundamental issue ECCE providers consider is to develop the fine motor skills of their junior learners’ hands. Junior learners need to be able to grip their pencils properly so that they can write their ABC and 123. Teachers and assistant teachers spend much time practicing individually with the kids. Activities that can develop the muscles on their palms and wrists include moulding and pinching playdough or clay, looping strings into holes, gripping pegs, handling scissors and many others.

Besides focusing on the academics, most ECCE centres include programmes that encourage children’s capacities, imagination and make-believe. These include free play time and fun activities like painting, origami, dressing up in make-believe costumes, building, assembling, and sequencing with blocks or LEGO with few instructions and restrictions. Field trips to the zoo, park and fire-station broaden their perspectives and provide junior learners to touch, feel, smell, and experience first-hand the things around them. For many of them, riding in the big, yellow school bus is an exciting and unforgettable experience.   

Physical strength and stamina are developed through physical activities to develop gross motor skills which include active body movements like jumping, crawling and skipping. During these physical exercises too, they learn to listen and follow instructions, cooperate with one another in team building activities, achieve goals, and accept losses. Sometimes, sport day is organised to include the participation of parents so as to build bridges between ECCE and parents and enhance relationship between parents and children. 

Another aspect of ECCE is the building of character and emotional stability. Junior learners learn to be independent, responsible, honest, and to accept social appropriateness. They learn to interact and accept each other’s differences as well as to have self-control. To achieve these, teachers play a pivotal role to include learners in classroom activities and school community.  

It is also during this crucial time that early learners who for some reasons cannot progress or have cognitive development needs, are identified so that early intervention can be addressed. This is important for the continuation of the child’s learning progress. 

By building these fundamentals through layers of scaffolding, taking account of the cognitive and social development of a child, the teacher is guiding learners by building a socially constructed and shared experience which will set their characters for life. Like the quintessential saying, teaching junior learners is like “writing on a clean slate or a blank sheet, when you train them from young, you set their character for life.”

From the teacher’s perspective, there are many veneers to the spectrum of ECCE. To help ECCE teachers achieve effective teaching, teachers should be equipped with a strong knowledge base of child development, appropriate teaching practices and ways to implement them based on the needs of the children and community.  

In an interview, the current principal of Tadika Blessed and a veteran ECCE provider for the past 20 years Ms Tay Chiew Ling said that good existing teachers who lack the paper qualifications should be given pathways and scholarships to obtain relevant qualifications. She further elaborated that although funding is needed to provide sufficient facilities to kindergartens, investment in developing skilful teachers is the key to an effective ECCE.

“It takes an effective teacher and a personal touch to inspire a young learner,” said Ms Tay. 

Learning should begin in the early years when a learner’s brain is the most receptive. Working with young learners is definitely challenging but it can be an exciting and rewarding career. It is hypothesized that better educated teachers provide more effective teaching, so what better way to equip teachers’ knowledge than with a quality ECCE programme and to increase educational standards for ECCE teachers? Swinburne Sarawak recognises the needs in this area and is offering programmes to address these needs. 

Cassandra Lau is a lecturer with the School of Foundation Studies at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at celau@swinburne.edu.my.