The Importance of Early Childhood Intervention

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At Jennifer Maud Therapy Group, we understand the value of early childhood intervention when it comes to addressing various therapy needs. We are committed to ensuring children in our care are assisted in their early years, therefore reducing the need and stress of having to ‘remediate’ children in higher grades. We asked one of our on-site therapists, Dani-Lee McMillan, to share her thoughts on the importance of early intervention:

“As an occupational therapist (OT), I often encounter some common misconceptions about the influx of referrals to various therapies. Some people believe that therapies for children are recommended far too easily. Frequent questions we hear are things like:

“Why are so many children in Occupational Therapy these days?”

“What is play therapy?”

“At what point is my child’s speech a problem?”

“Why does my child need therapy?”

“Can’t the school do their job?”

These questions arise from frustrations and insecurities, as well as misconceptions and stigmas. Many parents question the reason for referrals and the importance of having therapy from an early age. This article aims to clarify why early intervention (from 2-3 years old) is the most beneficial.

While reading this, keep in mind the analogy of building a house, in relation to the various stages of development.

Why does my child need therapy? Have I done something wrong?

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First things first, if your child is referred to one of the therapies, there is nothing wrong with your child – or you or the teacher! All new houses require a solid foundation, brick walls and a roof. Sometimes there might be a factor in the child (one or a few of the bricks), their environment (the estate/school) or that task (the tools used to build) that is limiting their full participation and potential.

An occupational therapist will assess and evaluate all aspects of the person, environment and task so that the area for development can be identified. If your child needs speech therapy or physiotherapy there is nothing to say that he or she has not had a full, nourishing childhood. There may just be a few areas where your child might require additional assistance to develop.

My child is so young, can’t I wait until he is older?

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This is a common question and an understandable one. However, the earlier a child has an intervention experience, the more beneficial the experience will be in influencing the development of neural pathways for later use. When children are young, their brains are more malleable and motor pathways are laid down quicker and become more engrained more easily. The older one gets, the more difficult it is, and the longer it takes to lay down motor pathways.

Often, when therapy is delayed, the gap between the child’s capabilities and that of their peers, grows wider and wider with each year. Just as one builds a house, we are building brick upon brick. If, during the process, there are a few bricks left out, the walls will not be stable enough to support the roof.

Thus, once a child reaches 6 or 7 years old, and those initial difficulties have not been integrated, the child often portrays a number of scholastic difficulties and becomes aware of their struggles. This may have emotional and social implications for the child.

Two to three-year olds are in their sensory motor development phase, therefore, sensory issues addressed then, can assist typical development later. Lastly, if the school picks up on more serious difficulties, the earlier the child starts therapy, the sooner the family has access to support.

Therapy is too expensive; how do I know it is worth my money?

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There is a ‘savings benefit’ to starting therapy early. Therapy is expensive, and even more so if your child needs more than one therapy (e.g. speech therapy and occupational therapy). However, therapy in early childhood is an investment that will not disappoint. In my experience, children who are referred to therapy only from Grade 1 or 2 often require 6-18 months of therapy as their foundation has not been developed. In such cases, we need to start at that foundation and go back to developing those crucial building blocks.

Children referred for therapy when they are younger, often only have one or two building blocks that must be secured. The rest of development follows suit; thus, therapy is for a shorter period, and the difficulties have not yet influenced other areas of development. Therefore, less therapy equals less cost.

How Early Intervention Aids Development:

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A child who has not crawled may not have developed adequate shoulder girdle strength through this important developmental milestone. Decreased shoulder stability may, influence their fine motor skills in their Grade 1 year. By this time the child is struggling to hold and control their pencil, has messy handwriting and cannot keep up with their peers handwriting pace. This may even affect this little learner emotionally.

The child may be referred to OT, and the OT identifies that the problem results from a weak shoulder girdle. However, secondary complications that could have been avoided with early intervention occur as a result.

Now, the OT’s goals extend to fine motor development, eye hand coordination, grip strength and writing skills, as well as bilateral integration, to name a few.

From a sensory integrative prospective, a child who is tactile defensive may avoid certain crucial childhood development stages. For example, the child may not engage with peers on the playground because of the fear of getting messy or unexpected touch, thus resulting in social implications.

A child may avoid certain clothing, making the act of getting ready for school difficult. When a child is sensitive to sensory input, they are often in the fight or flight response, constantly needing protection from the unexpected environment. This results in secretion of the stress hormones, which can result in anxiety issues later in life.

Fine motor delays may be evident simply from lack of exploration in the preschool years. A number of secondary complications, such as emotional, social and behavioural implications, can be dealt with if the difficulty is addressed earlier on in development.

Thus, in a stage of life where development is all about brick upon brick, built on a solid foundation, early intervention benefits the child by reducing further developmental involvement later in their childhood. If the smaller concerns can be addressed in younger years, development can continue naturally, as it was intended. Bad habits and poor neural connections can be prevented when the ground work is solid and reliable. Therapy at this stage is short term, less expensive in the long run and very effective.”

The Jennifer Maud Therapy Group has practices spread throughout JHB, and assists with early intervention, where required, for the children in our care.

By Dani-Lee McMillan (Nurtured Life)
and Jennifer Maud (Jennifer Maud Therapy Group).
Edited by Debbie de Coning.