- Family and Parenting
What Are Early Intervention Services? Avoid These 4 Common Mistakes When Your Child Is Referred
Some parents decline early intervention services for their young children, denying there's a serious issue. Others reject special education classes, worrying their children will get labeled. Still others turn down help because their pride got wounded. But early intervention services should get embraced, not rejected.
Don't Let Wounded Pride Stop You from Accepting the Help Your Child Needs
When my 3-year-old son got referred for speech and occupational therapies, I experienced all those feelings of denial, worry, and hurt. He was my first-born child, and it pained me beyond belief that others didn't see my "sweet angel boy" as I did. Bringing him to therapy three times a week while other mothers attended Mommy and Me classes and met for play dates in the park made me sad, depressed, and lonely. When he got officially diagnosed with autism at age 5, I thought I'd never feel joy again.
But 12 years have passed and my son is now thriving at public high school -- earning good grades and surrounded by a small but loyal group of buddies. Today, I credit early intervention for my son's success, and I encourage other parents to embrace those services. Earlier is better for special education and the help that's plentiful in the first five years dwindles as kids grow older.
Mistake #1 – Deny and Delay
Hearing your child has emotional, behavioral, and/or cognitive difficulties is terrifying news to parents and some react with denial and delay. While this is perfectly understandable, it's not advisable to stay in this state for long. When my son got referred for speech and occupational therapies at age 3, I was not ready to hear anything negative about my precious little boy. It was tempting to do nothing, to listen to my mother who said: “There's nothing wrong with him. It's just a phase he'll outgrow. Your brothers went through the same thing.” Our pediatrician suggested taking a similarly passive “let's wait and see” approach. While doing nothing appealed to me as I was already overwhelmed by a 3-year-old and a new baby, I listened to my maternal gut that told me to be proactive.
From birth until age 5, 90% of a child's brain develops. Parents should capitalize on this window of opportunity and pursue early intervention services with a sense of urgency. They're available during the first 5 years but greatly diminish when a child begins elementary school. Some communities have kind, supportive, and knowledgeable early intervention advocates who will connect you with the services your child needs. Other communities, unfortunately, offer very little and you will have to do your own research and fight your own battles, but it's definitely worth the effort.
My son attended weekly occupational therapy sessions and biweekly speech therapy sessions. His therapists worked with him one-on-one in a direct way using clear, simple directions. They monitored his progress, reviewed old skills, and added new ones. These early intervention services were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my son and me and we weren't going to waste the experience. I watched, learned, and continued the activities at home to ensure fast and effective progress. I knew that once he started elementary school he would never again receive this kind of personalized attention.
Parents Need to Put Their Feelings Aside so Their Children Can Benefit from Early Intervention
Mistake #2 -- Reject Special Help
In the name of fairness, some parents (and teachers as well) believe that schools should treat all children the same way -- no preferential treatment for anyone. However, when we stop to think about this, we realize how ridiculous and impractical it is. Should we deny a wheelchair and a ramp to a youngster who's unable to walk? Should we forbid Braille books and a white cane for a child who's blind? Should we place children who speak other languages into a classroom where everyone speaks English and say: sink or swim? Most of us recognize that these children deserve special help and it would be unjust not to offer it. The same holds true for children with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral needs. Fairness does not mean treating all children the same but giving each child what he or she needs.
Many children learn best by working independently. Teachers might refer to them as “sponges” because they soak up information from sources all around them. They learn by reading silently, by interacting with peers, by doing cooperative learning projects, by conducting experiments, by working with a partner, and by listening to lectures. With these autonomous learners, teachers can act as facilitators – stocking the classroom with stimulating materials, providing challenging tasks, and letting students gain knowledge by doing.
Not all children, however, learn this way. My son didn't. He needed small group instruction in speech and reading when he began elementary school. He needed a speech therapist to work with him directly -- showing him slowly, concretely, and repetitively how to make certain sounds and demonstrating how to contort his mouth and where to place his tongue. He needed lots of reminders about maintaining eye contact when speaking and a lot practice in reading facial expressions. He needed a reading specialist to help him with phonological awareness and decoding skills.
As Dr. Jerome Rosner, an expert on learning differences, writes: “The learning disabled child needs explicit, unambiguous instruction that is offered in limited portion and accompanied by more than the usual amount of drill and practice. This cannot be done in a classroom where twenty-five children congregate with one teacher...The learning disabled child should not have to share his teacher with more than six to eight other children, at least not during those portions of the day when the key subjects – reading and arithmetic – are being taught.”
