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What Every Parent Should Know About Early Intervention Services

Ms. Meyers is a mom, teacher, and author who writes about issues in early childhood education and parenting.

All About Early Intervention Services

Some parents decline early intervention services for their children because they're in denial. Others reject them because they don't want their youngster saddled with a label. Others turn them down because their egos get wounded.

Whatever the case, moms and dads need to realize that rejecting early intervention services (or not fighting for them) is a critical mistake with far-reaching implications. After all, countless studies show that the earlier a youngster receives help the more effective it is. Moreover, while older kids are often mortified when pulled from class, younger kids love the extra attention they receive when working with a teacher one-on-one or in a small group.

Special education services are plentiful for young children in many states but dry up when kids get older.

Special education services are plentiful for young children in many states but dry up when kids get older.

Earlier Is Better When It Comes to Special Education Services

When my first-born child got referred for special education at 3, it pained me beyond belief. Bringing my son to speech and occupational therapy sessions three times a week while my friends attended Mommy and Me classes and met for play dates in the park left me feeling sad and isolated. When he got officially diagnosed with autism at 5, I was convinced that my life would forever be void of joy and only filled with constant worry and despair.

Now, 12 years have passed, and my son is thriving in public high school. He earns good grades and is surrounded by a small but loyal group of buddies. Today, I credit early intervention for my son's success and encourage other parents to embrace these services. Earlier is better for special education and the help that's plentiful in the first five years dwindles as kids grow older. If your child is referred for early invention services, recognize it as a marvelous opportunity and avoid the following mistakes.

1. Don't Deny and Delay

Hearing that their youngster has emotional, behavioral, and/or cognitive difficulties is devastating to parents. Some moms and dads get defensive, deny the problem exists, and stubbornly refuse to move ahead with early intervention services. It can often trigger painful memories from their own childhoods when they felt "less than" so they take it especially hard. While battling with these demons from their past, though, they're wasting precious time when their youngster could be receiving valuable help.

It was tempting to do nothing when my son got referred for early intervention services. I was feeling overwhelmed with a 3-year-old and an infant, and our pediatrician didn't seem overly concerned. My mother kept reassuring me that my son was perfectly fine, saying: “There's nothing wrong with him. It's just a phase he'll outgrow. Your brothers went through the same thing.”

Thank goodness, though, I listened to my maternal gut. It told me to be proactive or I'd regret it. Every day since I've been grateful that I moved forward with those services that proved to be a lifeline for both my boy and me.

2. Don't Be Passive

From birth until 5, 90 percent of a child's brain develops. Parents should capitalize on this window of opportunity and pursue early intervention services with a sense of urgency. They're available during the first five years but greatly diminish when a child begins elementary school.

Many communities have kind, supportive, and knowledgeable early intervention advocates who connect parents with the services their youngster needs. Other communities, unfortunately, offer very little. If that's the case, moms and dads must do their own research. They must become experts on what their child needs and get those services from either the public or private sector.

3. Don't Pass on Speech and Occupational Therapy

My son attended weekly occupational therapy sessions and biweekly speech therapy sessions. His therapists worked with him one-on-one in a direct way using clear, simple directions. They monitored his progress, reviewed old skills, and added new ones.

These early intervention services were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my son and me and we weren't going to waste the experience. I watched, learned, and continued the activities at home to ensure fast and effective progress. I knew that once he started elementary school he would never again receive this kind of personalized attention.

Occupational therapy can help children gain strength, improve balance, and enhance coordination.

Occupational therapy can help children gain strength, improve balance, and enhance coordination.

4. Don't Reject Special Help

In the name of fairness, some parents (and teachers as well) believe that schools should treat all children the same way—no preferential treatment for anyone. However, when we stop to think about this, we realize how ridiculous and impractical it is. Should we deny a wheelchair and a ramp to a youngster who's unable to walk? Should we forbid Braille books and a white cane for a child who's blind? Should we place children who speak other languages into a classroom where everyone speaks English and say: sink or swim?

Most of us recognize that these children deserve special help and it would be unjust not to provide it. The same holds true for children with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral needs. Fairness does not mean treating all children the same but giving each youngster what they need to succeed.

