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Pushplata Kunkal, an 8-year-old girl from West Singhbhum district in Jharkhand, was an active, curious and cheerful girl, but her behaviour changed drastically during the COVID-19 second wave last year. She became aggressive, short-tempered and showed a complete lack of interest in anything. The reason behind this drastic change was her inability to pursue studies during this period. She started feeling left out as she saw her friends and peers carry on with their daily lessons. Her father Arjun Singh Kunkal worked as a labourer and her mother Drupati Kunkal is an ASHA worker. Despite both her parents working, their income was not enough to make ends meet. Pushplata’s grandmother was also forced to do labour work. Since her parents were illiterate, they were unable to support Pushplata’s studies and make her do her daily lessons. Moreover, they couldn’t afford a smartphone and couldn’t join the online classes. Gradually, Pushplata’s interest in studies declined, which had an impact on her behaviour. She started withdrawing from all activities that had earlier excited her. This change left her parents deeply worried.

During the pandemic, when schools and Anganwadi centres were closed, parents and children participated in Bal Raksha Bharat’s program on Early Literacy and Maths (ELM) under Back-to-Basics project. In the absence of access to quality early childhood development opportunities at home and systemic support from Anganwadi centres, toddlers failed to attain relevant learning milestones as they graduated into the primary education system. During this critical period, Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) at home emerged as one of the best response strategies to answer the developmental needs of young children who were unable to attend classes at school.

The Back to Basics project specifically aims at improving access to quality early and foundational learning for girls and boys in the 3-8 age group. During this time, our Academic Support Fellows (ASFs), who engage with the community on a regular basis and provide onsite support to Anganwadi workers and primary school teachers, started visiting homes of children enrolled in Anganwadis and schools to conduct Early Literacy and Maths sessions.

When our ASF Onami Kumari Gope would do these activities with children, Pushplata would stand and watch. One day, Onami called her and asked her name and other details. The ASF found out that though she studies in Class 2, the child couldn’t identify a single alphabet. Her poor performance even shocked her mother Drupati. She understood what her child has lost by not having access to regular classes. Drupati then requested the ASF to help her with her studies. Since Pushpalata’s parents were illiterate, they could not participate in her education and had pinned all their hopes on Onami, who explained the concepts of ELM through Gulmohar – a collection of short, informative and easy to use videos at home. These videos are sent to parents’ groups and was also shared with Drupati. “Despite being illiterate, Drupati took a keen interest in Pushplata’s studies. She took personal care to teach her daughter and develop her learning skills,” said Onami.

Drupati did not have a smartphone but tried to do the activities with her child as directed in the videos. Later, she saved enough money to buy a smartphone and joined the parents group. After following the activities of the videos, her daughter Pushpalata learnt alphabet recognition, numbers and counting. Pushpalata’s interest in studies was also gradually restored.

“My child started enjoying reading and also involved other children in the learning process,” said Pushplata’s mother, who attended village level parents’ meeting.

Acknowledging the fact that parents’ support can help young children cope with stress, Bal Raksha Bharat has developed the Gulmohar learning module. This module is Bal Raksha Bharat India’s package of activities modelled for use by parents/caregivers at home for experiential skill development among children, that is the process of learning by doing. Through this intervention, critical challenges of education during an emergency are addressed.

Now that the schools are open, Pushpalata has reunited with her friends and is attending school every day.

“There was a time I used to worry if Pushpalata would meet my fate and not complete her education. I am relieved that her learning did not stop and she’s going back to school. I am convinced that she would fulfil all her dreams, unlike me. I am thankful to Bal Raksha Bharat for giving her the right start and guiding me during the difficult pandemic days,” said her mother.

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