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Early Intervention: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin

At a Glance

  • Early intervention helps young kids work toward meeting developmental milestones.

  • Infants and toddlers may qualify for help if they have developmental delays or specific health conditions.

  • To find out if kids are eligible, they have to be evaluated.

There are lots of skills that develop in the first three years of a child’s life. Some infants and toddlers meet developmental milestones more slowly than expected. This is called a developmental delay. Early intervention can help infants and toddlers with delays catch up in their development.  

Here’s what you need to know about early intervention.  

What are early intervention services?

You may know about —the services and supports that help some kids make progress in school. What you may not know is that the same law, the , makes sure there’s help available for younger kids and their families, too.  

Early intervention is like special education for school-age kids, but it’s for eligible infants and toddlers. It gives them the support they need to make progress in life skills. There are also services for families who care for them.

Early intervention focuses on skills in these five 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)

Through early intervention, babies and toddlers can get services at home or in the community. Different types of specialists work with kids depending on which skills are delayed. Getting services early helps many kids catch up and thrive in school and in life overall.

Every U.S. state and territory provides these services through its own comprehensive, coordinated program. But IDEA provides grants to each state from the federal government. That allows kids who qualify for early intervention to get services free of charge or at low cost.

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This is different from special education, which is provided at no cost. Some states may charge for early intervention services on a sliding fee scale. Or they may bill your insurance company for some of your child’s services. Find out more about who pays for early intervention services.

Who qualifies for early intervention services?

Early intervention is for kids ages birth to age 3. To be eligible, your child must have either:

  1. A developmental delay, or

  2. A specific health condition that will probably lead to a delay. This includes things like certain genetic disorders, birth defects, and hearing loss.

Each state has its own rules for which children are eligible. Although all states offer early intervention, not all states do it the same way. States define developmental delays in different ways and provide services for different health conditions.

In a few states, kids may get services if they’re at risk for a developmental delay because of factors like low birth weight, drug exposure, and other environmental issues.

A health care or childcare provider might also recommend or refer kids for an early intervention evaluation. Your state may also allow you to contact its early intervention program and make your own referral if you’re concerned about your child.   

(If you have concerns about your baby or toddler, explore the rules in your state in this chart from the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.)

What do early intervention services look like?

If your child is eligible, a team from your state’s early intervention program will work with your family to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (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.)

A child who qualifies may receive one or more of these services:

  • 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

  • Transportation

  •  

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 until a child’s third birthday. But that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly on your own when your child turns 3. Your child’s service coordinator will hold a transition meeting to talk about moving your child from early intervention services to special education services under IDEA. These services can 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. This will help you find out how to prepare your child for what’s next. If your child is 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 the school to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your preschooler. In addition to special education, this might include related services similar to those for infants and toddlers.

A lot happens in these first few years. And for kids who aren’t on track developmentally, early intervention can make a huge difference. For more information, learn about what an early intervention evaluation looks at. And read up on common myths about early intervention.

Key Takeaways

  • Talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns about your child’s development.

  • Early intervention provides family services to help you and your child address developmental delays.

  • Kids ages 3 and older don’t qualify for early intervention, but they may qualify for special education services.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom