One of the most rewarding specializations within the field of special education, the early intervention credential enables a teacher to work with children from birth to kindergarten. Early intervention specialists can work inside a preschool classroom, but most provide individual services to children within their homes. These teachers may work directly for school districts, regionally based programs, medical providers or private education companies.
Children who receive early intervention services generally have more severe physical, cognitive, behavioral or communication delays than children who are identified later. So, their individualized education program (IEP) goals are usually more developmental than academic. Though it may seem to the casual observer that early intervention specialists are simply playing with these children, the exercises and games that these teachers use are actually designed to support critical skills development. In fact, education research proves again and again that the earlier a child with a disability receives special education support, the better.
A Day in the Life
The majority of early intervention specialists travel to their students’ homes because education research supports the theory that very young children make the most progress in their natural (home) environments. To follow is an example of the day-to-day schedule of a traveling early intervention specialist.
- Hour one: Travel to a the home of a child on caseload, a 4-year-old with communication difficulties resulting from an autism spectrum disorder. Use a variety of strategies and assistive technology designed to facilitate communication development, such as learning games, practicing the use of communication apps on tablets and direct instruction. Throughout the lesson, the parents are present and involved so that they can continue to practice the skills with the child after the teacher leaves.
- Hour two: Travel to the home of another caseload student, a 2-year-old with severe cognitive delays. Work on developmental milestones such as grasping, mobility, eating or other areas of need, as well as work with the parent to address any areas of developmental concern and to create lessons that can continue in the teacher’s absence.
- Hour three: Travel to the home of another child on caseload, a 4-year-old with severe behavioral difficulties resulting from Asperger’s syndrome. Apply the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to determine triggers and consequences for inappropriate behaviors. Work directly with the student and the parents to eliminate these behaviors and offer replacement behaviors that can support appropriate social interaction.
- Hour four: Travel to a new child’s house for assessment. (A pediatrician or psychologist referred the child to the school district, regional program or independent contractor for analysis.) Conduct age-appropriate assessments and determine what (if any) behaviors, communication issues or developmental milestones should be addressed in an IEP. (These findings will be communicated in a future IEP meeting.)
- Hour five: Return to the office for an IEP or progress report meeting. Meet with parents and district or corporate representatives to review a child’s goals, progress and next steps. Draft and sign a new IEP for the upcoming year.
- Hour six: Complete administrative tasks. Draft documents for upcoming IEPs, tabulate and write reports on assessments, make notes and update current students’ goals, call parents, meet with other specialists (for example, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists) and attend training programs and staff meetings.
General Licensing Requirements
Those interested in becoming an early intervention specialist must first complete an undergraduate degree. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires all state-licensed teachers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and to successfully complete an accredited preparation program that includes student teaching.
Specific preparation program requirements vary by state, but there are two general routes that lead to certification. The first is to complete a teacher preparation program through a university’s special education department, and to take classes toward the early intervention specialization. Some states also allow teachers who already hold elementary teaching credentials to take early intervention classes and, upon successful completion, apply for the early intervention credential.
For more specific information, visit the teacher certification section of Special Education Guide.
Areas of Specialization
The early intervention teacher is already, by definition, a specialist; however there are some sub-specialties within this field. For example, many independent organizations provide communication and behavioral support exclusively for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Some early intervention teachers also earn additional certifications in areas such as speech-language and physical therapy.
The Early Intervention Specialist on the Career Path
Many early intervention specialists begin their careers as elementary or preschool teachers. Those who already possess the elementary teaching credential can often earn a supplemental special education credential, allowing them to begin working with the youngest students very quickly. All credentialed early intervention teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree, and many earn degrees in child development, elementary education or liberal studies.
Early intervention specialists are often some of the most fulfilled and satisfied teachers within the field of special education, and many stay in their positions for the entirety of their careers. Some earn administrative credentials and obtain positions as special education administrators; others leave public education to start or join private organizations that provide services to students with special needs.
List of National Organizations of Interest
The following organizations serve the interests and needs of early intervention specialists: