Valli Subbiah is the founder and head of the Kids Central, Nursery and Primary School in Chennai.
Kids Central history
In 1999, we started in one classroom in AMM. I started it as an after school program as I was not ready to be part of the regular school system right away. I had so many ideas and thoughts and did not want to spring it out on the community and I wanted some feedback on the needs and requirements of the community. I started it as an experiment. The curriculum of the main schools was formatted and rigid. I wanted to get out of this rigidity. We would start at 2 PM and the kids (4 years and older) came directly from their schools to this after school setting and we continued till 6 PM. It was like an educational daycare. We had many choices for the kids - math center, language arts center, science center, arts center and kids could dabble in all these activities. The focus was on stimulating various senses. After 3 months, we moved to a location on Arunachalam Road which we use to this day. The after school program continued for 2 years and then we slowly started adding more services like a regular preschool for younger children. Today we have preschool and school programs for children from the age of 1+ to 1st standard, and the after school program also continues to run.
On her motivation
I wanted to touch the lives of more kids. When I first started teaching in the US, I felt sad because the kids there had 20 different kinds of paper to choose from whereas when I taught in Erode, each child was given a paper that had been torn from a notebook. Even today, the way Kids Central is run, is to ensure that nothing is wasted. Everything is valued. We have a recycling system.
Working in the US gave me an insight into various cultures. Each one has a different perspective, different styles of doing things, appreciating which one does what better, which one needs to be worked on....In these situations, one can go with the flow or use those perspectives to better the system and to evolve one's own education plan. I did the latter. I had in mind that I wanted to come back and set something up in India. I had a plan and worked on that plan.
On her background
By 18 or 19 years of age, I knew I wanted to be in education. I focused all my studies and work towards that. After completing Master of Arts in Teaching I worked at various places in India including Chennai's Sishya and KFI schools, a school in Tambaram, in Erode etc., I got an overview of the Indian education scene. I went to Boston where I graduated from Tufts University and took a number of courses at Harvard. I worked at the Tufts daycare and at a private preschool in Cambridge. I got the entire spectrum of education from 5th grade and downward. I stayed there continuing to do that for 9 years and came back to India to start Kids Central in 1999.
On learning more about education
Every year I travel to different countries and cultural settings. I go and see how early childhood education takes place in those countries. Recently I went to Morocco to see how the Arabic-French bilingual schools are doing it. I have been to Italy to see the Reggio Emelia system of education. I went to Japan a few years ago. I try to combine this activity with a vacation so it feels like the vacation is justified.
On what is important for early childhood education
England is way ahead in early childhood education. They realize it is very important to start stimulating the child early on. Basically the first 5 years is the critical period. In the American system, they start the stimulation process later but when they get to alphabets and letters etc., they say that the child can learn it along the way but then they start stressing about it later. It is basically because at an age where the child could have absorbed better you did not provide the right stimulus. Now you are trying when it is much harder for the child to absorb.
That’s what I try to impress on parents. Even in the car, there is so much learning around you . It does not have to be formatted in the way you received it. Breaking that mould is challenging. Whether it is with parents or trainers, because a lot of them came from the same system, getting them convinced that there is a lesson even in this plant that is growing (points to a plant nearby) is huge.
What should parents do to develop their children when young?
The main thing is to focus on conversing with the child. Make it constant, as in a way of enquiry, create the curiosity factor. Talk about everything. Make learning happen. Ask questions. Look. Dig in. Ponder. Parents are creating a sense of instant gratification, with TV or buying things and giving it to kids and satisfying them and saying "I have done my bit". The lesser time with kids is being compensated with material objects. Lot of parents do talk by default. It is the process by which you enjoy things together with your child, being together, cooking together and going to a place together with your family. It helps a lot.
Changes in children and parenting
We are seeing a huge change in disciplining. The whole concept of socially acceptable behaviour is changing. Parents are letting children get away with more and sometimes even they are at a loss on what to do. And they come to a school to fix that situation. For example, I have parents saying their child throws a temper tantrum every time they go to a store and they are forced to give in. This poor behaviour covers various things - food, play date, store visits, dealing with a staff member in the house, to handling of a grownup. Parents are at a loss sometimes.
So what should change? Parents need to get under the skin of the child and think it through from the view of the child. The child thinks "If you have given me these messages all along, how can you today clamp down on me". So what messages am I supposed to have given as an adult? Think through those.
