What Is an Early Intervention Program? Resources and Tips to Get Early Care

In 2016, the medical journal Pediatrics published a study about developmental milestones. Researchers collected data on 599 children, noting when they first learned to stand, crawl, and walk, as well as the cognitive abilities each child displayed by age 4. The results seemed clear: The researchers stated in their report that “the age of achieving motor milestones may be an important basis for various aspects of later child development.”

This study added to the wealth of evidence that developmental milestones — particularly motor milestones — are an important part of a child’s growth in the formative years. However, some children take more time than others to reach standard milestones like walking and talking — and in some cases, these milestones never seem to come at all.

When a child experiences delays in development, parents can seek help from early intervention programs. Through these programs, children can access resources to develop their skills as well as assistance from well-trained, qualified specialists. This assistance can make a world of difference in a child’s life by helping the child to communicate, build balance and coordination, and develop cognitive thinking skills.

Working in an early intervention program can be a great way to make a difference in children’s lives, and it can be a fulfilling way to explore the world of communication science and speech disorders. Before individuals can decide if this specialized career field is right for them, they must fully understand what early intervention programs do.

A speech therapist works with a child.

What Is Early Intervention?

Most families only learn about early intervention after noticing a delay in their child’s development. A child may not be walking along with peers, or perhaps doesn’t respond to a parent’s voice. While every child will develop at a different pace, missed milestones can be a cause for concern — and the longer the lack of progression, the more likely it is that the child can benefit from an intervention program.

When parents first hear that their child may need help, they often wonder, what is early intervention? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early intervention is “the services and supports that are available to babies and young children with developmental delays and disabilities and their families.”

Early intervention can come in many forms, depending on the child’s needs. Some children need help with language, communication, and oral motor skills like swallowing. Others need help standing or walking with physical therapy or, in the case of children with disabilities, with the aid of a medical device. Still others need help developing social or emotional skills, including individuals born on the autism spectrum. While each of these needs (and the programs that address them) is very different, all are forms of early intervention.

Early intervention programs are available through the federal government as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents concerned about their child’s development can access a CDC directory to contact local agencies and have their child evaluated for free. If the results show that the child needs intervention, participation in a program is also free. According to the online magazine Understood.org, most early intervention programs continue until a child’s third birthday.

A specialist’s assistance can help a child reach milestones and continue to develop to the best of their ability, which, as the Pediatrics study suggests, can have a lasting impact on the child’s cognitive functions in later childhood. The sooner children can receive the assistance they need, the more they’ll benefit.

Cognitive Delays in Children

Some of the children who use early intervention programs exhibit signs of cognitive delays early in their lives. The term “cognitive delay” (as well as the signs of one) can be frightening for parents, as many believe it implies that their child may grow up with a disadvantage. However, the term simply means that a child’s mental development is slower than average and that a specialist’s assistance can help overcome this hurdle.

Cognitive delays can limit a child’s ability to intuitively learn essential skills like walking, eating, and dressing themselves. They can also have a significant impact on a child’s ability to talk; according to pediatric speech pathologist Laura Mize, “When a toddler has a delay in cognitive skills, their receptive language skills are also delayed.” For this reason, delayed cognition can make it particularly difficult for a child to develop at the speed or level of peers.

However, cognitive delays don’t make typical childhood development impossible. Many children can learn essential motor and communication skills despite delayed cognitive abilities. When this is the case, early intervention programs — and the specialists who work with these children — become an essential part of each child’s developmental journey.

Early Intervention Specialists

While some children only need assistance in one area, such as learning to talk or developing hand-eye coordination, others will need to work on a variety of skills. A wide range of early intervention specialists are working in the field today, and each is specially equipped to handle the needs of the children in their care.

According to Understood.org, early intervention specialists take many forms: psychologists who help children to navigate emotional or behavioral issues; specialists who can assess a child’s hearing, vision, or muscular health; and nutritionists and social workers who can assess a child’s environment and provide resources as needed. Those interested in the field should consider these specialties.

