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What Is Early Intervention? - The 4 Ws of Early Intervention

What Is Early Intervention? - The 4 Ws of Early Intervention

Published: Aug. 20, 2021Updated: May. 16, 2024

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3 key takeaways
  1. Early intervention includes therapies that help children develop skills that they will build on as they grow, such as OT, PT, and speech.
  2. In California, the program Early Start provides early intervention services to children with developmental delays or who are at risk of delays.
  3. Regional Centers, family resource centers, California Children's Services, health insurance, and education programs are common sources of funding for early intervention services.

What is early intervention?

The term “early intervention” refers to services and therapeutic interventions that allow children to reach their developmental milestones. According to developmental-behavioral pediatrician Dr. Josh Mandelberg, MD, FAAP, making small changes early can have a big impact on a child’s development over the years.

With early intervention services, professionals such as developmental-behavioral pediatricians, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists will evaluate your child to identify areas of concern, such as delays in socialization, behavior, development, or learning. They’ll then put together a plan to address those areas with different types of therapy.

“Especially in those early years, it’s important to be working on helping support kids develop their socialization skills, communication and play, behavior, regulation, self-soothing, and confidence,” Dr. Mandelberg tells us. He adds that it can be easier to focus on these areas in the preschool years and earlier, “before you get to elementary school and things get more complicated with academics and requirements that might happen at different grade levels. When you’re in preschool, there’s more flexibility with the child’s schedule and what can be incorporated into their daily routine.”

Who can receive early intervention services?

In California, early intervention services are provided to infants and toddlers with disabilities through Early Start. According to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) website, Early Start is a multi-agency effort by the DDS and the California Department of Education that encourages partnerships between families and professionals, family support, and coordination of services. The statewide system of early intervention services is available throughout California and can be accessed through Regional Centers for developmental disabilities, county offices of education, local school districts, health or social service agencies, and family resource centers.

To learn more about who qualifies for Regional Center services and what types of therapy may be provided for your child, read Regional Center Eligibility and Services: Early Intervention (0–36 months). For most children after age three, the school district provides special education services under an Individualized Education Plan. Some children over age three are still eligible for Regional Center services if they have a qualifying disability. You can find out more about whether your child might qualify by reading Regional Center Eligibility and Services: The Transition from Early Intervention to Lanterman Act at Age Three.

How is early intervention funded?

Regional Center

Fran Goldfarb, Core Function Director of Community Education, Information Dissemination, and Technical Assistance at the USC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), advises families with children in the Early Start program to work with their Regional Center service coordinator or whoever is at the center of their Early Start team to help prioritize and create a plan of care. Regional Center is supposed to take a 360-degree look at a child to help the family identify services that are needed. Even if Regional Center is unwilling or unable to fund those services directly, they’re still obligated to help families find access to those services.

In addition to Regional Center, other public benefits such as Medi-Cal and In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) can help cover health care and support for some children under age 3.

California Children’s Services

If your child has an eligible diagnosis, CCS can be very good at helping you manage care. While CCS can provide physical and occupational therapy as well as durable medical equipment, they are also a specialty care clinic that can provide and coordinate all the care needed for the diagnosis under which the child qualifies. (However, as Goldfarb also points out, CCS will only support that condition; for example, if you have a child who has an intellectual disability as well as a heart condition, CCS will only treat the heart condition and not the intellectual disability.)

Your local family resource center

Goldfarb tells us that family resource centers can be wonderful because they’re often staffed by parents of children with disabilities who are very experienced at navigating the Early Start program.

Kathryn Smith, RN, MN, DrPH, associate director for policy at UCEDD and nurse care manager at the Boone Fetter Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), recommends that parents reach out to Early Start and become involved in all the systems while they’re waiting for an assessment:


Special Education Local Planning Agencies, or SELPAs, are agencies that work with districts and private schools to provide special education funding. Their funding is based on the number of students district-wide, including all students, both with and without disabilities. Early Intervention IDEA Part C services can be provided to eligible children by SELPA if they do not qualify for Regional Center. SELPA funding can be used for low-incidence needs, and only if the child has a single disability. (Low-incidence disabilities include visual, hearing, or significant cognitive impairments.) Alternative funding would need to be used for children with multiple diagnoses.


While many early intervention services are free to families, some are not — for example, Regional Center funds services as a payer of last resort, meaning you have to first go through other funding sources like insurance or Medi-Cal, if applicable. It’s a good idea to talk with your service coordinator about what services are free to you, and what can be covered through your insurance carrier. Leslie Lobel, Undivided's Director of Health Plan Advocacy, explains more in this clip:


LEAs, or Local Education Agencies, may use funds allocated to them by Title 1, Part A, to support early learning programs such as Head Start or state-run preschools. They may also use funding to provide services to children who are eligible under Title 1, such as children who qualify to attend a Head Start program but have needs that are unmet or require additional services.

Head Start

Head Start is an early learning program that is federally funded and free to low-income families or those who meet other eligibility requirements. Families who are experiencing homelessness or have children in the foster care system are also eligible for Head Start services. These programs focus on school readiness and encourage parental involvement. In fact, programs must match 20% of their federal funds through alternative means. They can collect what the program calls “in-kind” dollars by counting volunteer hours, or calculating the value of donated supplies.

Now that you know more about what early intervention is and how it can help families, read about when you should start early intervention services and therapies.



What is early intervention?

How is early intervention funded?

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Undivided Editorial TeamStaff

Reviewed by


  • Dr. Josh Mandelberg, MD, FAAP, developmental-behavioral pediatrician
  • Fran Goldfarb, Core Function Director of Community Education, Information Dissemination, and Technical Assistance at UCEDD
  • Leslie Lobel, Undivided Director of Health Plan Advocacy

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