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What you need to know about early intervention

Wondering whether to make the call? Our local experts walk you through the process.

“Parents know their children best. They are the best advocates for their children in the educational system.”

Worrying about whether your child might have a developmental disability can be tough. Are you overreacting? Is your pediatrician concerned? Should you just wait until your child is older before you make the call?

Early intervention services are designed to diagnose your child and provide the support and resources necessary to help him develop age-appropriate physical, cognitive, communication, social/emotional, and self-help skills.

Talk to your doctor

If you suspect your child may have a developmental disability, the first step is to talk to his pediatrician, says Leann Coyle, the Vice President of Educational Services for Abilities First in Poughkeepsie. Your pediatrician can then refer you to your county health department, and officials there will walk you through the process of testing your child and securing services.

Look for flags

While there is no concrete age at which a child should be tested, Coyle says missed developmental milestones are flags. If all the kids in your child’s play group are rolling over, smiling, and waving and your child is not, it’s a good idea to have him tested.

Claudia Stedge, a former program administrator at Country Acres Center in Saugerties, advises voicing your concerns immediately. “The early intervention program is just that — we provide services to address these delays so that your child is functioning at his potential,” she says.

What to expect

While the prospect of an evaluation may seem nerve-wracking, it’s actually a fun experience for many kids.

“Most children enjoy the evaluation whether or not they are able to complete many of the tasks since it looks like play,” says Coyle.

A special education teacher and/or a therapist will come to your home and take your child through a series of playful tasks to determine whether or not he is progressing at a normal pace for his age group. A county representative will also come to your home to complete an interview and talk through early intervention services.

Qualifying for services

The teacher who evaluates your child will be trained in the five areas of child development: motor, language, social, adaptive, and cognitive. After the evaluation, she will share the results in a written report to parents.

“This allows parents to see not only what their children are doing well, but also to pick up any concerns that they might not have been aware of yet,” says Coyle. To qualify for services, a child must show a 25 percent delay in two of the development areas, or a 33 percent delay in one.

What’s an IFSP?

If your child meets the specific criteria for service eligibility, an Individual Family Service Plan is written based on the child’s needs and the parent’s input, says Stedge. “Outcomes are written based on what the family wants the child to achieve with the team in the next six months.”

How much does it cost?

Early intervention services are free for families.

“The service coordinators will ask for your insurance, as some insurances will be billed as long as it is New York State regulated and does not go against the child’s lifetime cap,” says Stedge.

What if my child is ineligible?

If your child was found ineligible for services, but you are still concerned, you can typically request a re-evaluation after six months.

“The original report received from the first round of evaluations lists the next stages in development and activities that parents can do to foster development,” says Coyle. “Using those guidelines, you can spend more time engaging in those developmental play activities.”

Stedge notes that you can also find a private therapist.

Start early

If your child’s speech is the only developmental area that worries you, it’s still a good idea to request a comprehensive evaluation, given that all areas of human development are connected. The evaluation will diagnose which factors are affecting your child’s speech and in how many areas he may need services.

Additionally, it’s a safe bet to have nonverbal toddlers evaluated, even if other parents might tell you to wait. When children struggle to communicate, it could lead to behavioral problems that stem out of frustration down the road.

“Early testing can lead to early services, which provides the child with support in communication and avoids frustration and tantrums,” says Coyle.

School-aged children

If your child continues to receive services as he enters school, he will be placed on an Individualized Education Plan. An IEP is implemented by the school district to make sure your child receives the appropriate support and resources to stay on track in class.

Parents of children with IEPs can access community resources, such as the Early Childhood Direction Center and Taconic Resources, to learn about their rights and responsibilities and those of the school district. Families and the school district will then have a meeting to discuss the IEP.

To help your child get the most out of his IEP and to prepare for the meeting, Coyle advises: “Be a part of the evaluations prior to the meeting, consulting with team members to discuss test results, progress and areas of concern. Be open to information and choices presented at the meeting.”

READ MORE: Choosing the right placement for your preschooler with special needs

Yearly evaluations

Once children have been diagnosed, they will be reevaluated yearly to update diagnoses and ensure the services they receive are still appropriate.

“A diagnostic statement from your neurologist or developmental pediatrician can assist school districts in accurately prescribing needed interventions and supports for your child’s education,” Coyle says.

However the evaluation turns out, the best thing you can do for your child is enjoy unique experiences together and let him know he is loved and accepted no matter what. Encourage him to develop interests and get involved in the community, whether that’s through a sport, a music class, a performing arts group, or another avenue that appeals to your child.

“Believe in your child’s potential and work with her or his strengths. Parents know their children best. They are the best advocates for their children in the educational system,” says Stedge.

Elora Tocci is a freelance writer born and raised in the Hudson Valley. She currently works as a communications manager for Teach For America in New York City.