March 6 — 5:06 pm, 2006

Getting help from state’s early intervention systems

Perhaps the most anxiety-ridden part of being a parent is answering the question: How is my child doing? Is he “normal?” As parents, we can’t help but compare our child to other children around us.

Child development can be broken down into five major areas: physical (moving, seeing, hearing), language and speech (talking, expressing needs), social and emotional (relating to others), self-help (eating, dressing, toileting), and cognitive (thinking and learning). Each child grows and learns at his or her own rate, and it’s important for parents to have expectations that are reasonable for the child’s age.

However, some children experience delays in one or more of these areas of development. Early years are critical learning years, and early detection and intervention provide the greatest chance of improving skills.

If you are worried about your child’s development, the “early intervention system” can help. The early intervention system includes supports and services that are used by thousands of local families with infants, toddlers, or preschoolers who have developmental delays or disabilities. Last year almost 4,000 Philadelphia children under age 3 – and over 4,700 preschoolers – received early intervention services and supports.

Initially, families work with a team to evaluate the strengths and needs of their child. If significant delay in one or more developmental area is evident, or a disability is identified, a plan is written. An “Individual Family Service Plan” (IFSP) is the plan developed for the infant or toddler. An “Individual Education Plan” (IEP) is the plan for a child of age three or older.

The plan details necessary services, supports, and special education, including occupational, speech/language or physical therapy, and vision and hearing supports. The IFSP or IEP is a “contract” between the family and the early intervention agency, and the child must receive the listed services within set timelines.

The plan also determines the best place for services to occur. Whenever appropriate, young children should receive their early intervention services in settings at which children without disabilities participate, including the home, child care, preschool, or other community settings.

Training through Pennsylvania Early Intervention Technical Assistance and supports through the Bureau of Special Education are available to create more opportunities for children to be included in typical early childhood settings.

Parents must take an active role in their child’s evaluation and the development of their child’s plan. Parents know what is important for their child and their family. Other key team members are people who know and spend time with their child – other family members, friends, or caregivers.

To obtain services for a child under the age of 3, a parent should contact Philadelphia Mental Retardation Services, 215-731-2110, and ask for an evaluation. This County Office has 45 calendar days in which to evaluate the child and complete the IFSP. Services must start within 14 days of the completion of the IFSP.

To obtain services if a child is 3 years of age or older and hasn’t started kindergarten, a parent should contact the local preschool early intervention agency – in Philadelphia, call Elwyn, Inc., at 215-222-8054. After receiving the parent’s written permission, the local preschool agency has 60 calendar days to evaluate the child and give the parents a written report. If the child is eligible for services, the agency must convene a meeting within 30 days to develop the child’s IEP. Services must start within 14 days of the completion of the IEP.

Although different agencies are responsible for the youngest children and for preschoolers, the transition at age three is supposed to be “seamless.” Before the child turns three, a “transition meeting” is held that includes the family, the infant/toddler agency, and the preschool agency. If the family and the preschool agency do not agree on what services should be included in the child’s IEP, the family can request a hearing. While the hearing and appeal process are continuing, the child must receive the services listed in the last agreed-upon IFSP.

The Education Law Center provides publications to help families gain access to quality early childhood and school-age programs and also advocates for improved services; see www.elc-pa.org/pubs/pubs.html or call 215-238-6970 for free copies of ELC publications or legal advice about your child’s rights.

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