What Is Early Intervention for Children?

If your child has a developmental delay or disability, early intervention may help. The program provides resources and support for families of young children with developmental delays and disabilities.

With early intervention, children can get support that can help advance their:

  • Cognitive development.
  • Communication development.
  • Emotional and social development.
  • Physical development.

Learn more about early intervention, including who qualifies, how it works, and how it benefits kids and families.

What Is Early Intervention?

Early intervention is a program that provides resources for children with developmental disabilities and delays. Every U.S. state and territory has an early intervention program. Most are available to families at a free or reduced cost; Pennsylvania’s Early Intervention program is free.

“Any family that has any concerns about any areas of their child’s development can request the evaluation through early intervention,” says Kenneth Tormey, PsyD, psychologist, Developmental Medicine, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

About 1 in 6 children in the U.S. have developmental delays or disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Developmental delays and disabilities happen when a medical condition or other factor slows a child’s physical, cognitive, and/or behavioral development.

Through early intervention, clinical specialists work with children to help them in key areas of development.

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How Does Early Intervention Work?

Parents who have concerns about their child’s development can request an evaluation through early intervention. Depending on the results of the evaluation, the child may qualify for resources from the program.

In most cases, two evaluators who specialize in child development visit a family. These evaluators are usually speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, or developmental therapists. They do a full evaluation of a child’s status in key developmental areas.

“The process involves a pretty thorough assessment,” Dr. Tormey says. “They’ll come in and look at the child’s communication skills, social skills, play skills, and their gross and fine motor skills.

“They do the thorough assessment of all the areas of development. Then they provide feedback to the family based on the results of the assessment and discuss what services, if any, the child qualifies for.

“Some kids actually get evaluated and they don’t qualify for anything. Then, they’re just told that things are within normal limits and to keep an eye on things.”

Based on the results of the evaluation, the child may qualify for early intervention coaching support and services. Those services include:

  • Developmental therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy

A child will receive the services they need in their home every week or every two weeks, Dr. Tormey says. After three to six months, the children get evaluated again to see if things have improved.

“If they’re meeting where they should be for their age, then they might be discharged from that service,” he says. “So, if they’re getting multiple services, they might be discharged from physical therapy, but they’ll continue speech therapy because they still have a need in that area.”

Families of children with certain developmental disabilities — like autism spectrum disorder — also may get recommendations to seek outside clinical care.

Early intervention is available for children from babies through age 3. If the child still needs resources after that, they then move on to a service called the Intermediate Unit for ages 3 to 5.

The Benefits of Early Intervention

Early intervention enables children who are behind in their development to get the help they need from an early age. Research shows that the earlier children get intervention services, the better they do in the long run. According to the CDC, children’s neural circuits — their foundation for behavior, health, and learning — are most adaptable in their first three years of life.

“It’s not just autistic kids — it’s kids with general developmental delays as well,” Dr. Tormey says. “The earlier we get the interventions going, the better off they do long term. We really see so much more progress the earlier we get in there and start working on these issues.”

The benefits of early intervention include:

  • Boosting a child’s behavioral, communication, physical, social, and other developmental abilities.
  • Creating better long-term outcomes for children with developmental delays and disabilities.
  • Improving a child’s behavior and relationships.
  • Preparing children for school and other social and learning environments.
  • Providing support to families of children with developmental delays and disabilities.

If there are concerns about autism spectrum disorder or other significant developmental challenges, a child can receive further evaluation and be connected to additional resources. But early intervention can help many children and families.

“It just makes their lives so much easier,” Dr. Tormey says. “Because especially when it comes to communication skills, we see a lot of very disruptive behaviors as kids get older when they lack adequate communication skills.

“So, getting them the ability to communicate their wants and needs consistently to their caregivers is a huge, huge thing that we have to accomplish. If not, any child’s going to get to the point where we’re going to start seeing some pretty significant disruptive behaviors, which can be difficult to manage for any parent.”

How Can I Get My Child into Early Intervention?

If you have concerns about your child’s development, talk to their pediatrician about getting them an early intervention evaluation.

You can also contact the early intervention program yourself for an evaluation. Each state and territory has its own early intervention program.

Early intervention can have lifelong benefits for children with developmental delays and disabilities.

“It’s a wonderful resource,” Dr. Tormey says.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Developmental Disabilities. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, What Is 'Early Intervention'? Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Why Act Early if You're Concerned About Development? Link

Pennsylvania Department of Education, Early Intervention. Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.