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The Development of
Early Childhood Intervention

Educational early intervention for children with disabilities was established in 1968, under the Early Education Programs for Children with Disabilities legislation (formerly, Handicapped Children's Early Education Assistance Act of 1968). Early intervention is the process of identifying eligible children ages 0-5, determining intervention needs and strategies, and providing supports to children and families in their homes and communities (Shakelford, 1997). There are four major principles that provide the practical foundation for early intervention. These are: broad-based early identification, whole child supports, family focused intervention, and interagency collaboration. Broad-based early identification means that young children at risk are identified as early as possible and can receive services even if they have developmental delays not yet tied to a specific diagnosis. Whole child supports are interventions designed to improve developmental functioning overall for a child, not limiting services to a specific focus (i.e., educational services only). Family focused intervention means that for very young children, interventions to address family needs can be a part of the planning process. Interagency collaboration means that in providing intervention and services, there is teaming and collaboration between each of the agencies involved, both at the family and administrative levels of service delivery.

For young children who are deaf or hard of hearing, early identification has been of primary concern because otherwise children miss crucial communication and language development opportunities. Due to advances in technology and an accompanying activism by professionals around the country, the majority of states have Universal Newborn Hearing Screening programs intended to screen infants for hearing loss immediately at or shortly after birth, increasing the likelihood of early identification of infants who are deaf or hard of hearing. Following screening, eligible families may participate in a transdisciplinary planning process where they, in collaboration with early intervention team members and providers, identify the child's needs in all areas, and design a plan for meeting those needs. For families of young children who are deaf or hard of hearing, quality information about communication and ways to increase and improve communication are often one important focus of the individualized family service plan (IFSP). Helping families access information about communication options is often another large focal point of early intervention programs.

Services can be provided in a variety of settings through early intervention depending on the child's needs. In the home, parent outreach programs may offer home visits by a specialist in deafness and hard of hearing. Diverse services may be provided in school by a teacher, speech-language specialist, and/or audiologist as well as a host of other service providers. In the community, parents and children can access both home and center-based interventions as well as other supports to increase the child's interaction in natural environments.

When a child reaches age 3, planning begins to focus on transition to public education and the skills and supports the child will need as they grow to school age. The provisions for planning and support at this stage are outlined in Section 619 of the IDEA, and are designed to support smooth transition from early intervention services to successful educational experiences for students in public school. During this transition, planning becomes more child focused or education focused, and less family focused, as transition to elementary school occurs. Seeking support from other families who have been through this process can be very helpful (Massachusetts Interagency Collaborating Council, 1997).

Early intervention has been and continues to be supported by federal, state, community and private foundations and initiatives. Early intervention to meet the needs of young children with disabilities is protected under state and federal legislation, and is seen as vital to improving educational outcomes for children who are deaf or hard of hearing.


Peterson, N. (1987). Early intervention for handicapped and at-risk children. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Co.

Dunst, C.J. (1996). Early intervention in the U.S. In Brambring, M., Raul, H., and Beelmann, A. (Eds.), Early Childhood Intervention: Theory, Evaluation & Practice, pp.11-52. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.

Massachusetts Interagency Collaborating Council. (1997). Working together: Early intervention family participation resources. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Department of Health.

Shakelford, J. (1997). State interagency collaborating council overview: Policies, programs, and practices of state ICC under IDEA. Chapel Hill, NC: National Early Childhood Technical Assistance System.

Thurman, S.K., Cornwell, J.R., & Gottwald, S.R. (Eds.). (1997). Contexts of Early Intervention: Systems and Settings. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.