Soon, kids will pack up new crayons and markers, notebooks and folders into new backpacks head back to the classroom for another school year. It’s can be exciting time, but for some, it’s actually scary. The anxiety that comes with a new school year can be magnified for a child with special needs, and the parents who send him or her off to school for the first time. The Arizona Early Intervention Program (AzEIP), part of the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), aims to alleviate that anxiety. Literally years ahead of the first day of school, Service Coordinators within AzEIP work to get parents and the student ready for school. AzEIP serves clients ages birth to three years old, so even before a child’s 3rd birthday, Service Coordinators are working with the families to transition the child to the next stage, which could include public or private preschool, or a developmental preschool if the child is eligible.
Service Coordinators, families, community partners, other agencies, teachers and/or any other organizations involved in the child’s care begin a series of meetings that lay out a transition plan, which may extend all the way to age six or seven—with an emphasis on what families would like to see as the child ages. AzEIP Community Engagement Liaison, Sharon Pierson, says the transition plans not only address academics and learning, but also athletics and other activities.
“[Some parents might say] ‘I’ve already seen my child with Down’s syndrome pick up a golf club, and she has a powerful swing. ’I really would like to see how we can integrate that into some activities.’ Or, ‘I’ve seen my son really take to baking. How do we include that in his career path going forward?’” explained Pierson.
It might even be much simpler, such as, offering tips and support on how to get a child to sit quietly during circle time. It’s up to the Service Coordinator to draw that roadmap for the families and not only provide them with resources, but also teach them how to advocate for themselves.
“In my opinion, the Service Coordinator’s role is really the most important in early intervention, to make sure they build the competency and confidence in families so they can navigate the system on their own,” said Acting AzEIP Administrator Jenee Sisnroy. “This is a very scary time. Most of these families have unique challenges.”
Federal requirements call for family surveys to see how well AzEIP is supporting these families. Feedback is very positive. Families feel supported. AzEIP currently serves approximately 6,200 families, the highest it’s ever been for the program. One reason is a higher-than-usual number of referrals. Parents and those in the healthcare community realize the importance of early intervention, and send thousands of referrals to AzEIP monthly. Though only about 35% end up being eligible for services, Sisnroy is glad it’s on parents’ and providers’ radar.
“Early intervention, early support and services from birth to five is so critical to these children and families,” said Sisnroy. “If they get the appropriate services early on, it reduces the need later on in life.”
After age three, AzEIP clients may continue to receive services through DDD, which provides services in four areas: cognitive disabilities, epilepsy, autism and cerebral palsy. Other children may receive services through a special school or program for the developmentally disabled, or a public or private school, possibly with the help of an aide in the classroom.
AzEIP is governed by Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. More information about AzEIP and DDD services can be found on the DES website.