Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Early Childhood Intervention: A Promise to Children and Families for Their Future

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Early Childhood Intervention: A Promise to Children and Families for Their Future

Article excerpt

Infancy and early childhood are important times in any child's life. For children with disabilities, the early years are critical for a number of reasons. First, the earlier a child is identified as having a developmental delay or disability, the greater the likelihood the child will benefit from intervention strategies designed to compensate for the child's needs (e.g., Guralnick, 2005a). Second, families benefit from the support given to them through the intervention process (Dunst, 2007). Third, schools and communities benefit from a decrease in costs because more children arrive at school ready to learn (Carta & Kong, 2007).

As a field, early childhood intervention has been defined as the provision of educational or therapeutic services to children under the age of 8 (Sigel, 1972). Legislatively, early intervention is used to describe the years from birth to age 3, although the term early childhood special education or preschool special education has been used to describe the period of preschool years (ages 3-5). This article provides an overview of early childhood intervention as described by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), Part C, which addresses services for children from birth to age 3 and their families, and section 619 of Part B, which covers services for children ages 3 through 5. The term early childhood intervention will be used to describe the population of children, from birth through age 5 eligible for services under IDEA.

This group represents a diversity of backgrounds, family structures, and disability types; the most common trait being that for some reason (biological risk, environmental risk, established risk, or a combination), their development has been compromised and they are experiencing a delay between what is expected behavior for their age and what they are able to do across one or more developmental domains (cognition, motor, communication, adaptive).


More than 50 years of research support the effectiveness of intervention for infants and young children with disabilities (Gallagher, 2000; Guralnick, 2008; Kirk, 1958; Trohanis, 2008). Although some studies have had methodological limitations (e.g., heterogeneity of the population, lack of control groups, narrowly defined outcome measures, inappropriateness of standardized measures of intelligence for the population), the data collected thus far demonstrate that early learning and development can be affected by intervention across a number of developmental domains, and subpopulations of children (Guralnick, 2005b). As society has become more aware of the importance of the years from birth to 5, early childhood intervention models, programs, and services have become an expected entitlement for families of children with disabilities.

The rich history of the field of early childhood intervention spans many disciplines and fields of study, including health, psychology, early childhood education, and special education, and collectively they have contributed to the design and delivery of early childhood intervention in this country. Conceptualized from an ecological model of human learning and development (Bronfenbrenner, 1992), early childhood intervention views child, parent, and family functioning as complex: The processes that influence early learning and development are produced by the interaction of the environments experienced by a child and the characteristics of the people (including the developing child) within these environments. Recently, Dunst (2007) proposed a definition of early (childhood) intervention that addresses this framework:

   Early childhood intervention is defined as the experiences and
   opportunities afforded infants and toddlers (and preschoolers) with
   disabilities by the children's parents and other primary caregivers
   (including service providers) that are intended to promote the
   children's acquisition and use of behavioral competencies to shape
   and influence their prosocial interactions with people and objects. … 
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