Speech Therapists

Delayed speech development can be frustrating for children and can point to larger issues, from cognitive delays to issues with oral motor development, which can lead to difficulties eating and swallowing later in life. Speech therapists help children to develop their oral motor skills as well as communication skills.

Work for a speech therapist, or speech-language pathologist, can be both interesting and well-compensated. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals working in this field earned a median salary of $79,120 in 2019. The BLS reports that speech therapists are in high demand, with anticipated job growth of 25% between 2019 and 2029 — much faster than the national average for all occupations.

Physical Therapists

Early intervention specialists can also be helpful for children with physical development issues. These can include difficulty standing, crawling, and walking, as well as motor skills, such as balance and coordination. Physical therapists help children to develop these skills in a safe environment, so they can reach physical milestones without sustaining injury.

Physical therapy is a field that expects to see significant growth in the coming decade. The BLS predicts 18% job growth between 2019 and 2029, and this, along with an $89,440 median salary, makes it a popular career choice for individuals interested in helping children with physical needs.


Sometimes a child is late to meet milestones such as responding to a parent’s voice. Audiologists are early intervention specialists who assess a child’s hearing capacity. They determine whether a child has a degree of hearing loss and can make suggestions on how to assist the child, whether it’s with a hearing aid, a cochlear implant, or other methods. Audiologists can also determine whether a child will need speech therapy as their hearing develops.

Audiologists earned a median salary of $77,600 in 2019, according to the BLS, which predicts 13% job growth between 2019 and 2029.

Developmental Therapists

For some young children, cognitive delays manifest in the form of social or behavioral problems. These children may struggle with self-control, cooperation, and even making eye contact with others — all issues that can lead to greater difficulties when they reach school age. Developmental therapists focus on a child’s cognitive processing, helping to develop social skills and overcome behavioral and learning difficulties.

The BLS doesn’t provide statistics on specific types of psychology, such as childhood developmental therapy. However, its data on psychologists, a related field, indicates that these professionals earn about $8-,370 annually and that the field is expected to grow by 3% between 2019 and 2029. Those interested in improving children’s emotional, social, and mental health may be interested in this form of early intervention.

Each of these early intervention specialists plays an important role in a child’s development. However, not all children in early intervention programs will meet with each of these types of professionals. Many will only meet with one or two, depending on their individual needs.

Early Intervention Speech Therapy

One of the best-known forms of early intervention is speech therapy, which is designed for children who haven’t met speech-related milestones. This can include children who have not started imitating other sounds by 18 months of age, children who are struggling to speak or follow simple instructions by age 2, and children whose speech development is hampered by other issues, including certain hearing conditions.

Speech therapy is also useful for children who struggle with articulation (difficulty pronouncing their “r” sounds, for example) and those with fluency disorders (such as a stutter). These can develop early in life — stutters, for example, can start as early as age 2 — but they often don’t require therapeutic intervention until the child is older than age 5. Still, parents and speech therapists must watch for these kinds of disordered speech and help children to overcome them.

Children who display signs of language development delays will likely participate in early intervention speech therapy in their formative years. Specialists will work with these children to develop their communication in various ways. They may model correct sounds and have a child mimic them, use pictures and flashcards to aid in communication, and provide parents with exercises and tips they can use to better understand their children at home.

Early intervention speech therapy also helps to develop a child’s oral motor skills. These skills are essential for vocalization, but are also a key aspect of eating and swallowing. By helping children to fine-tune these skills, speech therapists ultimately help the children they work with to live healthier lives overall.

Early Intervention Physical Therapy

Physical therapists can “help individuals move, reduce pain, restore function, prevent disability, and promote wellness and participation in life,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Parents may want to consider early intervention if their child has a diagnosed physical disability like cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or torticollis. In these cases, early intervention physical therapy can serve two purposes: It can help the child learn to develop as best as possible, and can give parents reasonable expectations for their child’s development.

