If you’re concerned your young child may have a developmental delay or learning and attention issues, you may be curious about early intervention services. Early intervention can help infants and toddlers make big strides. This overview explains the first steps you can take to help your child.
What are early intervention services?
Early intervention services are a range of targeted services to help young children who have developmental delays or specific health conditions. Different types of specialists work with these kids. Providing services early helps children catch up and increases their chances for success in school and life overall.
“Providing services early helps children catch up and increases their chances for success in school and life overall.”
Early intervention services are provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Through grants to each state from the federal government, children who qualify may receive services free of charge or at low cost.
Every U.S. state and territory provides these services through its own comprehensive, coordinated program. There are also services that support the families who care for kids receiving early intervention services. Find out more about who pays for early intervention services.
Who’s eligible for early intervention services?
Early intervention is for children from birth to age 3. To be eligible, your child must have either:
- A developmental delay—be far behind other kids his age.
- A specific health condition that will probably lead to a delay—this includes genetic disorders, birth defects and hearing loss, but typically not learning or attention issues like dyslexia and ADHD.
Although all states provide early intervention, each state does so differently. States define developmental delay in different ways and provide services for different health conditions.
Each state has its own rules for which children are eligible. In a few states, your child may get services if he’s at risk for a developmental delay because of factors like low birth weight, drug exposure and other environmental issues.
In other states, a doctor or clinician can recommend early intervention. (For a summary of some of these rules, take a look at this chart from the government-funded Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.)
If you have concerns about your baby or toddler, you’ll have to explore the rules in your state. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician. Doctors should know about early intervention services.
You can also contact your state’s early intervention program and ask for an evaluation. This evaluation will determine whether your child is eligible for services.
If your state says your child is eligible for early intervention services, your family will get an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). A team from your state’s early intervention program will work with you to develop the IFSP. This plan defines goals and the types of services that will help you and your child. If your child doesn’t qualify for services, there are still things you can do.
What kinds of early intervention services are available?
Babies and toddlers may receive services at home or in the community to help with development in these areas:
- Physical skills (reaching, crawling, walking, drawing, building)
- Cognitive skills (thinking, learning, solving problems)
- Communication skills (talking, listening, understanding others)
- Self-help or adaptive skills (eating, dressing)
- Social or emotional skills (playing, interacting with others)
- Sensory processing skills (handling textures, tastes, sounds, smells)
A child who qualifies for an early intervention program may receive one or more of these services:
- Screening and assessment
- Speech and language therapy
- Physical or occupational therapy
- Psychological services
- Home visits
- Medical, nursing or nutrition services
- Hearing (audiology) or vision services
- Social work services
A service coordinator from the early intervention program will help set up and schedule services.
How long do early intervention services last?
Early intervention services usually last up to age 3. But that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly on your own when your child turns 3. Many states will extend early intervention services beyond your child’s third birthday if needed.
In addition, children older than 3 may be eligible for special education services under IDEA. These services pick up where early intervention leaves off.
A few months before your child’s third birthday, you and the early intervention team will discuss the transition. The service coordinator will set up a planning meeting. This will help you find out how to prepare your child for what’s next. If he’s eligible for preschool special education, a member of the local school district will work with you, too.
What if my child is already 3 years old?
If your child is already 3, it’s not too late for help. As with a younger child, the first step is getting an evaluation. It will determine if your child needs special education or related services.
If your child is eligible, you’ll meet with school professionals to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your preschooler. In addition to special education to meet your child’s needs, this may include related services similar to those provided to infants and toddlers.
A lot happens in these first few years. If your child isn’t where he needs to be with development, early intervention can make a huge difference. For more information, learn about specialists who work with babies and toddlers. And read up on common myths about early intervention.