Ensuring early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families is vital in every state. These services play a pivotal role in fostering the overall well-being of children, setting the stage for their success in both life and learning environments.

In 2022–2023, more than 441,000 infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families received early intervention services across the United States. These services encourage the development of infants and toddlers experiencing delays or disabilities, strengthen families’ ability to address the developmental differences of their young ones, reduce the reliance on special education and related services as children transition to school, and improve the long-term outcomes for children.

Early childhood interventionists identify and foster various aspects of a child’s development. Since 1992, WestEd’s Comprehensive Early Intervention Technical Assistance Network (CEITAN) has contracted with the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) to deliver its comprehensive system of personnel development (CSPD)—a system to enhance the professional growth of early childhood interventionists to better support infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.

Through its close partnership with California Early Start, CEITAN has supported the professional growth of early childhood interventionists for more than 30 years. Through a combination of online and in-person professional development activities, they provide essential knowledge and fundamental skills needed to strengthen interventionists’ capacity to improve outcomes for children and families.

Angela McGuireAngela McGuire is a Project Director within WestEd’s Early Childhood Intervention, Mental Health, and Inclusion team. She leads CEITAN’s early intervention professional development; technical assistance; and consulting for national, state, and local agencies serving children with disabilities and their families.

As a parent of a child with disabilities and a former classroom teacher, McGuire actively advocates for and integrates inclusive practices and parent-professional partnership approaches into technical assistance and training activities.

In this Q&A, she highlights the benefits of early intervention services and parent-professional partnerships, discusses CEITAN’s impact in the field, and identifies the challenges they are helping their partners address to support infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.

How do early intervention services support parents of infants and toddlers with disabilities?

Video Transcript

Why is fostering collaborative and respectful relationships between parents or caregivers and professionals in early intervention work so crucial, and how do those relationships contribute to the effectiveness of the intervention process?

Early intervention is about relationships. In 1998, Zero to Three published Pawl and St. John’s seminal resource, “How You Are Is As Important As What You Do.” They proposed that “human relationships are the foundations upon which children build their future” and offered a framework for supporting early development through the nurturing of relationships. This resource has formed a strong foundation for many early childhood and early intervention programs around the world and is a keystone in quality Part C early intervention services.

The idea is that nurturing relationships require nurturing themselves. The parent-child relationship nurtures the child’s development, the early interventionist–parent relationship nurtures the parent-child relationship, and the supervisor–early interventionist relationship nurtures the early interventionist–parent relationship.

Practice requires that professionals be intentional and authentic as they interact and reflect with families and that they be aware that their engagement with the adults in a child’s life will influence the engagement of the adults with the child they are all working to support. The quality of relationship-based services requires that early intervention professionals be supported through intentional, authentic interaction and reflection with a supervisor—or peer—to support the parallel relationships that permeate service delivery.

How does professional development make a difference in early interventionists’ work and in their understanding of their jobs?

Professionals who work in early intervention must be competent in their discipline and in delivering services in “natural” settings and the everyday routines of a diverse array of very young children and families. Rarely does a professional arrive in the field with discipline expertise and the recommended knowledge and skills for working with families and infants and toddlers and in partnership with the family and other service providers as a team—all skills that are expected under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C. In-service training opportunities deliver the knowledge and skills that pre-service preparation may have missed and help the professional integrate all the knowledge and skills into a coordinated whole for families.

The CEITAN team designed and co-created professional development for early interventionists with families and field professionals. The resulting curricula are relationship-based, family-centered, strength-based, and grounded in recent evidence-based and recommended practice. We also integrate information about specific disability conditions to promote understanding how a disability in a particular domain may impact development and how to support development for children with specific conditions.

Participants tell us that the training has helped them to better understand families—especially families from various cultural backgrounds and social circumstances—and introduced them to resources and strategies they can implement directly in their work.

What role did CEITAN play in developing the personnel development component of California’s Early Start system?

