What are Early Intervention services, and how can they help your child?
If you’re concerned about the development of an infant or toddler, or you suspect that a little one has a disability, there’s one terrific source of help you need to know about: the early intervention system in your state.
Early intervention services can help infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays to learn many key skills and catch up in their development.
What is early intervention?
Early intervention is a system of services that helps babies and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. Early intervention focuses on helping eligible babies and toddlers learn the basic and brand-new skills that typically develop during the first three years of life, such as:
physical (reaching, rolling, crawling, and walking);
cognitive (thinking, learning, solving problems);
communication (talking, listening, understanding);
social/emotional (playing, feeling secure and happy); and
self-help (eating, dressing).
Examples of early intervention services
If an infant or toddler has a disability or a developmental delay in one or more of these developmental areas, that child will likely be eligible for early intervention services. Those services will be tailored to meet the child’s individual needs and may include:
Assistive technology (devices a child might need)
Audiology or hearing services
Speech and language services
Counseling and training for a family
Services may also be provided to address the needs and priorities of the child’s family. Family-directed services are meant to help family members understand the special needs of their child and how to enhance his or her development.
Authorized by law
Early intervention is available in every state and territory of the United States. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires it — Part C of IDEA — which is why you’ll sometimes hear early intervention referred to as Part C.
Early intervention is intended for infants and toddlers who have a developmental delay ordisability. Eligibility is determined by evaluating the child (with parents’ consent) to see if the little one does, in fact, have a delay in development or a disability. Eligible children can receive early intervention services from birth through the third birthday (and sometimes beyond).
For some children, from birth: Sometimes it is known from the moment a child is born that early intervention services will be essential in helping the child grow and develop. Often this is so for children who are diagnosed at birth with a specific condition or who experience significant prematurity, very low birth weight, illness, or surgery soon after being born. Even before heading home from the hospital, this child’s parents may be given a referral to their local early intervention office.
For others, because of delays in development: Some children have a relatively routine entry into the world, but may develop more slowly than others, experience set backs, or develop in ways that seem very different from other children. For these children, a visit with a developmental pediatrician and a thorough evaluation may lead to an early intervention referral.
Parents don’t have to wait for a referral to early intervention, however. If you’re concerned about your child’s development, you may contact your local program directly and ask to have your child evaluated. That evaluation is provided free of charge. If you’re not sure how to locate the early intervention program in your community — keep reading. We give that information a bit further down the page.
However a child comes to be referred, evaluated, and determined eligible, early intervention services provide vital support so that children with developmental needs can thrive and grow.
What’s a developmental delay?
The term “developmental delay” is an important one in early intervention. Broadly speaking, it means that a child is delayed in some area of development. There are five areas in which development may be affected:
Physical development, including vision and hearing
Social or emotional development
Think of all the baby skills that can fall under any one of those developmental areas! Babies and toddlers have a lot of new skills to learn, so it’s always of concern when a child’s development seems slow or more difficult than would normally be expected.
The article Your baby: Basic developmental milestones outlines some of the typical skills that babies and toddlers learn by certain ages. It’s a good resource to consult if you’re concerned that a child may have a developmental delay.
Definition of “developmental delay”
Part C of IDEA broadly defines the term “developmental delay.” But the exact meaning of the term varies from state to state, because each state defines the term for itself, including:
describing the evaluation and assessment procedures that will be used to measure a child’s development in each of the five developmental areas; and
specifying the level of delay in functioning (or other comparable criteria) that constitutes a developmental delay in each of the five developmental areas.
What’s your state’s definition?
Clearly, it’s important to know how your state defines “developmental delay.” Find out more about that definition by visiting ECTAC, the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, here.
If you’re concerned about your baby or toddler’s development
It’s not uncommon for parents and family members to become concerned when their beautiful baby or growing toddler doesn’t seem to be developing according to the normal schedule of “baby” milestones.
“He hasn’t rolled over yet.”
“The little girl next door is already sitting up on her own!”
“She should be saying a few words by now.”
Sound familiar? While it’s true that children develop differently, at their own pace, and that the range of what’s “normal” development is quite broad, it’s hard not to worry and wonder.
What to do: If you think that your child is not developing at the same pace or in the same way as most children his or her age, it is often a good idea to talk first to your child’s pediatrician. Explain your concerns. Tell the doctor what you have observed with your child. Your child may have a disability or a developmental delay, or he or she may be at risk of having a disability or delay.
You can also get in touch with your community’s early intervention program, and ask to have your little one evaluated to see if he or she has a developmental delay or disability. This evaluation is free of charge, won’t hurt your child, and looks at his or her basic skills. Based on that evaluation, your child may be eligible for early intervention services, which will be designed to address your child’s special needs or delays.