Your child sees or wants something, some material thing. Don't just drop everything and go buy it. Build up the waiting time. Work with incentives like saying if the food gets finished faster they will have more time to play. It should not be a readymade gift which is waiting. If you want that gift to happen, make kids work towards it. Parents are finding it much easier to give it and make the child gratified.
On the path that children should take...
Every parent has the right to bring up their child but they need to know where they are taking their child.
Today you may be a parent who loves interaction and triggering curiosity but you may not expect A++ in all exams. On the other hand, there maybe another parent who wants A++ but is not doing anything towards that goal and then says the child is not performing. Work, set the path out accordingly to achieve your goal.
At Kids Central we do not want to prescribe a path for a child. We facilitate different paths. We have 5 teachers because I believe at this age, kids needs more of an individualized focus. Kids have individual learning styles. It is important for the adult around to be sensitive to that and say I can lead you along this path. If you as a parent want a drill-drill-drill approach then we are willing to facilitate that. We plan it out with the teachers so that the parent's goal is reached. We are making the attempt, and we want the parents to attempt along the same lines. I find that lag huge. There has to be continuity between the school and the home on the approach to the school. The "School will fix it" approach will not work.
On the goals of Kids Central
In one sentence Kids Central's goal is "To bring up children to be socially conscious citizens and to be in their own way happy, contributing members of society".
So what do we do to instill that? In the classrooms, we have small group time and large group time and provide time for kids to speak their minds. As kids get older we have time for questions and comments during share-and-tell etc., And other kids contribute comments and question. We focus on being appreciative. We have said no negative comments. This is to help the self-esteem issue. At every level we build up the child's self-esteem. One appreciative comment, and it gets them flying.
In every area, we allow them to say that I did not like what you did. We empower kids to do that. I tell the teachers this too. If at play time, one kid just grabs the other one's shovel, go and tell them what they did was wrong. Then you can work out a system to take turns.
We teach them that in this whole material world, I can make a choice and live with it. Every morning the kids come in and we have activity time. It was called choice time before. The children can pick the activity they want. The child gravitates towards a choice because of they liked the material or because a friend was there.
We also want them to sit with it for an amount of time. We have those kids who don't. We nudge them to take it to completion. We give them a goal they understand. It also helps increase their attention span. We are working against the odds, due to instant gratification. Children are getting bored. A child thinks - I am sitting there on my chair and I am getting entertained without any effort. Turn off the TV, limit computer time. It is very important.
We focus a lot on nutrition. Every couple of weeks the teachers do something around junk food like a puppet show where a caterpillar or a worm eats junk food all the time. The teacher pauses and asks what to do if the caterpillar is eating junk food and getting a toothache?. The kids who eat right at home give the wisest answers on what it should be eating. It shows that the continuity has to be there from the home to the school. I am not saying, deny them this stuff (junk food). Denial and deprival do not produce the right results. But don't make it a special treat all the time, as that makes it an expectation. Make it a family outing or an occasional event so that there is a balance there.
Every Friday is sports day at Kids Central. I have told all my teachers to design more games for teams. The whole sense of team work, and playing and sharing has to be taught and the notion of "Only I exist" will go away as they participate more.
Special needs children and underprivileged
We have integrated some special-needs children, maybe 2 or 3 in every class. I want to build a microcosm of the world outside. We talk about it in class, about how your nose is different from mine. We talk about how you talk one way, I talk another way and he can't talk at all. I caught a lot of flak from parents when I started it off. I have personally placed all these children in regular schools like Lady Andal and AMM.
We take all types of special-needs children with mild and moderate issues. However, we do not have the special resources to take care of someone with severe issues. Depending on the child, I either get an aid or help them get an aid who stays in school with the child. I also work on a program where the aid, the school, the parent and the special educator work together to achieve the goals of the child. Everyone is thus on the same page as to where the child is going.
In every class, we give scholarships to 2 or 3 children who are from a less privileged economic status. I do not want Kids Central to become too elitist. I really touch the lives of those kids. I have transformed their family, their thought process, the child's education and their outlook. I really feel that I have made a difference in their lives.
Where Kids Central children, go after preschool
Our kids typically go to Sishya (30 - 40%), American International School, Lady Andal, The School KFI, AMM, Arsha Vidya Mandir. To every school that we have sent children, we have had postive feedback.
Kids Central - Reviews on Parentree
Parentree's Conversations in Education series focuses on meeting the people behind India's schools and preschools. In the series we will delve deeper into their motivations, their goals, their interactions with parents, the skills they think children need and how they can build a synergistic relationship with parents, for the well being of children.