5. Don't Pass on One-on-One and Small Group Instruction

Many children learn best by working independently. Teachers might refer to them as sponges because they soak up information from sources all around them. They learn by reading silently, by interacting with peers, by doing cooperative learning projects, by conducting experiments, by working with a partner, and by listening to lectures. With these autonomous learners, teachers can act as facilitators—stocking the classroom with stimulating materials, providing challenging tasks, and letting students gain knowledge by doing.

Not all children, however, learn this way. My son didn't. He needed small group instruction in speech and reading when he began elementary school. He needed a speech therapist to work with him directly—showing him slowly, concretely, and repetitively how to make certain sounds and demonstrating how to contort his mouth and where to place his tongue. He needed lots of reminders about maintaining eye contact when talking and a lot of practice in reading facial expressions. He needed a reading specialist to help him with phonological awareness and decoding skills.

As Dr. Jerome Rosner, an expert on learning differences, writes: “The learning disabled child needs explicit, unambiguous instruction that is offered in limited portion and accompanied by more than the usual amount of drill and practice. This cannot be done in a classroom where twenty-five children congregate with one teacher...The learning disabled child should not have to share his teacher with more than six to eight other children, at least not during those portions of the day when the key subjects—reading and arithmetic—are being taught.”

6. Don't Buy the Inclusion Lie

Unfortunately, many parents buy the lie that inclusion is all their child needs. Some school districts, to save money and appear politically correct, offer no direct special education services but rely solely on inclusion. Children with disabilities and without disabilities learn in the same classroom and are given the same instruction.

Knowledgeable, vocal, and persistent parents—unafraid to rattle cages—will push until their children get the special education services they need. Uninformed, quiet, and passive parents will settle for whatever morsels the district hands them. They'll accept inclusion without realizing they're getting nothing at all.

Don't get talked into inclusion only. Your child needs special help with special educators.

Don't get talked into inclusion only. Your child needs special help with special educators.

7. Don't Expect the Classroom Teacher to Do It All

The inclusion lie is frustrating to the teacher as well as the learner. Many educators (especially new ones) get down on themselves when they struggle with inclusion as it puts them in the position of doing the impossible. They're made to feel inadequate by an approach that supports neither the child nor them.

Dr. Jerome Rosner writes: “I have no quarrel with a class being made up of children from various socioeconomic levels or from different racial groups and different neighborhoods. But I do not agree with the indiscriminate mixing of learning disabled and non-learning disabled children. A teacher cannot do justice to all of her students if they vary widely in their ability to make satisfactory progress under standard instructional conditions. Regardless of her knowledge, temperament, and commitment, it just cannot be done. Children will have to take their turn at being ignored, and the ones who can least afford this are the learning disabled children. They need much more time than the others. Hence even if they are fortunate enough to get the same number of minutes of direct instruction as the others, they will learn less and their deficits will compound daily.”

This book is on my shelf, highlighted and dog-eared like no other. Dr. Rosner warns about the inclusion lie.

8. Don't Fight the Labels

Based on numerous experiences with my son, I understand why parents are wary of labels. When he was diagnosed with autism (high functioning), the positive outcome was that he got the services he needed. The negative outcome was, based on that new label, people had preconceived ideas about him that were hard to shake.

When my son started kindergarten, he had a teacher who was extremely anxious about having an autistic student. She lined up reinforcements from the special education team before ever meeting my boy. It took time for her to get past the label and see that my son was bright and capable. Unfortunately, getting a designation such as autism is a necessary evil in special education so youngsters can get the services they need.

Final Thoughts

Early intervention services and special education classes helped my autistic son become an independent learner and now a productive high school student. Because he received speech and occupational therapy before starting elementary school, he was able to attend regular kindergarten with minimal help. He benefited immensely from the extra attention: the one-on-one instruction, the small group work, the unique games, the added incentives, and the lessons tailored to his strengths and weaknesses.

Being part of special education has been an invaluable resource for me as a parent as well. My increased knowledge of sensory processing disorders and autism has helped me become a more understanding mother to my son and an advocate for his unique needs. I've felt supported throughout the journey, grateful I didn't have to travel it alone and fully convinced earlier is better for special education.

Some children (like my son) are diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and autism. This video explains what SPD entails.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers