Going with smaller groups for better care

Infants and toddlers will get more personal care at one of the largest pre-school operators here, as part a curriculum overhaul at NTUC First Campus.

The operator, which has about 6,000 infants and toddlers in 138 childcare centres, will now allocate one teacher to every two to three infants, instead of having a few teachers collectively take care of 12 to 15 children, which is the industry norm.

While the move will not change the teacher-pupil ratio, it is prompted by a study by the Lien Foundation which, among other findings, found that having one dedicated teacher to every two to three infants is better than the previous arrangement.

The study, which cost $354,000, found that children cared for by one main teacher are happier, more confident, independent and involved in class, compared with approaches that used the more regimented approach.

Past research has shown that strong attachment to and bonding with an adult are crucial in a child's development and learning, especially in the first three years when brain connections are being formed.

The findings come at a time when more parents are enrolling their children in childcare centres at a younger age.

The number of children aged three and below enrolled full-time in childcare centres is estimated to have grown by 50 per cent over the last six years, from 20,000 in 2009 to over 30,000 last year.

However, the high turnover rate of teachers means children in childcare centres may be exposed to multiple new faces as it is common for some centres to change teachers every three to six months.

The study, which was funded by the Lien Foundation and carried out by the Seed Institute, involved 130 children.

Half of the children used the new approach for eight months last year and the control group continued with the old method. Significant differences were recorded in rated scales that measure a child's well-being and level of involvement.

Under the new approach, in which a teacher tends closely to two or three infants, the needs and interests of the children will dictate the activities.

In the past, for example, the class of 15 would follow a fixed schedule and have a water-based activity at 10am in the morning.

Now, if the teacher observes that a certain child is not interested in that activity or unable to keep up, that individual or small group will break away to do something else, such as finger painting.

"There will be less herding behaviour where children are just marched around to do this and do that," said Marjory Ebbeck, director of the Centre for Research and Best Practices at National Trades Union Congress' (NTUC's) Seed Institute. The institute runs diploma and degree courses on early childhood education.

Prior to the latest study, Professor Ebbeck had done a smaller-scale study that was published in the Early Childhood Education journal in May, which emphasises the role of primary caregivers in helping children to be independent, resilient and to learn well.

For example, a child has difficulties forming secure relationships when he has to interact with many adults at the same time.

The new curriculum has already been introduced to a portion of pre-schoolers in all the centres earlier this year, and the rest will come on board by next year.

The curriculum for this age group is underdeveloped as much of the attention and resources in the sector have been devoted to the four-to-six age group, said the chief executive of NTUC First Campus, Chan Tee Seng.

"This is a paradox because studies show that children between the ages of zero and three are in the most formative phase of their lives," said Lee Poh Wah, Lien Foundation's CEO.

Phyllis Chew, 28, mother of two-year-old Camille who tried out the new curriculum, said she has already started to see positive changes in her daughter's behaviour.

"She is obviously enjoying the lessons more now, as she puts on her school uniform eagerly each morning and has conquered her fear of water," said Ms Chew.

"And it boils down to having a teacher interacting and communicating more with her, so that she becomes confident enough to express herself."



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