If ever there was a buzzword in the world of parenting young children it’s Early Intervention— also known as Early On, Early Prevention, Ages 0-3 and the Wonder Years. It is an important subject for all families of children with special needs to understand.

Brenda Lou Turner has been a registered occupational therapist (OTR) for 24 years and an Early On Services coordinator in Michigan since 1989. She was one of my first professional contacts after my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. There are few professionals for whom I have such respect. Turner explains that Early Intervention is the name for the federally mandated program for identifying and servicing children birth through age 3— it falls under Section C of IDEA.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law enacted by Congress in 1975 to provide children with special needs guaranteed access to a free and appropriate education. IDEA requires states to first identify and assess children with special needs, then provide them with the necessary services and programs to help them succeed. IDEA was reauthorized with changes in 1997 and again in 2004 with the Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act.

Early Intervention is a joint effort involving community and statewide agencies such as mental health, social services and education. Contacts and programs vary, but all states must provide Early Intervention programs and services to children who qualify.

How Does Early Intervention Work?

Think of Early Intervention as an umbrella designed to protect your child from potentially stormy developmental seas.

  • The big part of the umbrella is IDEA. It protects children with a federally-mandated Early Intervention system— a plan of action by all states.
  • Under that big umbrella are all the agencies in your county/state holding it up. They work together providing your child with services/support to impact growth and learning.
  • Under those agencies and services, sub categories help protect your child from future developmental storms. These programs and services help children once they reach age 3, by transitioning them to special education.

How to Qualify for Early Intervention Programs and Services

Early Intervention is designed to help all kids have better life starts. Turner explains briefly how your child qualifies. Check your state’s guidelines.

  • Infants are assessed at birth in the hospital by qualified professionals for risk factors associated with developmental delays using indicators like prematurity, low birth weight and Apgar scores.
  • If risk factors are indicated, a referral is made to an Early Intervention program or other appropriate link in that county— with a parent’s signed permission for release of information.
  • The referral is followed by a home visit and an assessment is done, including a health assessment, parent-child observation, family questionnaire and a developmental evaluation of your child.
  • Eligibility for services is determined based on one of two factors: Your child has either an established condition or a developmental delay.
  • An Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) is created. Turner explains that this plan of action includes: Your child’s healthcare team, your family’s strengths and concerns, your child’s strengths/concerns and outcome/goals based on your family’s input.

If you are concerned about your child’s development, contact your child’s physician or your state’s Early Intervention coordinator to begin the process of having your child assessed. Don’t be shy about voicing your concerns!

It’s far better to address this early, than lose valuable intervention time. “If nothing else, you’ll get a child’s baseline for comparison for concerns down the road,” Turner says. “We’re getting to children earlier than ever before and that’s good, because the sooner we get to them, the better the outcomes.”

Turner says the biggest change in Early Intervention over the past few years has been that everything is now family-centered. “It’s strength based,” she continues. “Everything used to be focused on what are the deficiencies of a child and family? Now the focus is on a child’s strengths and how to support families,” Turner adds. “Because if we support families, we support the child.”

“Parents are key,” Turner stresses. “They are their child’s most important teacher and best advocate,” she says. “Professionals come and go, but parents are there for the long haul.”

For many families, this parenting push may come while they’re still struggling with the reality of having a child with special needs— so how are they supposed to jump on the Early Intervention bandwagon?

Just do it. If your child is receiving services, you’ve already got team members on board that bring valuable resources, insight and experiences to help your child succeed. Pick their brains. This is the beginning of that all-important family and professional teamwork— make good use of it!

Picking the Best Program for Your Child

When looking for a program for your child, here’s my advice:

  • Look for dynamic programs that best meet your child’s individual needs. If you’re uncomfortable with a program or professional, consider making a change— it can make a difference!
  • Seek out family-friendly programs focused on a child’s ability and on helping him achieve maximum independence. Put the child first— always!
  • Commit to good programs. If a program fits your child’s needs, commit to it long-term— some gains take time. Be patient!
  • Be prepared to pay for cutting-edge programs yourself. Insurance and other programs may not cover such costs.
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