However, disabilities aren’t the only reason a child may need physical therapy. Children who fail to meet developmental milestones (sitting up, crawling, walking) during their first year of life, as well as those with poor posture or coordination issues, can also benefit from early intervention.

In early intervention physical therapy, specialists work with a child to strengthen the muscles and help the child to meet key developmental milestones. Specialists may guide a child through games that help to build strength, balance, and coordination, or they may use machines that massage or provide electrical stimulation to the limbs to improve circulation.

Physical therapists can also help families to equip children with adaptive devices like walkers and wheelchairs. Adaptive equipment can help children with disabilities achieve greater mobility, which provides increased access to society and helps to improve their overall quality of life. Physical therapists can also help parents learn more about their child’s abilities by teaching them exercises the child can do at home and offering helpful advice on how to safely practice motor skills. In this way, early intervention physical therapy helps children to build their skills and their strength without sustaining injuries.

Common Early Intervention Strategies

Every early intervention specialist uses specific strategies to help the children they work with to achieve developmental milestones. They can be tailored to suit a child’s specific needs or temperament, but they often adhere to universal principles. These strategies don’t necessarily look like “hard work” to the untrained eye, but they stimulate the child’s mental and physical development to help them reach their full potential.

Some of the most common early intervention strategies are learning through play, assistive technology, and developmental milestones.

Learning Through Play

Teachers, parents, and early intervention specialists alike incorporate play into their lessons and interactions with children because it’s a highly effective way to help young people to learn and retain information. It’s particularly effective as an early intervention strategy because of the many ways it can enhance a child’s development.

Children who learn through play engage three specific skills every time: communication, cognitive development, and relationship building, according to the Center for Parenting Education. These skills are essential for any child’s mental health, but they’re especially important for those children struggling to develop typically. By playing with children instead of using traditional lectures and mental exercises, early intervention specialists can help them to improve multiple essential skills at once.

Assistive Technology

In today’s world, technology is everywhere, and much of it makes our lives easier. This is particularly true for young people who struggle with physical development; medical devices like wheelchairs, walkers, and leg braces can be life-changing for those children whose bodies may not have developed typically otherwise.

While assistive technology has long been an effective early intervention strategy for children’s physical development, some research suggests that it can also have a cognitive benefit. The Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers has reported that children with cognitive delays can improve immensely from certain assistive technology. For example, augmentative communication devices can help nonverbal children to express themselves to others while working to develop speech, and battery-operated toys (particularly those with on-off switches) can help children to develop fine motor skills.

Developmental Milestones

Every parent is familiar with the list of developmental milestones. This is a checklist of behaviors that most children achieve by a certain age, including rolling over, crawling, following people or objects with their eyes, and talking. While the list simply reflects the average age for a child’s development (and many children develop faster or slower than the average without needing early intervention), this list can be an excellent tool for specialists working with young children.

Looking at which developmental milestones a child has met or missed can be a way for an early intervention specialist to determine where a child can use help. This will shape the therapy and early intervention strategies the child receives and the development the specialist hopes to see in the child.

Start Your Career in Early Intervention Today

All children need to receive high-quality care from the people around them as soon as they’re born. Loving parents, medical experts, and a strong support network of friends and loved ones can make a big difference in any child’s life — particularly children with cognitive or physical delays.

Without proper care, a child’s development can be hindered, which can lead to serious disadvantages later in life. Children who need assistance can gain tremendous benefits from early intervention programs. However, these programs are only effective if early intervention specialists are well trained and passionate about their work.

If you want to make a difference in a young person’s life, an excellent way to begin is with the online Bachelor of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Maryville University. Maryville’s online program provides students with the skills they need to work in therapy support roles and prepares them for graduate education that can lead to a career as a speech therapist. Students learn about language development, audiology, and speech science, so they can help young people to develop their own language skills.

Learn more about the Bachelor of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders today, and discover ways you can help a child reach heir full potential.


Teach Me to Talk, “Cognitive Delay: What It Means for Language Development”

Understood.org, “Early Intervention: What You Need to Know”

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