Early intervention refers to a system of services designed to better academic and social outcomes of low-income, academically at-risk preschool-aged children, as well as the services given to children born with disabilities that impede normal development. Some of the first early intervention programs designed to serve low-income preschool-aged children were the Early Training Project, High/Scope Perry Project, and Project Head Start. Programs were later designed to meet the needs of developmentally delayed children. In many states, the department of education oversees the early intervention program for developmentally delayed children and acts as a major service provider.
Keywords Child Development; Developmentally Delayed; Developmental Milestones; Early Intervention; Early Training Project; Perry/High Scope Project; Project Head Start
Early Childhood Education: Early Intervention
Early intervention is the act of providing services to children of school age or younger considered to have—or to be at risk of developing—a condition that impedes or will impede their development. Such a condition can stem from a physical, emotional, or psychological impairment or from less than adequate conditions at home (e.g., unstable family circumstances, financial hardship) that negatively affect a child's self-esteem, cognitive (intellectual) performance, or drive to achieve. Early intervention can be remedial (correcting existing developmental problems) or preventive (preventing their occurrence).
Early intervention can involve the child alone or include the entire family. Services available to at-risk children and their parents begin with identification and screening, proceed to assessment and diagnosis, and culminate with referral to services provided by any combination of state education departments, public agencies (such as departments of health and human services), and private organizations.
The roots of early intervention can be traced back to the age of Enlightenment (the eighteenth century). European philosophers of the time were the first to believe that childhood was its own separate and unique developmental phase. The "nature vs. nurture" debate also began at this time: Many theorists argued that children enter the world pure and untainted and are molded entirely by their upbringing and environment, while others maintained that children are born with personalities and behaviors already present and that environment does little to change this. Modern theorists and child behavior experts agree that predisposition and environment combine to shape the individual. Though each is born with certain abilities and personality attributes, he or she is also susceptible to influence from parenting and the environment. In the end, it is the combination of all of these factors that determines his or her total personality.
As the idea that children are also molded by their environment gained popularity, more and more attention was given to early childhood development and education. With the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century came the possibility for children to grow up without having to take on adult responsibilities. European child development theory soon gave way to the first organized early education curriculum, as the first kindergarten classes appeared in Germany. In time, America's middle classes enthusiastically adopted the kindergarten model. Eventually, social activists advocated for kindergarten for the poorer urban classes, which had swelled from a heavy immigrant influx. Kindergarten, the activists believed, would encourage social assimilation and make up for the lack of childhood experiences enjoyed by children of poor families, while providing child care services for mothers who were forced to work.
Children from Low-Income Families
This section discusses the first early intervention studies done and their findings. These studies are
• The Early Training Project,
• High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, and
• Head Start.
Not long after kindergartens appeared in urban slums, London gave us the "nursery school," which began as an urban health clinic, growing later into a program focusing on both health and education. In America, nursery school became a private institution, available to middle- and upper-class families who could afford it. With the exception of the 1940s and World War II—when federal funding would make it available to lower-income mothers who were forced to work while their husbands were away—nursery school remained a luxury for the middle and upper classes.
But in 1950, the government began spending much more money on social programs. Between 1950 and 1979, this spending increased twenty-fold. At the same time, a wealth of research on early childhood development heightened public awareness as to the importance of the early years in a child's development. With the 1960s came the first three most influential early intervention studies.
The Early Training Project
The Early Training Project was conducted in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in the early 1960s, beginning from concern over the poor performance of low-income children in school. It sought to improve academic performance by bettering cognition and producing a stronger urge to achieve. Between 1962 and 1965, the project placed 65 African American children from low-income families either into intervention programs that met for two or three consecutive summers or into a control group that received no instruction. Those in treatment groups were given weekly home visits during the school year and also took part in a 10-week preschool program that met for partial days during the summer. In addition to being assessed during the program, participants were also assessed in the years 1965, 1966, 1968, 1975, and 1978 (at the approximate ages of 7, 8, 10, 17, and 19, respectively). A significant difference was found in IQs between treatment groups and control groups in the years immediately following the intervention, with the treated children showing higher intelligence. In 1965, treated children scored higher on three of four of the Metropolitan Achievement Test. By fourth grade, however, this gap had closed, with the treated children no longer outperforming their control counterparts. In fact, the final tests (conducted in 1975 and 1978) revealed no significant difference between performances of the two groups on a number of different tests. It was concluded that though intervention did not create lasting differences in the IQs of children, it did reduce the chances of treated children winding up in special education classes, being held back in a grade, or dropping out of high school (Karoly, 1998).
The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project
The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan, was one of the longest running assessments done on the effects of early intervention. As with the Early Training Project, it focused on the underperformance of disadvantaged children. It sought to improve cognitive performance and achievement in these children by enrolling them in either one- or two-year preschool programs. Between 1962 and 1967, 123 African American children and their parents participated in the study and were placed in either treatment or control groups. Between May and October, treatment groups were given daily 2.5-hour classes at an intervention center and weekly 90-minute teacher home visits. These five classes of participants were later assessed at ages 11, 14, 15, 19, and 27. As with the Early Training Project, treated children demonstrated significantly higher IQ scores than control children immediately after the intervention, but this gap disappeared by the time they entered the second grade. Still, treated children continued to score higher on tests until age 14 and were more likely eventually to graduate from high school. Again, treated children spent less time in special education throughout school than did control children. Differences still existed in the final (age 27) assessment. Treated children showed significantly lower utilization of welfare and a lower incidence of criminal activity. Employment rates for intervention participants were also considerably higher (Karoly, 1998).
Project Head Start
Head Start—a gigantic, federally funded early intervention program that still exists—started as Project Head Start. The project originated from a growing concern from policy makers over the increasing number of American children living in poverty. Launched in 1965, Project Head Start was an eight-week...
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