MANCHESTER, NH – Ever since Jennifer Lambert’s son Carter was a few months old and she noticed he was having rollover issues, he and Lambert have been meeting with early childhood intervention specialists to help correct developmental delays.
Physiotherapists and language specialists have visited Lambert’s home in Windham first in person and now via video and trained her to play with Carter, now almost 2, to improve his physical development and communication skills. Lambert learned to teach him to speak and to show him simple hand signals to express his needs.
“He’s come a long way,” said Lambert.
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Through a government-funded program run by local nonprofits called Family-Centered Early Supports and Services, all New Hampshire children up to the age of 3 are entitled to similar services to help with developmental delays – such as when they are having difficulty To learn to speak, walk or learn fine motor skills – and those with disabilities.
But since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of children referred to these services has decreased.
Nationwide, 400 fewer children were referred to early intervention services in 2020 than in 2019, said Nancy Lucci, who runs the early intervention program in the Exeter area through Waypoint. Lucci said in nearly 15 years she had never seen the number of referrals go down.
“We are concerned that there are children we could help who do not come to us in the normal way,” said Lucci. “What starts as a slight delay could lead to a longer-term delay and / or obstruction.”
Lose precious time
“We are waiting and ready and happy to be able to assess and see every child,” said Maribeth Rathburn, who conducts early intervention services with the Children’s Pyramid in southern New Hampshire. Parents don’t pay out of pocket for initial reviews or any services, and if a child doesn’t need services there is no downside to having a review, Rathburn said.
Pediatricians are the most common source of referrals, said Diane Bolduc, of the Moore Center, who works with Manchester’s early childhood education program. Doctors have either postponed visits over the past year or used video conferencing to see children and may have missed more subtle signs of delay or disability, Bolduc said.
There are also fewer children in daycare, she said, and the parents who still use the daycare have fewer opportunities to watch their children with others and see their children stack up – one way parents notice developmental lag could.
“You see your kids interacting with other kids and you notice, ‘Gee, my kid isn’t doing what these other kids are doing. I wonder why that is? ‘”
The sooner a child who shows signs of delay or disability receives therapy, the more beneficial it is, Bolduc said.
Rathburn urged families who believe their children may have developmental delay or disability to seek help immediately.
“We’re losing valuable time,” said Rathburn. “There is a very real chance that they will not receive helpful support.”
Rathburn said it was helpful for children who need support in early childhood to get help so that they have the skills they need to go to school in due course. When children are lagging behind in early school, it becomes more difficult to catch up with them.
“They face more challenges in attending their training and accessing their training in the way they need to,” said Rathburn.
“For some children and families, they keep our services, they catch up and they are fine, and they never need help again,” Lucci said.
Others may need therapy or special education services when they get to school, but the need might be less than without the early intervention, she said.
“A child who really needed help and didn’t get it? It could really be a lifelong effect, ”said Lucci. “The early years are such a foundation for learning.”
If more children need more special education for delays or disabilities that could have been addressed earlier, it will ultimately cost the school districts.
For the Lamberts, the family’s therapies have reassured them they can handle Carter’s delays.
“Now we are pretty confident that everything is fine and he will catch up,” she said.
Therapy via zoom
The focus of the therapies is on teaching parents and caregivers how to play and interact with their children to promote the child’s development.
Andrew Scott, a Hollis father whose son has been serving since the first month of life, recalled a game they had played with a therapist.
He and his son stacked blocks. A therapist showed Scott how to help his son line up three blocks and stack a fourth on a block at the end to make a shape that looks like a locomotive – and then push them around and say a “choo- Choo ”. Train noise.
“Now he does this all the time,” said Scott. “They only know things that you just don’t see as a parent,” Scott said of the therapists.
This type of “coaching,” according to Lucci, Rathburn, and Bolduc, has translated pretty well to videoconferencing now that therapists rarely make house calls to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
“The therapists say things you just can’t see,” said Scott. “Even with Zoom you can pick up on things that he does that are not even clear to me.”
Scott said it was likely helpful that he and his son knew the therapists from personal visits before they started the Zoom sessions, but said the video conferencing therapy seems to be working.
Scott is glad his son never missed a year of service because of the pandemic.
Once children are 3 years old, they are no longer eligible for the early intervention program and responsibility rests with the local school district.
“Everything about their development goes so quickly,” said Bolduc.
A developmental delay of even three or four months can result in long-term losses, Bolduc said, which means the child will have to work even harder to catch up. A child’s development is not interrupted during the pandemic, although it may appear that the rest of the world is.
“We’re still here,” said Bolduc, “and children still need us.”
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