Children Now Insider: Developmental Screenings and Early Intervention are Critical to Ensuring a Healthy Start for California’s Youngest Children

By Angela Rothermel

August 29, 2019

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Earlier this month, the Assembly Select Committee on Early Childhood Development, chaired by Assembly member Rudy Salas (D – Bakersfield), convened an informational hearing focused on Early Childhood Intervention Services for Children with Special Needs.

The hearing featured testimony from parents of children with special needs, as well as Children Now, the First 5 Association of California, representatives of the Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education and the Infant Development Association of California.

Children Now was excited to partner with Assembly member Salas’ office on this hearing, because early identification and intervention for developmental delays is a critical issue. Despite significant evidence that identifying developmental delays and disabilities as early as possible results in better outcomes for children, and reduces public costs in the long and short term, California falls short. Currently, the vast majority of California’s youngest children are not currently being screened at all, and less than half of California students needing special education supports are identified before entering kindergarten.

The first three years of a child’s life are a critical window of development during which babies’ brains form more than one million new neural connections every second, setting the foundations for how far kids ultimately go in school, what they earn as adults and how healthy they are over their lifetimes. This development is fueled by relationships and interactions with caring adults who support children’s ever-expanding learning across motor, cognitive, social, and language domains.

While most children progress along developmental milestones as expected, not all do: an estimated 12 to 15 percent will experience some form of developmental delay. Research also shows that experiences of trauma and circumstances of adversity during the early years can increase chances of developmental delays. In fact, learning and behavior challenges are the most common manifestation of adverse childhood experiences.

Almost every government system that touches young children – health care, education, child welfare, public health, and more – has policies specifying that it should ensure or conduct developmental and behavioral screenings for the kids it serves. Of special importance are health care mandates as 97 percent of California kids have health insurance and these services should be fully paid for within existing revenue streams.

For children who need additional support, early intervention services can improve their health and developmental trajectories. These services can be intensive – such as individual speech/language, physical or occupational therapies – or less intensive – like classroom or at-home strategies to promote skills in certain areas.

In California, these services are often delivered through Early Start, which was created in 1993 through the California Early Intervention Services Act in response to the mandates of Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s administered by the Department of Developmental Services through the state’s 21 regional centers, in partnership with the Department of Education, and is responsible for identifying, locating and evaluating infants and toddlers who may need and be eligible for early intervention services.

Early Start is not performing. For five of the last 10 years, Early Start has had a “needs intervention” status with the federal Office of Special Education Programs. In fact, according to the recent Getting Down to Facts II analysis, California ranks 46th on the timing to develop a child’s initial service plan and begin services. Now the state is improved slightly to “needs assistance” for two straight years, but significant performance issues remain.

In addition, Early Start might be missing thousands – or hundreds of thousands – of kids each year. Nearly three out of four California children with special health care needs under age three did not receive early intervention services from which they could benefit. And California serves a lower percentage of the infant/toddler population than national averages across Part C programs, and significantly less than the 15 percent of the population estimated to be experiencing developmental delays.

We can and should do better. To ensure that California is a place of opportunity for every single child, the state must make strategic policy and budget decisions to ensure all children receive routine developmental screenings and have equitable access to effective early intervention. The recommendations in the Assembly Blue Ribbon Commission on ECE report are a good start. Building up innovative approaches like Help Me Grow – currently in various stages of implementation in 45 counties across the state – and increasing training and supports for Early Care and Education staff serving children with special needs is also needed. Smart decisions like these can reduce the gaps that we know exist before kindergarten, and help children get off to a healthier start and improve the state’s bottom line at the same time.

If you’re interested in reviewing the agenda, and watching a recording of the hearing, you can do so  here.

Ms. Rothermel’s work at Children Now focuses on projects in the arena of early childhood health and family support, including expanding voluntary home visiting programs, promoting developmental screenings and early intervention, and the development of a comprehensive statewide prenatal to three policy agenda.

Before joining Children Now, Ms. Rothermel held positions within various early childhood systems and policy efforts in Colorado. She directed a Denver Metro area public-private collaboration working to improve early childhood outcomes for vulnerable children and families, and served as project coordinator for collective impact initiatives related to juvenile delinquency prevention, early childhood education quality, and mental health systems.

Ms. Rothermel has served on numerous early childhood task forces and leadership teams. Additionally, she has worked directly with parents and early childhood educators as a home visitor, as a community representative on a local Head Start Policy Council, and as a facilitator for both the Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers and the Parent Leadership Training Institute curricula in Colorado.

Ms. Rothermel holds a Master’s degree in Educational Policy & Practice from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a B.A. from Middlebury College in Vermont.