What is Early Intervention and why is it so important? Nationally, Early Intervention (EI) is a system of services that helps children birth to age three who are at risk for developmental delay. EI support services can include special educators, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and counselors, and targets areas of deficit, to remediate or support proper development of skills. Research has found that children who participate in EI services demonstrate improvement developmentally across multiple areas, including cognition, language, communication, social-emotional, and physical. Once children are older than three, the idea of early intervention takes on a different meaning, and that is the focus of the Early Childhood division of Stephen Gaynor School.
The Early Childhood (EC) division has been a unique and innovative model of educational early intervention for students aged three and a half to six since it was first opened in 2012. EC classroom teams include teachers, a speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist; therapists are dedicated to each classroom for fifty percent of each school day. The EC combines traditional early childhood experiences with the most effective learning strategies, helping students make great strides in their education, social, physical, and emotional development and puts them on the path to sustained academic success. High-quality early intervention services have the potential to change a child’s developmental trajectory and improve educational outcomes for our students.
“The first years, developmentally, are years of tremendous growth,” says Rebecca Jurow, Director of Early Childhood at Gaynor. “From birth to age eight, the brain is programmed to learn so much. It is a critical period in the development of foundational skills, across all areas of development.” In EC, the development of foundational skills is the focus, and the full-team approach is invaluable to the detection of challenges and teaching, or unlearning and re-teaching, of skills. Development unfolds unevenly in each child, and among children. In EC, teachers and therapists are watching to make sure that development and learning are progressing at a steady rate, regardless of speed for each child and where each child is developmentally.
During early childhood, educators, therapists and physicians use developmental checklists to track growth and learning. There are developmental milestones each child should meet as they grow. “Milestones are milestones for important reasons,” says Jurow. “If a child doesn’t hit them, there may be ramifications later in development. Maybe you won’t see it right away, but you’ll likely see it down the road.” For example, if a child is struggling with bilateral skills (both hands working together) and upper body strength, educators and therapists wonder if the young child crawled before walking, because crawling helps develop bilateral integration and strengthens hands, arms and shoulder girdles. EC teachers and therapists are watching bilateral coordination, crossing of midline and posture as indicators of a child’s ability to sit for the duration of activities, develop functional handwriting and use two hands simultaneously to write and stabilize the paper, among many other skills. Milestones are important building blocks; they are foundational for later development of skills.
It often seems there are particular milestones that are more important or significant than others — major achievements like walking and talking as infants, or reading a little later in early childhood. But these skills and other milestones often emerge because of the development of foundational skills on which they are built. Teachers and therapists in EC are monitoring, teaching and supporting development and learning across all areas of development. For example, classroom and reading teachers watch for and work on a child’s understanding of the alphabetic principle — that is, the systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language. Explicit, isolated instruction on the letter-sound relationship is early intervention for students who are at risk for reading difficulties. Teachers are watching and working on developing phonemic awareness — that is, awareness that spoken words are made up of individual sounds (phonemes), to notice and work with the sounds in words. This may come easily to some, but may be more difficult for others.
Not surprisingly, teachers and therapists in EC are watching a variety of skills to monitor language development. Pragmatic language or social language use (what we say, how we say it, and sharing opinions and ideas appropriately for the situation) in play and conversations, give teachers and therapists opportunities to hear and see how effective and functional skills are for students and the people with whom they are engaged, and help determine what interventions are needed.
There are a number of skills in the areas of working memory, cognitive self-control and attention that support learning and are monitored and taught in the EC classrooms. Teachers and therapists work to support the development of conscious problem solving, execution of multi-step plans, ability to successfully and meaningfully shift attention, and inhibition of responses, among many other executive functions in early childhood because these skills are important for future success as learners.
“Our goal is to create a community where students feel comfortable and safe to learn and grow. Through our EC program, we can clearly see the myriad benefits of an early start at Gaynor,” said Jurow.
This article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Gaynor Gazette.