Serving the Young Child: 30 Years of Early Childhood Intervention

October 8, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the enactment of PL 99-457. With this event began the provision of intervention services to young children with disabilities aged birth to 5. Since that time, the design of early childhood intervention has been quite variable, to include in-home services, part-time supports within an educational agency, and full-day services within a preschool programs. Federal and state agencies provide funding for different types of services, with each specifying specific strategies for delivery and outcomes to be expected. In addition to early intervention services, the universal preschool model is opening early educational opportunities to children who do not have identified disabilities. As a result of these initiatives, the young child is a member of the educational community.

As a trainee, I didn’t have a specific interest in working with young children. Soon after internship, however, an intervention-focused job in a local school system led me to preschool. This district managed a thriving Head Start program and began to implement universal preschool for all 4 year olds. What fun – if you’ve ever danced and had your hair done in a preschool classroom, you’d know what I mean! My first impression of this setting was the focus on exposure and opportunity for children from economically disadvantaged families. I’ve worked with children who’ve never been to a zoo, never been to a mall, who have told me the reason that we have cars is “to evacuate from hurricanes”. What I observed was setting goals for each child in each area of development, not just in their areas of weakest performance. From August to May, we watched the “whole child” grow.

There are a number of positive outcomes related to early intervention for young children. Yet many children who are at-risk for delays in social, adaptive, cognitive, motor, and communication skills are not determined eligible according to the requirements of IDEA. In many areas, high quality early childhood services are not available for those at-risk, and informal in-home care may not provide needed supports (Bagnato, 2006). Our evaluation and inclusion criteria for formal services focus on within-child variables when, in some cases environmental variables are of significant impact.

As a provider, I am often asked to assist families with a child’s social and emotional difficulties that occur within the home and/or school setting. My focus is on exploring what we can teach the child to do, in addition to providing accommodations in the environment. It is important to operationally define the steps of each skill, and to build fluency with each. It is also important to allow the young child to be imperfect, as adults are.

As a trainer, I think ahead about the next 30 years in which my students will work as school psychology professionals. I think about how well we are training them to address the needs of the future young child. Here are three ideas about the needs of these children:

1. Who is our client?

For the young child, there is a focus on family services in addition to child services. Supporting the family in finding appropriate community services, accessing adequate health services, understanding their child’s strengths and needs, and knowing how to “teach” or work with their child are important goals. There is a wide range of implementation here, and varying degrees to which parents are “recipients” of services or “participants” in services. There is also a range in which the family is able to identify their own preferences in terms of strategies and goals (Hemmeter, Ostrosky, & Fox, 2006). My observation is that this is an extremely difficult area to implement best practices, and my trainees observe this difficulty in the field. It is important that they develop skills in growing meaningful family involvement in the broad range of services they receive.

2. What outcomes do we want?

Most would agree that one focus of early childhood intervention is to ready the child for school. Accountability for doing so may a) focus on academic readiness more than social-emotional readiness and b) direct early childhood interventionists away from developmentally appropriate practices. It is important that the early intervention setting meet the child’s needs, rather than the other way around. As a school psychologist working in an early childhood setting, my assessment strategies might involve progress monitoring specific growth indicators rather than providing a one-time standardized assessment. With regard to social-emotional skills, these should be specifically targeted rather than picked up along the way. I say that “plays well with others” is a primary goal for school readiness.

3. Can we meet increasingly diverse needs?

According to the U.S. Census projections, the overall population is expected to increase by over 2 million individuals per year over the next 40 years. The largest growth is expected for foreign-born individuals. When considering race and Hispanic origin, the largest growth is expected for members of two or more races, Asian individuals, and Hispanic individuals. (Colby & Ortman, 2015). We must be ready to address the needs of these children. Our population of early childhood interventionists and school psychologists does not match the demographics of the population we will serve. In addition, our current research base will need to keep pace with addressing the needs of children in terms of family makeup, language and customs of the family, and the differential effect of evidence-based practices across these individual differences.

In celebration of this 30th anniversary, I have a plan to visit a preschool class next week. The investigator in me wants to see how these ideas apply there. Join me in celebrating! As you go about your day, please stop and watch a young child for a moment when you have a chance. And be sure to smile and nod at that child’s grown up; his or her job is important! We can all use a little bit of encouragement in what we do.

_If you’d like to know more about the anniversary of early intervention services, check out this topic at the State Department of Education webpage:_



Bagnato, S. J. (2006). Of Helping and Measuring for Early Childhood Intervention: Reflections

on Issues and School Psychology’s Role. School Psychology Review, 35(4), pp. 615-620.

Colby, S. L. and Ortman, J. M. (2015, March). Projections of the Size and Composition of the

U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. Retrieved October 7, 2016, from the U. S. Census Bureau Web site:

Hemmeter, M. L., Ostrosky, M., & Fox, L. Social and Emotional Foundations for Early

Learning: A Conceptual Model for Intervention. School Psychology Review, 35 (4), pp. 583– 601.

Hojnoski, R. L. and Missall, K. N. (2006) Addressing School Readiness: Expanding School

Psychology in Early Education School Psychology Review, 35(4), pp. 602– 614.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *