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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that mandates that all states must provide children, including those with disabilities, with a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Part C of IDEA provides for early intervention (EI) services for at-risk children from birth to their third birthdays. EI services assist young children with atypical physical, cognitive, communication, adaptive and social or emotional development. IDEA further mandates that EI services must be provided by qualified personnel, in natural environments and at no cost to the families (except where states provide for a system of payment, such as a sliding scale).
A Family-Based Approach
Services must be provided in a “natural environment”: a setting that is comparable to those provided to children without disabilities. Preference is given to services provided within the child’s community and home. This idea of natural environments also supports IDEA’s requirement that EI services have a family-based approach.
The idea behind EI is that supporting the family as well as the child is crucial to the child’s success. For example, EI services might consist of training family members to safely feed a child with hypotonia (poor muscle tone).
Steps in the Early Intervention Process
Identification or Referral
Parents may refer their children for EI, or a professional (i.e. a pediatrician) may identify them as requiring services through Child Find. To refer your child, contact your state’s EI or early childhood disability services program (not all states use the term “early intervention”). Each state administers its own EI program, and specific policies, terminology and procedures vary. There isn’t necessarily a single agency in each state that is responsible for administering EI. Instead, contact your state’s education agency; a representative can point you in the right direction. You can also ask your local school district about EI contact information, even though your child may not be enrolled there yet.
Tell the EI representative that you wish to refer your child for EI services. The representative may ask you some questions about your child’s development. By law, the representative must either refer or decline your child for an evaluation within two days.
As a parent, you must grant written consent for evaluations and services. At any time, you may withdraw this consent.
Your child will undergo evaluations by a team of qualified professionals. The evaluation team might consist of a psychologist, neurologist, speech-language pathologist (SLP), physical therapist (PT), occupational therapist (OT) or other professional, depending on the particular areas of concern for your child.
Don’t worry about your child undergoing a battery of intimidating tests; the professionals on the team are experienced in working with young children. As EI is a family-based approach, the professionals will also interview you and other family members, with their permission.
Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP)
If the evaluations determine that your child is eligible for services, an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) team will meet. The IFSP is a written document that defines your child’s areas of concern and details the services that your entire family will receive. It also defines goals for your child’s development. You will be part of the team of professionals that will develop the IFSP, and your input will be highly impactful.
By law, the IFSP must be reviewed every six months to make changes as needed. You may request an additional review at any time.
Transition planning begins prior to your child’s third birthday. The team may determine that your child no longer requires services. Or, your child will transition from an IFSP to an individualized education program (IEP) upon reaching his third birthday.