Toddlers under Stress

How coaching classes train two- and three-year-olds for interviews to gain admission to elite schools in South Mumbai
Target Practice
(Illustration: VIVEK THAKKAR)

It is the evening after Dussehra in Mumbai. Nepean Sea Road, an otherwise busy street, lies bare. It is still recovering from Ravana’s death. Hidden amid the high rises of this posh area is a nondescript nursery for toddlers. Inside, it is close to chaotic. The nursery has two sections: one where a few three-year-olds are midway through their picture-talk class, and another where a child’s mock interview paper is being reviewed.

The discussion is serious, as the tone of the voices confirms. The kid whose educational fate is at stake seems distracted by colourful foam blocks right behind him. His mother in contrast, seated beside him, listens attentively.

“He didn’t do any of these,” says the teacher, pointing at the three-year-old’s answer sheet.

The mother turns to her son in reproach: “You knew this, why didn’t you do it?”

“I forgot, mummy,” the kid replies.

“You have an interview in a few days,” she says, “you can’t afford to forget.”

The child is being primed for an interview at Cathedral &John Connon School. The mother gives me a puzzled look, perhaps questioning my presence in the room. A second teacher in the same section of the nursery is scheduling other interviews. She hardly ever seems to put the phone down.

“No, there aren’t any slots free for tomorrow, but I will try,” she says. In the other section, younger children are brushing up their skills. A man sits on a huge armchair with a newspaper in his lap, speaking on the phone. The children are asked what the man was doing “before” he answered the phone instead of a simple, “What else do you see on the man’s lap?”

“He was reading the newspaper,” some of the children say.

It is a surprise that so many of the 13 kids present actually manage to answer the question. I recollect teaching my little sister the concepts of ‘before’ and ‘after’ only once she turned five.  

“We try and increase their power of logical reasoning. That way, they aren’t dependent on only a certain type of question being asked,” says the owner of the nursery. She does not want to be named.  

+++

The nursery is part of a small industry that imparts ‘interview skills’ to toddlers of affluent families in South Mumbai for them to get into schools their parents fancy. They are coached for admission to such elite schools as Cathedral, JB Petit, Campion, St Mary’s and Bombay International School, all  affiliated with the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE).

The coaching is conducted by professionals like kindergarten teachers and speech experts who have been in the business for the past 10-15 years. Children as young as two-and-a-half are placed under such training, and it goes on until they gain admission—for at least a year, sometimes two.

At their core, these classes are of two types. The first is interview driven. This is an extension of day school, like an advanced nursery with fewer children. They are conducted three to five times a week. The second type is subject-specific, and these classes focus on particular pre-school skills like motor development, elocution and picture talk. These are held once or twice a week.

A few months before ICSE school interviews commence, the coaches start holding mock interviews as a practice exercise. These are oral as well as written. Sometimes four or five mock interviews are conducted for each school. Guest interviewers are invited and children are marked as they would be for an actual interview.

According to the Right to Protection Clause (Psychological, Physical, Economical and Social) of the Maharashtra Child Policy, no toddler can be interviewed in isolation. Therefore, the selection process also involves an interview with the child’s parents. Bombay International School, for example, even requires parents to answer a set of exam-like questions. This is generally followed by children being interviewed in groups while they are engaged in activities like threading, solving jigsaw puzzles and doing worksheets. Assorted skills and responses of a candidate—how well s/he follows instructions, for example—are taken note of.

Zainab Babrawala is an eight-year-old student of JB Petit High School. Getting in was tougher than her mother had imagined. By the age of two years and eight months, Zainab was attending regular nursery in the mornings. Once a week, she would have elocution and picture talk classes in the evening. She later joined Vedic Mathematics classes as well. “At the time, it was stressful for both me and my daughter, but necessary for her development,” says her mother Jumana Babrawala, “Everyone wants to give the best to their children, have them go to good schools and interact with the best of crowds.”

Jumana has another child, and is now under stress again as admission season for her second-born approaches. She finds a lot has changed over the past seven years. “Competition has drastically increased in schools,” she says, pointing to what she calls ‘commercialisation of classes’. “Everyone is aware of the select few that are the best, but seats for even these classes are limited. Registrations are done one-and-a-half years in advance. We as parents take appointments even to speak to these teachers.”  

No one really likes to talk about these classes or interviews, though. Two teachers hung up the phone when asked about the interview training classes they conduct. Emails sent to Cathedral, JB Petit School and Campion School on the issue got no response.

