Early Intervention: Before School Age

by Kendra Martin


This is the time of the year when I start screening students entering the classroom in the fall. For two private Anabaptist schools in the area, I test any new students wanting to apply to kindergarten. If they have chosen to do kindergarten at home, I test the student going into first grade. Or if the kindergarten teacher of the school has a concern about one of her students, I will retest the child before entering first grade. My purpose in administrating the Gesell Developmental Test is to fulfill the following three questions:

  • Is this child ready to enroll into kindergarten/first grade?
  • Would this child benefit from an additional year at home before enrolling in a traditional classroom environment?
  • Does this child need extra learning support coming into the school? And if so, is the school able to provide it or is there additional learning support that they should be receiving that the school is unable to provide?

Identify the Children Who Are Not Meeting Typical Milestones in Development

After screening the students, most students will fall into the first category. Often, there are several who fall into the second category and would really benefit having an additional year of brain development before entering traditional schooling. (Read Outliers: The Story of Success if you want some type of idea of what an extra year or half year of development can do to a child.) It is rare that I will find a child who falls into the latter category—needing extra learning support from the onset. It is even more rare that they will need learning support that the school is unable to provide. But in my seven years of testing students, there have been students who not only need learning support from the moment they enter the classroom but they also would have benefitted from receiving learning support earlier and have not been receiving it.

Those are the students whose condition breaks my heart. When a child comes to kindergarten or first grade with a large gap in their development or abilities, they have a long, grueling climb ahead. The learning process happening in the classroom that is so enjoyable to the rest of their peers is daunting and frustrating for them. It is those students who could have benefited from Early Intervention, and I wonder why we are not allowing our students to benefit from this one-on-one service and learning opportunity.

In too many cases, we are waiting until our children are already entering the traditional classroom before we are addressing speech difficulties, ADHD tendencies, dyslexia, symptoms of autism, and other learning difficulties. That is not necessary! Early Intervention is designed to help children narrow that developmental gap BEFORE they reach the classroom. For example, if you have a child with a speech impediment or delay, they could be receiving free high-quality speech therapy in their own homes rather than having to wait to be pulled out of the classroom or taken after school hours for speech therapy. Why not work on the gap in development before school age so that it does not 1) cause embarrassment to confusion for the student 2) distract or take away from classroom time 3) negatively affect learning literacy and communication skills.

Early Intervention: What Is It?

Each state within the United States of America provides Early Intervention services for children between the ages of birth to five years old who are experiencing delays in development. They provide coaching support and professionals services for families who are interested. According to Pennsylvania’s Early Intervention website, they provide services for the following:

  • Physical development, including vision and hearing
  • Cognitive development
  • Communication development
  • Social or emotional development
  • Adaptive development

In most cases, the support and services are done within the home. After the initial evaluation to see if the child qualifies for services, the therapist or teacher will come into the home on a weekly basis for about an hour to teach within a play-bases setting. It is of no cost to the family, and the family has the right to request or refuse services at any time.

Early Intervention: Debunking the Skeptics

 If we know there is something we could do to give greater academic advantage to our child, why would we not use the services? I believe that about 25% of the students whom I test on a yearly basis would have needs or gaps in development that would qualify for receiving Early Intervention services. And yet, I rarely meet a family who has pursued it or received any assistance for their child. Why is that?

  • Ignorance: I believe that most of our parents do not know about the services. Because we have had so few people over the year who have used it, receiving the services is not “normalized.” A speech therapist who actually comes into the home for free and works with your child and from whom you can get tips to work on helping your child’s incorrect speech patterns? Most families have no idea that the service is available.
  • Government Program: “It is a free handout from the government that we should not be receiving.” To that I ask, are you not paying your taxes? As homeowners, we pay a mandated school tax every year. You are paying for those services whether or not you are using them. You enjoy driving on roads that are maintained and cared for by the local municipality, why not also make good use of your tax dollars by giving your child assistance that could help them to have a better school experience?
  • Negative Stigma: “I do not want to be known as a parent whose child needs extra help.” If your child would have a broken leg, you would not hesitate getting them a crutch. If your child had bad eyesight, you would have no hesitance with getting them glasses. Why then are we so resistant to developmental help? If a year or two of occupational therapy would allow your child to have better eye-hand coordination or speech therapy would help them to not be so embarrassed to read aloud, would you not want to help them in that way? Pride must not stand in the way of giving the help to your child. As more and more families step forward to help their child in these ways, you can help to normalize getting developmental help just as having glasses or crutches has become normalized.
  • Public School Program: I have worked in the public school and our Anabaptist private schools. And I deeply value our Anabaptist schools and the work being done there. I want to continue to support them with my dollars, time, and energy. If there were Anabaptist groups offering speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or other services for children younger than school age, I would want to support them. However, as far as I know, there are none in my area. If you know of one in your area, then use their services. But please do not refuse the use of Early Intervention simply because it is linked to the public school. If you choose to, there is a form that you can sign asking that all your information or use of the services is not shared with the public school in your area.
  • “It’s Not That Bad”: True, your child may not NEED the services. Neither does your child NEED to eat vegetables. They may grow up and develop just fine without the services. The speech issue may correct itself. But if it could help your child in some way, why not try it? It’s not going to hurt your child to eat the vegetables, and it may benefit their growth and development. When I thought my son’s speech was more unclear that it should be at two and a half years old, I had him evaluated by Early Intervention. He passed the test. According to their assessment, he did not NEED the services. However, the evaluators understood my concern and agreed that his speech clarity could use extra assistance. Because I wanted tips on how to best help him, and because I wanted to have a firsthand experience with Early Intervention, they talked with their supervisor and we chose to accept Early Intervention services in our home. Not because my son NEEDS it, but because I want to do all I can to best equip him for a life of service in God’s Kingdom.

Conclusion

For all children under my care, my calling as a teacher is to help my students maximize their gifts and minimize or compensate for their weaknesses so that someday they can use those gifting and talents for service in God’s Kingdom. Part of that calling also entails walking alongside the parents and raising their awareness of Early Intervention services. You can advocate for the services for any child (from birth through five years old) that you believe may qualify.

I speak of Early Intervention from a personal standpoint. First, because my heart breaks when I see a student entering the classroom who could have and should have been receiving one-on-one professional services earlier. Likely, if they would have been provided with Early Intervention, they could have been spared some of the difficulty ahead that they will undoubtedly face when trying to learn alongside of peers whose development and abilities are above their own. Secondly, because I have a two-year-old son who is not speaking as clearly as his peers. While many fondly characterize incorrect pronunciation as “adorable” or believe that a child will simply grow out of the speech impediment, I have seen far too many children entering our schools with speech problems that continue to be speech problems in middle school. As parents and teachers, we all want to make learning as easy and intuitive for our children as possible. If that is the case, then why not equip them as much as possible before they enter the classroom?

Stay tuned for a following post on our personal experience with Early Intervention. What is involved in “signing up” for it? Can a teacher refer a child? How much time does it take out of a family’s daily schedule? Has it benefited us? Is it more headache than worth? What are the cons/pros? If you have any additional questions, drop them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a following post!

Sources:

Gesell Program in Early Childhood. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2022, from https://www.gesell-yale.org/pages/what-is-the-gesell-developmental-observation

Pennsylvania Department of Education. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2022, from https://www.education.pa.gov/Early%20Learning/Early%20Intervention/Pages/default.aspx

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CONTRIBUTOR: Kendra Martin

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