KidSTART: Kickstarting better child development

KidSTART officer Lee Wei Qi finds joy in “being on the ground, and working directly with parents and young children”. As part of the Home Visitation Team of the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA)’s KidSTART programme, she makes her way to their homes, to equip and empower parents in caregiving.

Since the programme started in 2016, over 900 children have received KidSTART support, in the pilot regions of Kreta Ayer, Bukit Merah, Taman Jurong, Boon Lay and Geylang Serai.

One of KidSTART’s guiding principles, as Wei Qi puts it, is “Parents are the children’s first teachers.” It is therefore crucial to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to nurture their children effectively and independently.

One parent who has benefited from KidSTART support is Nurhidayah Binte Abdullah, a mother of three. Initially, she had allowed her children excessive screen time on the television and their electronic devices, thinking that games and videos would suffice as learning. Following Wei Qi’s visits and advice on the importance of outdoor activities, use of language to engage children and the harmful effects of excessive screen time, she now regularly brings her children to the playground, conversing with them as they develop psychomotor skills.

From being completely silent during Wei Qi’s initial visits, Nurhidayah’s three-year-old daughter is now chatty and vibrant. “When we go outdoors, they are running, climbing and observing things around them,” says Wei Qi, explaining the importance of developing a child’s different senses for learning.

KidSTART’s methodology in this area is guided by the Abecedarian Approach, which is evidence based and developed in 1972 by Dr Joseph Sparling and Dr Craig Remy. Its hallmarks include turning everyday experiences into opportunities for learning, conversing and adding educational content.

KidSTART officers, like Wei Qi, also teach parents songs and rhymes that can be incorporated into daily routines to enhance the quality of interaction for parent and child.

Wei Qi and her team are currently working on a guide with more tips for KidSTART parents to incorporate into their routines. One challenge is customising resource material to make it more accessible to parents, she says, joking that the English in some of the existing textbooks is “a bit cheem” (Singlish for profound).

With her fellow KidSTART colleagues, Wei Qi is also looking to incorporate infographics and localised examples as illustrations for learning. For example, instead of telling parents to bring their children to the backyard, as is common in Western countries, they would tell them to bring their children to the void deck or playground.

It has not always been smooth-sailing for the KidSTART home visitor. Wei Qi says that when she first started, some parents would challenge her, questioning her ability to teach about parenting given that she is not a parent herself.

However, over time, the former early childhood educator and preschool principal managed to build rapport with the parents and they began to see how Wei Qi was able to engage them and their children through her warm, intentional interactions and extensive knowledge of early childhood development. They saw for themselves how well their children responded to the techniques taught by Wei Qi and eventually “let their guard down” and trusted her.

Besides giving individual attention to parents, KidSTART also leverages on peer support through its Group Connect sessions. At these sessions, parents are invited to connect with one another and are happy to exchange telephone numbers. Knowing that they all have common concerns, such as tackling sibling rivalries and ensuring child nutrition, helps to bond the parents too, says Wei Qi. KidSTART also works closely with community partners and if families require additional support, they are referred to Family Service Centres (FSCs) and Social Service Offices (SSOs)

Parents who have completed the programme still keep in touch through a WhatsApp group they created. They share baby items with one another and set up play dates among themselves. They have built their own social support network and are independently keeping their networks going, something which KidSTART supports.

For Wei Qi, KidSTART is not a one-way process. “As much as we are sharing parenting strategies with them, I think we as officers also learn a lot from the families—they are very resilient…despite the stresses they face in their lives.

“Seeing their love and care for the children is really touching and inspiring.”