What is early intervention?

By Amanda Morin

Early intervention refers to services and supports that can help young children with developmental delays. It’s like but it’s for eligible infants and toddlers who are behind at reaching developmental milestones.

Through early intervention, kids from birth to age 3 can get services at home or in the community. Different types of specialists work with kids and their families depending on which skills are delayed. Early intervention focuses on skills in these areas:

Physical skills (reaching, crawling, walking, drawing, building)
Cognitive skills (thinking, learning, solving problems)
Communication skills (talking, listening, understanding others)
Self-help or adaptive skills (eating, dressing)
Social or emotional skills (playing, interacting with others)
Although all states offer early intervention, not all states do it the same way. A health care provider or a childcare provider might refer kids for an early intervention evaluation. Some states allow families to make their own referrals if they’re concerned.

If kids are found eligible, a team from the state’s early intervention program works with the family to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan defines goals and the types of services to help children and their families.

Who qualifies for early intervention?
Each state has its own rules for which kids qualify. In most states, kids must have either:

A developmental delay, or

A specific health condition that will probably lead to a delay. This includes things like certain genetic disorders, birth defects, and hearing loss.

In a few states, kids may get services if they’re at risk for a developmental delay because of factors like low birth weight, drug exposure, and other environmental issues.

What do early intervention services look like?
A child who qualifies may receive one or more of these services:

Speech and language therapy

Physical or occupational therapy

Psychological services

Home visits

Medical, nursing, or nutrition services

Hearing (audiology) or vision services

Social work services


Assistive technology

A service coordinator from the early intervention program will help set up and schedule services.

Who pays for early intervention services?
Every U.S. state and territory provides these services through its own program. But federal law provides grants to each state from the federal government. This allows kids who qualify for early intervention to get services free of charge or at low cost.

Some states may charge for early intervention services on a sliding fee scale. Or they may bill a family’s insurance company for some of the services.

How long do early intervention services last?
Early intervention services usually last until a child’s third birthday. When a child turns 3, the service coordinator holds a transition meeting to talk about moving from early intervention services to special education services under IDEA. These services can pick up where early intervention leaves off.

A few months before a child’s third birthday, the early intervention team and the family will discuss the transition. If a child is eligible, a member of the local school district will work with the family to set up preschool special education services.