When Kathryn “KK” Eydenberg was born at just 24 weeks and weighing one pound, five ounces, she faced seemingly insurmountable odds. When she came home after four months in two hospitals, she was making great strides towards “catching up.” But her mother Alison knew great challenges lay ahead.
Parents of very premature children and those with Down Syndrome, autism, or other early diagnoses or congenital disabilities face myriad difficulties throughout their children’s young lives. Increasingly, a key resource for them and their children are “early intervention specialists”—professionals with expertise in social work, education, nursing, and occupational, speech, and physical therapy, among others.
Since 2005, EDC has supported these professionals through the Massachusetts Early Intervention Training Center (EITC) with training, mentoring, and web-based resources. Funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the center recently unveiled a new slate of workshops, including material delivered online.
Early intervention includes a range of services for children from infancy to their third birthday. Visiting settings where children live, learn and play, specialists assist families with strategies that encourage growth through typical activities—feeding, bathing, sleeping, playing—the full range of experiences that support healthy child development.
“These professionals are our only source of information besides books, which don’t do much,” explains Eydenberg. “Books tell you about developmental milestones but they don’t tell you how to get there.”
To be eligible for early intervention services, children need to be considered at risk for developmental delays or already have an established diagnosis. Children with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, heart disease, or extreme prematurity, are eligible, among others. Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that offers services to children growing up in troubled environments, such as substance abuse or domestic violence in their homes, as well as those born to a very young mother.
A federal mandate requires that services be provided in “natural environments”—places where the child eats, sleeps, and plays. Therefore, intervention services may be delivered in a playground, a day care setting—even at the grocery store—but most commonly they are offered in the home.
If a mother tells the specialist that she is unable to go food shopping with her daughter because she cannot sit up independently in the grocery cart due to motor delays, the specialist would deliver services in the store, demonstrating how to position the child in the cart, and offering tips for how to best get the shopping done.
“Early intervention helps normalize the experiences of these children and their families,” says EDC’s Janet Price of the Center for Children & Families. “The idea is to support children in their development, while enabling families to participate with their children more fully in society, to be in and part of the community.”
It is not only the children who receive attention through early intervention services. The families and parents are considered team members who are asked and expected to be active in the development of their individualized service plan and also in each practitioner visit.
“The important piece is to support the family, giving them strategies and skills to use throughout the week that they can build on,” states Price.
“When I first heard we were having a specialist come to our home, I thought ‘Oh good, I’ll have an hour free’ but I now see this isn’t the case at all,” states Eydenberg. “It’s been great how much I’m involved in these visits. They teach KK, but really they are teaching me how to work with her every day.” Expanded professional development
EITC provides about 30 workshops a year, including some that contribute to certification in Massachusetts. Since EDC has managed the contract to operate EITC, workshops have been expanded and deepened in their focus.
“Many specialists have been in the field a long time,” states Holly Newman of Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “EITC provides them expanded content through ‘special sessions.’ One called ‘red flags’ teaches how to identify and address low-incidence conditions. There has also been a lot of research looking into temperament in kids, so we’ve added a session to provide more information to professionals about that body of research.”
EITC also provides mentorship, linking professionals with a content expert teaching at the college level in one of the early intervention specialties. Mentors offer information through a “blended learning model”—offering content delivered in face-to-face, online, and teleconference interactions—on a particular discipline-specific topic and helping them apply this new content to their work.
EITC is currently planning to work with DPH to create and post online videos of training content, designed to meet the constraints on schedules of part-time professionals.
Despite advances in technology and expanded services, early intervention in Massachusetts faces significant challenges, notably balancing the commitment to serve children when budgets are being cut.
“Our state is a leader in how we do early intervention,” says Price. “We’re second highest in the country in the percentage of kids under three served by this program. We have more generous eligibility guidelines, with the goal of reaching as many infants and toddlers at risk for developmental delay as we can.”
Originally published on August 31, 2007