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Early Intervention: What Is It and How Can Children Benefit?

Published October 24, 2019

Early intervention (EI) represents the earliest stage of the special education process. EI refers to publicly funded supportive services given to eligible children younger than three.  These services are designed to help children by addressing developmental issues to give them better outcomes overall. To qualify children must have, or be at risk for, developmental delays.

“This early support is so essential and can change a child’s trajectory and improve outcomes, says Marion M. Walsh, Partner at Littman Krooks LLP. These early services to focus on social-emotional and physical development provide the foundation upon which cognitive, language and adaptive living skills develop for children.”

What Services Does Early Intervention Cover?

Early intervention services focus on five areas of development, and are listed with the most common services recommended to address each area:

  • Physical—walking, crawling, grasping, drawing (physical therapy, occupational therapy)
  • Cognitive—thinking, reasoning, problem-solving (special education)
  • Social—interacting with others, playing, acting appropriately (special education, speech therapy, behavior services)
  • Communication—talking, listening, understanding communicating (speech therapy)
  • Adaptive—feeding, dressing, ability to help self

What Laws Cover Early Intervention Services?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects the rights of children with special needs in the classroom and allows for more inclusion in educational settings. Part C of IDEA specifically establishes early intervention services. It states: “to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the child, early intervention services must be provided in natural environments, including the home and community settings in which children without disabilities participate.”

The “natural environment” to which Part C refers is defined as the standard settings for the general peer group of the child in question, for example, at home or a daycare facility. This is an important distinction within Part C, and it ensures that early intervention services occur in places where they may be most effective and convenient for a child to receive. This is a legal mandate, not merely a best practice.

How Does a Child Become Eligible for Early Intervention?

In New York State, the first step to obtain EI services will be to refer your child to the Early Intervention Program (EIP), in the county where you live.  While certain professionals are required to refer children to the EIP if a developmental problem is suspected, you also can and should make a referral if you believe your child is lagging behind same aged peers. Upon referral, the EIP will provide you with a list of qualified evaluators to assess the child in all five areas above, at no charge; the parent may select from the list or can ask the EIP to assign someone.  When the evaluations are complete, the EIP, parents and evaluators meet to discuss the results, assess eligibility and, if eligible, make service recommendations and assign a service coordinator.  The service coordinator will help you get services and locate providers. Although health insurance, including private insurance and Medicaid, may be used to pay for early intervention services, EIP services must be provided at no cost to you and will not affect your insurance coverage.

What Happens When Early Intervention Ends?

When your child approaches their third birthday, you, or the EIP, will refer them to the Committee on Preschool Education (CPSE) in your school district.  The CPSE will hold a meeting including school district personnel, your EI service coordinator, and perhaps one or more of your child’s service providers.  The CPSE may request updated evaluations prior to the meeting.  Again, you can choose the evaluator from a list and your EI service coordinator or CPSE chair can help.

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At the meeting, the CPSE will determine whether your child qualifies to be classified as a preschool student with a disability, and if so, which services are recommended.  Some students qualify for related services only, which can be provided at home, at day care, or at student’s private preschool. Some qualify for an educational program (integrated class half day, special class half day, special class full day, depending on needs). However, when a student is recommended for a publicly funded program, generally all services need to be provided during the program hours, so a heavy related services schedule will take away from time in the classroom. For various reasons, parents might take a child who qualifies for a publicly funded educational program and choose to keep them in a private program while accepting related services and a visiting special education teacher at the program (or doing a mix of push in and center-based services).

Early intervention can make a critical difference for children and families who need it. It has long-reaching effects in the life of a young child with a potential developmental delay. Therefore, it is guaranteed to be available to anyone who needs it. In New York, more information about early intervention services may be found on the program’s website or by calling (800) 522-5006 or (518) 473-7016.

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