Children With Special Needs Are Entitled to Special Services
Mistake #3 – Buy the Inclusion Lie
Unfortunately, many parents buy the lie that inclusion is all their child needs. Some school districts, to save money and appear politically correct, offer no direct special education services but rely solely on inclusion. Inclusion occurs when children with disabilities and without disabilities learn in the same classroom and are given the same instruction. Knowledgeable, vocal, and persistent parents -- unafraid to rattle cages -- will push until their children get the special education services they need. Uninformed, quiet, and passive parents will settle for whatever morsels the district hands them – in other words, inclusion.
Last year I had a boy with Down's Syndrome in my kindergarten class. His parents bought the inclusion lie and wanted him to “blend in” with the other children and receive no extra help. Without direct instruction in speech and occupational therapies, he fell further behind. He needed an occupational therapist to work with him one-on-one to develop the muscles in his fingers and hands so he could hold a pencil comfortably and correctly. He needed a speech therapist to work with him on articulation and social communication so he could talk when frustrated, not hit and push.
The inclusion lie is frustrating to the teacher as well as the learner. As a seasoned educator, I knew my limitations with this little boy. I was fully aware that I couldn't possibly give him all the help he needed when I had 19 other children in the class. However, many teachers (especially new ones) get down on themselves when they struggle with inclusion. They're made to feel "less than" by an approach that supports neither the child nor the teacher. Nobody should feel inferior when they're attempting the impossible.
Dr. Jerome Rosner writes: “I have no quarrel with a class being made up of children from various socioeconomic levels or from different racial groups and different neighborhoods. But I do not agree with the indiscriminate mixing of learning disabled and non-learning disabled children. A teacher cannot do justice to all of her students if they vary widely in their ability to make satisfactory progress under standard instructional conditions. Regardless of her knowledge, temperament, and commitment, it just cannot be done. Children will have to take their turn at being ignored, and the ones who can least afford this are the learning disabled children. They need much more time than the others. Hence even if they are fortunate enough to get the same number of minutes of direct instruction as the others, they will learn less and their deficits will compound daily.”
Dr. Jerome Rosner's Book Is a Must-Have for Parents of Children with Learning Differences. He Warns Against the Inclusion Lie.
I Love Dr. Rosner's Book for Promoting Direct Instruction, Not Simply Inclusion
As a teacher and mom of an autistic son, I can't say enough positive things about this book. It's a must-have for anyone who has a child with learning differences. Unlike special education ideologues, who believe inclusion is the be-all and end-all, Rosner champions direction instruction. I have this book on my shelf and refer to it frequently. It's been highlighted and dog-eared like no other!
Mistake #4 -- Fight the Labels
From experiences with my son, I certainly understand why parents are wary of labels. They have good reason to be. When my son was eventually diagnosed with autism (high functioning), I saw this designation get him the services he needed. However, it also gave people a distorted picture him. They had preconceived ideas about him long before meeting him.
Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man, an autistic savant with confounding math skills, comes to mind when people think of autism. I've had to explain again and again that autistic savants are small in number and, no, my son has no such amazing powers. I've also explained many times that autism is a spectrum disorder with a range of severity from very mild to very extreme.
Before my son started kindergarten, his teacher became extremely anxious upon hearing she'd have a student with autism in her class. She lined up reinforcements from the special education team before she ever met my son. It only took a couple days before she realized my son was hardly distinguishable from the other children and the only extra service he needed was speech therapy. Yet, despite this, I see getting labeled as a necessary evil in special education -- a way to tap into the services that are needed.
Nobody Likes to Get Labeled but It's a Necessary Evil in Special Education
Early intervention services and special education classes helped my son with autism become an independent learner and now a productive high school student. Because he received speech and occupational therapies before starting elementary school, he could attend regular kindergarten with minimal help. While some parents worry that special education will stigmatize their child, I've seen it bolster mine. He has benefited from the extra attention – the one-on-one instruction, the small group work, the unique games, the added incentives, the lessons tailored to his strengths and weaknesses. Being part of special education has been an invaluable resource for me as a parent. My increased knowledge of sensory processing disorders and autism have helped me become a more understanding mother to my son and an advocate for his unique needs. I've felt supported throughout the journey, grateful I didn't have to travel it alone, and fully convinced earlier is better for special education.
Some Children like My Son Are Diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism. This Video Explains What SPD Entails.
What Works in Special Education?
What do you think is most beneficial to children with learning differences?
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