Preschools: The Importance of Enhancing Sri Lanka’s Early Childhood Education
Sri Lankan Early Childhood Education System
The first thousand days of life are a period of rapid physical growth and accelerated mental development. This stage offers a unique opportunity to build lifelong well-being and intellectual skills. Early childhood is identified as the first five years of life. The child and maternal health services systematically monitor and record the milestones for the first two years through public health midwives. However, programs for children between three to five years for Early Childhood Development are less established and developed on the island.
According to the National Census of Early Childhood Development Centers in Sri Lanka, about 20,000 preschools function in the country. Out of these, more than 70% are managed by private organizations, while about 20% are managed by public institutions. Further, close to 7% are under religious organisations and 3% are maintained by Non-Governmental Organisations. Almost 9 out of 10 preschools in the country charge fees from the parents.
Many children under five do not attend preschool in Sri Lanka. A little more than half are enrolled in an early education center. Increases in attendance in the last decade have been minimal owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. Identified reasons for low attendance rates include the lack of preschools near their residence, high fees, and parents not recognizing the benefit of early education for their children. Further, there are limited preschools that cater to children with developmental delays, scholastic deficits, and special needs.
Early funding in education is known to provide long-term benefits. Better and equal access to early education will result in equal learning opportunities for individuals from various ethnic, socio-economic, and family backgrounds. Standardized preschool education will prepare children for formal primary school education. According to Bakken et al (2017), high-quality preschool education is known to improve emotional maturity, social interactions, academic achievements, and fewer disciplinary issues. This need is far more important in the current socioeconomic context of the country.
Early Cognitive Stimulation
Increasingly people are living as nuclear families in urban and semi-urban settings in Sri Lanka. Therefore, early childhood education should be the first stage of a holistic model that enhances constructive learning for children of all ages. Children below five years need exposure to early cognitive and emotional stimulation. This exposure will help to acquire life skills that will prepare them for school and day-to-day life.
Public health midwives, parents, grandparents, and other caregivers play a key role in monitoring development and maintaining health. Due to a lack of understanding of the type of stimulation that small children need, many parents do not pay enough attention to early cognitive stimulation. In our context, fathers may require more education and training to provide appropriate stimulation for younger children. Sri Lankan parents should be educated to pass on useful life skills and play an active role in the physical and mental development of their children.
Preschools in Sri Lanka
Children should benefit from the organized learning provided in preschools. A majority of preschools in Sri Lanka are privately owned and managed and many parents find it unable to afford. Most private preschools are largely unregulated and not standardized. Without resources and child development technical guidance, preschool teachers cannot provide consistent quality across the country.
The working conditions are less compared to primary or secondary education teachers. Surveys have found that only about 40% of all preschool teachers have received at least one year of professional training. Further, the preschool curricula are not comprehensive and may be lacking when it comes to promoting positive behaviors. There is insufficient focus on the stimulation of fine motoric, socio-emotional, or cognitive competencies. A standard curriculum needs to be implemented nationwide so that all young Sri Lankan children have an equal opportunity to develop the life skills and scholastic competencies that will prepare them for primary school.
A competent preschool teacher should be able to teach age-appropriate life skills, provide a safe environment, encourage new experiences, facilitate social communication, develop a set of routines, promote self-hygiene, and begin on scholastic skills.
Several child mental health issues could be identified in the preschool period. A child with speech and language developmental delay and lacking sustained eye contact should be investigated for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Excessively disrupting behavior and aggression may need evaluation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The inability to identify colors and shapes at recommended years may indicate intellectual developmental disorder. Excessive crying and persisting clingy behavior may require an assessment for separation anxiety. An assessment by a child and adolescent psychiatrist could be vital and early educators should be capable of identifying these early features and referring children for early professional assessment and opinion. As we know, early detection and interventions provide the best long-term functional outcomes.
Sri Lankan Research
In a study by Samarakkody et al, (2012), a community sample of more than a thousand preschool children in Sri Lanka was assessed. The validated child behavior assessment instrument was used to assess externalizing behavior problems of preschool children. The study found a prevalence of externalizing behavior problems at 19.2% with significantly higher values for boys. It was found that breastfeeding for less than three months, low socioeconomic status, and children living with a single parent were identified as predictors for externalizing problems.
Rathnasiri et al, (2022), studied the excessive use of screen devices and screen time. They studied preschoolers between 36–59 months. Among 340 children electronic devices were used by 96% of children and out of them 60% exceeded the recommended screen time limit of one hour per day. The higher education level of the father, the male gender, and being the only child were significantly associated with the use of smartphones. Maternal employment was associated with the use of laptops.
We must prioritize the development of a standardized and comprehensive early childhood education. We need early learning development standards that define competencies for preschoolers in Sri Lanka and we need to educate families and caregivers on the importance of their roles in early cognitive stimulation and socio-emotional learning by working with the government and private organizations. We can lay a strong foundation for the nation's future generations by addressing the disparities in preschool availability, affordability, and teacher training.
Bakken, L., Brown, N., & Downing, B. (2017). Early childhood education: The long-term benefits. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 31(2), 255-269.
Samarakkody, D., Fernando, D., McClure, R., Perera, H., & De Silva, H. (2012). Prevalence of externalizing behavior problems in Sri Lankan preschool children: birth, childhood, and sociodemographic risk factors. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 47, 757-762.
Rathnasiri, A., Rathnayaka, H., Yasara, N., & Mettananda, S. (2022). Electronic screen device usage and screen time among preschool-attending children in a suburban area of Sri Lanka. BMC Pediatrics, 22(1), 1-8.
Professor Miyuru Chandradasa is Head of The Department of Psychiatry, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. He is also a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Colombo North Teaching Hospital, Ragama, and is the current President of the Sri Lanka College of Child & Adolescent Psychiatrists.