When children are very young, their brains develop rapidly. As they grow, their skills continue to increase. Because development between the ages of zero and three is so important, doctors have developed lists of developmental milestones that children should be attaining at certain specific ages ranging from a few weeks to the first five years. If a parent sees that their child is missing some of the milestones, they can refer to their pediatrician for help and referral to specialized services to attempt to help the child attain as many of those milestones as possible.
The kind of services that children may need can differ based on their age and existing abilities, but each state has a department set aside specifically for providing Early Intervention services to children who either have known developmental delays or are at risk for developing delays. The Programs provide services under IDEA Part C (for children ages 0-3) and Part B (for school-age children ages 3-21). While the programs are available to all children with a risk of developmental delay, it is the responsibility of parents to enroll their child in these programs. This can be done via the Child Find program in each state, or by asking your child’s pediatrician for a referral to the service.
These programs are often low-cost or free, and they are administered by each state individually. For a directory of Early Intervention service providers, see the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.
What do Early Intervention Programs do?
Early Intervention services address several key development areas: movement, learning, social interaction and communication, emotional development, behaviors and adaptive equipment use (if needed). These areas can be addressed by a combination of:
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Assistive Technology
- Speech/language Pathology
When a parent first signs their child up for Child Find, Child Find takes 45 days to assess the child. If the child is deemed eligible, the program then makes a document called an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan outlines what areas of development may need some extra work, and explains what kinds of services the child needs to address those delays. Then, the parents start putting together a team of people to help carry out the goals in the plan. Who is included in the team can vary, but usually it includes the parents, medical providers, therapists, social workers and other relevant parties. The plan also includes information about the following topics:
- How often the child will be evaluated for progress
- Who will pay for services
- A timeline for when services will be delivered
Usually, these plans are re-evaluated every six months, though it can be sooner if parents find that the child needs more assistance than previously assumed.
Early Intervention Programs by Age Group
Depending on how old the child is, the kinds of programs available differ:
- Ages 0-2 (Early Head Start) and ages 3-5 (Head Start)
- These programs help enhance a child’s development cognitively, socially and behaviorally during some of the most critical developmental stages. While the program was originally designed for low-income individuals, it is designed to be inclusive; indeed, more than 10% of enrollees are children with disabilities.
- Ages 3-5 (Early Childhood Intervention)
- When a child is about two and a half, the team that made the child’s IFSP starts preparing to draw up a new set of plans to make sure the child gets continued care throughout preschool and kindergarten.
Formal Evaluation as Part of Early Intervention: Preparing for School
In order to receive special education and support services, the child must be evaluated for disabilities by the child’s school district. Parents can request that the school district provide an evaluation for the child when the child is as young as three years old, though evaluation can occur at any time during the child’s academic career. The school district can either agree to evaluate the child (in which case the evaluation proceeds), or may refuse to do so. Parents can dispute this refusal by requesting a reconsideration.
If parents don’t agree with the school district’s evaluation, they can then request an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE), where an independent professional evaluates the child’s educational needs, barriers to getting those needs fulfilled, and potential solutions to overcoming these barriers. Usually, a child’s teachers will request an IEE; parents can talk to their child’s teachers if they are concerned about their child’s development. These evaluations are usually paid for by the school district; the district requests that an individual with at least a Master’s degree in childhood development, psychology, sociology, education or physical therapy evaluate the child. The evaluation covers intellectual ability, social ability, psychological and behavioral health, speech/language abilities, and physical/occupational skills.
If a parent disagrees with the findings of the IEE, there are avenues to dispute the findings. To have a decision disputed, parents must go through a due-process hearing. If district officials agree with the parent, the school district pays for the second evaluation. If school district officials disagree with the parent, the parent has to pay for the second evaluation themselves. That said, there is no guarantee the results of the second evaluation will differ from the first.
Once the initial evaluation is over, the child’s care team begins developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which outlines the services the child should be receiving as part of Special Education programs. At this point, parents can also be involving the child’s nursery school or pre-K teachers, in order to pave the way for an easy transition to school. An IEP may be developed well before a child begins schooling, so parents can be aware of their children’s educational needs well in advance. Once a child reaches age 5, they will transition into schooling; at this point, having an IEP gives them a specific advantage because the schools will know precisely what services they need to provide the child in order for them to thrive.
For more information on services available to children with disabilities, refer to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services’ Clearinghouse on Disability Information and Office of Special Education Programs. For information on legal services parents can use to make sure their child makes the most of their IEP, refer to Wrightslaw, a legal services website that focuses specifically on helping parents to ensure their child is getting the special education resources they deserve under the law.