By Christine Ennulat
The high school dropout is a familiar phenomenon. But an elementary school dropout? In developing countries, it’s a common problem.
“Your first-grade classroom may have 135 kids in it,” says Mary Moran, ChildFund senior specialist in Early Childhood Development. “Your second-grade classroom has 60, and by the time you get to fifth grade, you may be in a class of 10 or 12.”
ChildFund’s Stepping Stones program, in Zambia’s Mumbwa region since 2009, eases the transition between early childhood and primary school environments, helping more children stay in school.
For a child who is moving to primary school, whether from home or one of ChildFund’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers, the change is often a shock. A typical primary school is a teacher-centered, highly structured setting with little individual attention and few to no materials with which to work or play.
The primary school teacher usually has little training in child development or in education methods for young children. Parents may have had no school experience at all, which means no understanding of the school process or how to support their children in it.
Stepping Stones connects teachers, parents and children. Teachers from ECD classes and first-grade classes collaborate on a plan for understanding each other’s practices and expectations. Groups of children and teachers may visit classrooms, or parents may take their children individually. Teachers from both settings spend time in each other’s classrooms. They’re also trained in how to engage with parents and families.
Likewise, parents receive coaching on how to engage and interact with teachers, as well as to recognize when their children are under stress or having other difficulty. All adults work in concert on behalf of the children.
The Stepping Stones program supports children as they learn lifelong skills: resiliency, adaptation to change and how to recognize the differing expectations of people and environments. To help them, teachers are trained in social-emotional learning strategies, from understanding different learning styles to new ways to structure classrooms and schedules that help children prepare for change and provide them with a sense of control.
“We now know how to ask questions of children,” said one teacher who has participated in Stepping Stones. “I thought my role was to make sure the children know the information.” As they learned their new role as guides rather than givers of information, teachers also noted that children were more apt to both ask for help and share their enthusiasm for learning. The level of parents’ engagement was another pleasant surprise.
When the time came for a graduation ceremony to honor the transition, some of the preschool teachers literally handed the children over to the primary teachers as parents looked on. “In one case, a child told us that graduation was really important because he had his first taste of cake,” Moran laughs. “Another told us that what was so important to her was that her community gave them a book to write in, and it was the first time she had ever had a book.”
On the first day of primary school, only one of the 143 children cried. But both the teachers and the parent were prepared to support the child. It took only a handful of days for him to find his footing.