Early Childhood Education

Early Intervention


“Early intervention” as applied to early childhood education refers to policies, systems, programs, services, and supports provided to vulnerable young children and/or their families in order to maximize a child’s development. The concepts and practices of early intervention rely upon knowledge derived from the developmental science of normative child development as well as the developmental science of risk and disability, coupled with clinical experience and evidence-based educational and developmental strategies. Research findings and social values over the last century have led to the recognition of the unique contributions special supportive services provide to children during the early childhood years. Vulnerable children and families for whom early intervention may be valuable include children with established disabilities as well as children whose development is at risk due to a variety of biological or environmental factors.

Established disabilities include children with cognitive delays (often leading to a diagnosis of mental retardation), autism, motor disabilities, communication and language disorders, and hearing and vision impairments. Recently, attention has been paid to the importance of early intervention for children with or at risk for social/emotional disorders and challenging behavior.

Vulnerable children at risk for developmental problems such as those due to prematurity/low birth weight, infectious diseases, exposure to toxic substances and other environmental health risks, poverty, violence, abuse, or neglect can benefit from a variety of preventive intervention programs. The populations of children needing early intervention are expanding rapidly worldwide (ISEI, 2004; Olness, 2003).

The concept of early intervention implies that: (1) acting earlier rather than later results in important effects not gained if action is delayed, and (2) action is needed beyond that typically available and is based on specific circumstances and unique child and family characteristics. First, intervening early is grounded in the recognition of the impact of the early years on a child’s later life. Recently, this belief has been realized in various “school readiness” movements. Studies of the difficulties of children with special needs have shown that developmental problems or school failure can be reduced or prevented through effective early intervention (Guralnick, 1998). Early intervention services and systems are also supported by social values; in other words, supporting families and children who are in need is considered the right thing to do. Second, early intervention refers to services beyond those typically available that are targeted to the particular needs of children and families that have been carefully assessed. This component of early intervention relates to the need to individualize interventions for the child and family.


Early Intervention Policies and Systems

Public policies and systems have been crafted to ensure that certain populations of children receive early intervention in order to optimize their development. One of the earliest of the United States federal efforts was Head Start, launched in l965 with the purpose of improving outcomes for children whose development was at risk particularly related to poverty. While the Head Start program has not reached a level of funding to serve all eligible children, the program provides funding and guidance to local Head Start programs nationwide to serve low income children

as well as children with disabilities. A goal of Head Start is for 10 percent of the enrollment to be children with disabilities.

Other public policies related to early intervention in early childhood education have been developed at the federal, state, and local levels. A major federal program for children with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established in l975 (as the Education of the Handicapped Act). IDEA provides funds and guidance to states to provide a free, appropriate education for children with disabilities from birth to twenty-one years of age. IDEA contains two major provisions related to early intervention for young children: (1) Part C for infants and toddlers who have disabilities and the option for states to serve children who are at risk for developing a disability or developmental delay, and (2) the preschool provisions of Part B which provide for appropriate education and related services to children ages 3-5 with disabilities or developmental delays.

Various state and local policies have been enacted over the past several years to provide early intervention to young children including an increasing number of state programs to provide early childhood education to children at risk. Included in this trend is the establishment of state Interagency Coordinating Councils (ICCs) under IDEA which recognize that young children with disabilities and their families may need coordinated services and supports provided by many state and local agencies including health, education, Medicaid, professional development institutions, social services, and mental health. There are other state cross-agency efforts focused on young children including state early education or school readiness efforts and children’s mental health initiatives.


Early Intervention Services

Effective, highly individualized early intervention systems rely on many disciplines, including those from health and education as well as those representing social and behavioral domains. Early intervention services require specialized knowledge and skills in order to be effective (Sandall et al., 2005). National professional associations have issued guidelines for appropriately meeting children’s special needs. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) have produced joint recommendations for personnel knowledge and skills needed to effectively provide early intervention and special education to young children with disabilities, and have developed a position statement (see www.dec-sped.org) with respect to delivering early intervention and special services in typical settings referred to as “inclusion.” DEC also provides recommendations for appropriate early intervention and special education services for young children with disabilities (Sandall et al., 2005). In addition, Head Start provides guidance for programs serving eligible children in the form of Head Start Program Performance Standards and issues specific guidance related to serving children with disabilities within Head Start programs.

An important development in the general field of early intervention over the past thirty years is the principle and associated practices of inclusion. A major feature of this concept refers to the delivery of special services or early intervention services within the context of natural environments, that is, environments where the child’s peers and family typically spend time. This movement has led to delivering early intervention services in typical early childhood settings such as child-care environments, preschools, and other community settings (see DEC position on Inclusion, www.dec-sped.org). Inclusion has affected how personnel are prepared, how services are delivered, and how society views children with special needs (Guralnick, 2001b). Of importance, the services of IDEA can be provided in any location as long as they are overseen by IDEA agencies. Thus, the IDEA early intervention services are not defined by a place (e.g., special class) but rather by a child’s written individualized education plan (IEP). Inclusion has led to the blending of programs, funding sources, children, and personnel so that all children, whether receiving early intervention or typical early childhood services, can be together. See also Child Abuse and Neglect; Disabilities, Young Children with; Early Childhood Special Education.

Further Readings: Division for Early Childhood (DEC). Available online at www.dec- sped.org; Guralnick, M. J., ed. (1997). The effectiveness of early intervention. Baltimore: Brookes; Guralnick, M. J. (1998). The effectiveness of early intervention for vulnerable children: A developmental perspective. American Journal on Mental Retardation 102, 319-345; Guralnick, M. J. (2001a). Connections between developmental science and intervention science. Zero to Three 21(5), 24-29; Guralnick, M. J., ed. (2001b). Early childhood inclusion. Baltimore: Brooks; International Society on Early Intervention (ISEI) (2004). Available online at http://depts.washington.edu/isei/; Meisels, S. J., and J. P. Shonkoff, eds. (2000). Handbook of early childhood intervention. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press; Olness, K. (2003). Effects on brain development leading to cognitive impairment: A worldwide epidemic. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 24, 120-130; Sandall, S., M. L. Hemmeter, B. J. Smith, and M. McLean (2005). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/Early childhood special education. Longmont, CO: Sopris West; Smith, B. J. (2000). The federal role in early childhood special education policy in the next century: The responsibility of the individual. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 20(1), 7-13.

Barbara J. Smith and Michael J. Guralnick


Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development

Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development is published by Routledge on behalf of Training, Advancement and Co-operation in Teaching Young Children (TACTYC). As the importance of early childhood education and care in providing the foundations for lifelong learning is now widely acknowledged, the journal aims to broaden the international debate by representing a wide range of perspectives from different countries, different disciplines, and different research methodologies.

The journal publishes papers which relate to the training, education, and continuing professional development of all early years practitioners including managers, support staff, qualified teachers, and higher education academics teaching on early childhood courses and specialisms. Early Years is published three times per year. For more information, please visit http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/09575146.asp.

Rod Parker-Rees and Marian Whitehead