Early intervention makes the difference in quality of life
Having a child with a disability that impairs their development, either physically, mentally or emotionally, often means fighting to find resources to better serve that child and searching for a support network that understands not only the needs of the child, but also of the parent and other family members.
Wakefield is home to a resource that many don't know exists: Educational Service Unit #1 (ESU 1),
At ESU 1, professionals on staff are able to aid in a child's development from birth until they are 21 years old and there is no cost to the family for that help.
"We get referrals from a variety of sources. It can be the parent themselves, a daycare provider or teacher, the hospital where the baby was born," said Cheri Matthews, Early Childhood/Special Education Teacher and Coordinator at ESU 1. "It's a voluntary program -- no cost to the family."
In today's world of complicated insurance and changing health-care regulations, that alone can change a family's life.
Nebraska is one of only a few states whose ESUs are birth mandated, meaning they are obligated to serve a child from birth until 21. Some states only require from kindergarten until age 21.
Those first years, according to Matthews, are what set the child up for future years as a school student and eventually an adult.
The five teams that make up ESU 1 each consist of at least one services coordinator for those birth to two, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist, physical therapist, an early child hood special education teacher, according to Hansen. Each team meets to discuss every child they see to ensure all members of the team are on the same page every week.
Each child in each district has access to all the disciplines, however only one of those professionals acts as the contact for the family.
Matthews gave an example of how ESU 1 would help a family who has an infant displaying signs of developmental delays.
After the referral is made, a Services Coordinator contacts the family if the child falls in the birth to age two range. For the three to five year old range, an early childhood providers contacts the family. In each case, the ESU contact discusses the family's concerns with them and explains the evaluation process and what services are offered.
If the family elects to go through with the evaluation, a team of at least two visit the home or daycare and look at all areas of development, including cognitive, social-emotional, fine and gross motor skills as well as speech and language.
At that point, the team determines whether the child qualifies for Early Intervention or Special Education Services, based on the testing and on a parent interview.
Most medical conditions such as Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Spina Bifida automatically qualify the child for services.
"We see where they're hitting or not hitting milestones but we really focus on the parent's information like they can't sit down for a meal because their child can't feed themselves to decide what services are needed,' Matthews said. "The family really drives that process."
The same is true if the child falls into the three to five age range and is attending a preschool program or in daycare. The care provider at the school or at the daycare would have support from ESU to aid in the child's development.
"Where the disability is interfering with the family life is where we try and intervene. We coach the family and care providers and support them along the way."
The family-centered services available for those who qualify for Early Intervention include: early childhood special education, speech and language therapy, physical therapy, psychological services, audiology, nutrition and family training just to name a few.
Special Education, the way to best assist the child is to keep their learning environment as natural as possible which is why the team comes into the home or daycare for the evaluation and the ESU contact for the family continues to come into that environment rather than pull the child out of it to work with them.
"The foundation of what we provide is based on flexible, activity-based bursts of services -- we call it FABS scheduling. Providers go in when it's most needed during a transition," Hansen said.
Both women expressed the importance of the Early Intervention program, stating that the way things start from birth to age five can be extremely detrimental to the child or it can set them up for success later in life.
Behavior issues can arise if a child can't communicate or is struggling with activities, and according to both Matthews and Hansen, the goal is to decrease the obstacles faced by these kids and the sooner they are met with, evaluated and being worked with, the better their chance at success.
Whether the child was born with Down Syndrome or suffered hearing loss before tubes were put in and now needs speech therapy, ESU 1 offers services for both in and out of school and support for the families backed by countless success stories.