A CSPD is a required component of each state’s Part C early intervention system. California began fully implementing its Part C system, known as Early Start, in 1993. CEITAN leadership partnered with the Department of Developmental Services (California Part C lead agency), the California Department of Education (Part C partner and Part B lead agency), institutions of higher education, and early intervention practitioner and family support leadership—developing the Early Start Personnel Manual (ESPM) and the original Core Curriculum. The ESPM describes core knowledge and personnel competencies and served as the foundation for the comprehensive in-service curriculum for Early Start professionals.

In 1994, CEITAN began a long history of delivering training to new and veteran early intervention professionals in California. For nearly two decades, CEITAN produced an annual series of in-person training institutes based on the Core Curriculum, as well as special topic events that addressed topical issues and department priorities. In 2012, the delivery of the Core Curriculum transitioned to online delivery, with CEITAN launching one of the earliest comprehensive, early intervention learning management platforms in the nation.

We continue to produce online courses, annual training events, and topical in-person and online events in partnership with the DDS and valued Early Start field partners, including the Early Start Family Resource Centers and dedicated early intervention service providers, coordinators, and managers.

What makes the personnel development component of California’s Early Start system distinct from other states’ CSPD systems?

The Early Start CSPD meets all of the expectations for a quality system (comprehensive, evidence-based, accessible), but two characteristics make it stand out from other systems:

  • The system is robust. It consists of the Early Start Online learning management system; Early Start in-person and online events; the Early Start Neighborhood, a website housing outreach and educational resources, a library of early intervention resources, an outlet for communication with field partners, and the Early Start Central Directory; and Early Start Resources. The learning management system currently houses nearly 5,000 active users (who have logged in within the last 4 years); on average, there are at least 850 training completions each year.
  • The system is built on family-professional collaboration: Content for training is co-created with content matter experts, which include veteran parents, Parent Center leadership, and active field professionals from across the discipline spectrum. Training is delivered by family-professional training or facilitation teams.

The CEITAN team is itself an example of family-professional partnership, with team members representative of parents, extended family members, individuals with disabilities, direct service providers, and program administrators.

What challenges are early intervention systems facing, and how is CEITAN working with its partners to address them?

The biggest challenge facing early intervention systems is personnel retention. We’ve heard from early intervention program directors about what is driving these challenges:

  • Pre-service preparation programs may be expensive or take years to complete to enhance staff qualifications.
  • Certification processes for qualified personnel coming from out of state are cumbersome and slow.
  • Virtual options for delivering early intervention services create both opportunities and challenges for staff and staffing. Best practices in virtual service delivery are just emerging, requiring staff to acquire new skills. Existing staff may be adamantly opposed to either virtual practice or in-person services—similar to employees who formerly worked in an office and are now working from home.
  • Early intervention programs can barely compete for staff when compensation for assistants isn’t much higher than minimum wage.

CEITAN is working on several fronts to help the DDS and early intervention program managers address these challenges. Last year, we facilitated an open discussion with early intervention program directors to generate ideas for finding and supporting new staff and advocating for better reimbursement rates. We summarized their input and submitted it to the DDS for follow-up. As a result, we are making more of our online training available in independent, asynchronous formats so that early intervention programs can train new staff quickly and efficiently, with training content that is evidence-based and aligned with Early Start regulations.

We are also continually on the lookout for research and evidence-based practices, especially as they relate to emerging modes of service delivery. We disseminate the information to the field via the Early Start Neighborhood and integrate new content into training opportunities.

CEITAN serves as a trusted technical assistance provider to the DDS, and we enthusiastically contribute to and facilitate interested parties’ convenings, input collection, data analysis, and policy development related to program improvement, including for certification and compensation.

Angela McGuire is a Project Director within WestEd’s Early Childhood Intervention, Mental Health, and Inclusion content area under Early Childhood Development and Learning. McGuire has expertise in special education program requirements, tailored professional development, and intentional family engagement. She leads the design and delivery of web-supported training for a statewide personnel development system, deploying a multidisciplinary team and optimizing a variety of platforms to deliver, reinforce, and enhance the integration of new knowledge and policy into effective practice.