These classes are big business in South Mumbai. At the best Montessori schools, pre-school level teachers are paid Rs 5,000 per month for a two-hour class conducted five days a week. Interview training classes charge parents Rs 400-500 per class, with an average of 10 children to a class. There are at least three batches every day. Five days a week would take the monthly income of a class to about Rs 2.4 lakh.

The teachers there are busier than high school teachers. A few don’t even talk to parents over the phone without prior appointments. Reports on the child’s performance are given in writing during the last ten minutes of a session. This is to avoid parents hovering around the premises after picking up their children. 

Interestingly, children aiming for schools that follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum are usually free of such interview pressure. BD Somani in South Mumbai and Oberoi International and Dhirubhai Ambani School in the suburbs are among the city’s best known IB schools. Their fees are considerably high, and few middle-class families can afford them. Even if they could, parents are not always keen on these despite their ease of admission. To enhance their children’s chances of success later in life, they would rather have them attend schools with high levels of competition to perform well. “I am not a fan of IB schools,” says Jumana, “I know the kind of pressure [to get into] an ICSE school is too much, but it does help. Children from IB and SSC (Secondary School Certificate) schools struggle during further studies, unlike ICSE students who are used to pressure. That’s why I wanted both my children going to an ICSE school.”

+++

Amruta Malhotra has taught at Kiddies Nook Nursery for a decade and conducted interview training classes for the past eight years. After the birth of her second child Samaira, she quit teaching to devote herself to parenting, though she still manages to squeeze in interview training. She messages me as soon as she has put her children to sleep and promises exactly 10 minutes of her time. When I get there, her two-and-a-half-year-old toddler with curly golden-brown hair is standing beside her, wide awake. Amruta finds teaching easier than parenting. She talks about the pressures of parenthood and the difference between taking regular nursery classes and training toddlers for interviews.

“The concepts [taught] are similar to what they used to be—knowing your fruits and animals, etcetera. But today, at 3 to 3.5 years of age, children are expected to know which animals are herbivorous and carnivorous, where they live, what they eat, and what their young ones are called. They are expected to know different types of fruits, how many seeds they have, what is edible and non-edible. How much information can those small brains retain and spit out in a 30-minute interview?” she asks.

“My daughter,” continues Amruta, “is two-and-a-half years old, and every child from her nursery attends classes every single day of the week. Eventually, I am sure I will be forced to do the same. It has been my bread and butter for eight years, but I think interviews for children should be scrapped.” In spite of her opposition to the process, she will not apply to IB or state-run schools for her children. “Schools should be in the vicinity and these ICSE schools are in ours.”

Most parents, caught between their instincts and anxieties, are ambivalent about how much academic pressure their toddlers should be made to bear. Many send them to franchises of foreign nurseries that employ the concept of Montessori education, a method crafted in the West that places pre-school emphasis on a practical and playful environment for kids to learn. Various other playschools also attract parents by saying they merely guide toddlers, letting them largely follow their fancies and learn what interests them. This works well for these pre-schoolers, but the same parents often turn anxious about admission to ‘big school’ and swing to the other end, opting for a retrograde system of rigorous interview training classes. This sudden shift can confuse a child.

Renee Motwani, who is three years and four months old, studies at Headstart nursery. She recently shifted from the easygoing nursery to the more tightly structured LKG section with her mother Tripti Motwani’s consent. Renee is an introvert and among the youngest of the lot. So it is deemed necessary for her to get accustomed to new faces. Tripti has been sending her daughter to an hour-long interview training class twice a week since she was two-and-a-half years old. “Children aren’t taught in nurseries the things they are expected to know at their interviews,” she explains, “There are so many concepts they are expected to know that they actually learn [only] during high school. But that’s not the only reason that parents send them for classes. I know of parents who are working or too busy to care, and with drivers and maids at their disposal. In Mumbai’s fast-paced life, it’s a way to keep children occupied.”

Interview training classes do not guarantee a seat in the desired school, but, on anecdotal evidence, they do have a high success rate. “In our group, all the mothers except one had sent their children for different classes,” says Jumana, “That one mother also wanted to, but didn’t because her husband was against it. Today, only her child is studying in another school.” Stories like these do not help relieve parents of their admission anxiety.

I am on my way out of a ‘concept development’ class conducted in a small nursery in Colaba. Parents are in queue to pick up their children. A teacher turns a two-and-half-year-old boy over to his mother, who has this complaint to rattle off: “When he colours, everything goes haywire.” The teacher, with a hint of irritation, replies that the child has only just learnt to hold a pen—and that it takes a little patience.