Parents are empowered through virtual Early Intervention services during pandemic
When you’re in the business of helping children overcome developmental obstacles in their first three years of life, 10 months—the amount of time COVID-19 has disrupted daily life so far—is an eternity.
So when in-person, home-based therapy was shut down in March 2020 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the staff of the Parent Education – Infant Development Program (PE-ID) program, part of the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, took a mere 48 hours to find a way to replicate their services via secure Zoom calls.
“We had never delivered services virtually before—we hadn’t even watched it before,” said Alison Standring, Part C Coordinator of the Infant & Toddler Connection of the Rappahannock Area. “We took a leap of faith. Our staff were fantastic, and families were right there with us. Here we are several months later, and we are completely in it and it is awesome.”
PE-ID, known to many as “Early Intervention,” has provided multi-disciplinary support to parents and young children in the Fredericksburg area for more than four decades.
Early Intervention provides services for children from birth to age 3 in Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George Counties and the city of Fredericksburg. Parents can contact the program directly, and pediatricians and hospitals also refer families to the program, which provides support—from occupational and physical therapists, speech pathologists, educators, and service coordinators—to parents and children.
When those services had to transition from in-home visits to Zoom calls, Standring and program coordinator Suzanne Haskell initially worried about being able to continue to deliver effective interventions to keep children’s development on-track.
They were surprised to learn that the virtual delivery of speech therapy, physical therapy and other specialties actually gave parents a confidence they might not have gained if the specialist had been in the home holding the child.
“It has been very empowering for parents, because they don’t have the extra person in their house doing it for them. They are doing it themselves,” Haskell said.
One father who might have been reluctant to get down on the floor with his child in front of a stranger was able to engage with his provider virtually from the privacy of his home and succeed in getting his son to say his first words.
“The provider said to me, ‘I don’t know that Dad would have been on the floor that day if it wouldn’t have been on Zoom,’” Haskell said.
A mother was able to follow suggestions from a physical therapist to help her child take their first steps, transforming a moment that would traditionally have involved the therapist holding the child to a bonding experience shared only between mother and child.
“Parents are seeing more of their own influence on their child’s development, as opposed to that provider coming in and having the influence over what is happening with their child,” Standring said. “I think that is really meaningful for parents.”
She and Haskell also said that these experiences are more easily repeated by parents, meaning that they are more likely to be able to repeat exercises or strategies many times throughout the day when they—and not a visitor to the home—have done the initial work themselves.
The virtual services are possible because Virginia is one of several states that have relaxed rules related to telehealth coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Telehealth services are currently approved under Medicaid because of Virginia’s state of emergency. But after seeing the benefits and flexibility these virtual delivery methods offer, there is a growing call to continue telemedicine post-pandemic.
Standring said virtual delivery has allowed Early Intervention to connect families with highly specialized providers outside of the Fredericksburg area, to continue to provide services when families travel, and to work around ever-changing schedules as school and work hours have shifted during the pandemic.
It hasn’t been without its limitations. Some families served by Early Intervention do not have internet access. Some have had limited connectivity when multiple older children must attend virtual school during the day. There will always be some aspects of services that must be delivered in-person.
But overall, these virtual offerings have allowed Early Intervention’s providers to deliver continuous services to families during the pandemic, while unlocking new capabilities that will continue to be useful when the crisis is over.
As 2021 begins, Standring and Haskell urge parents not to delay taking their children to see pediatricians for well visits, which are a major source of referrals for Early Intervention services.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been sounding the alarm throughout the pandemic that pediatric well visits have declined to a level that poses serious health risks to children who are not being screened for developmental delays, given important immunizations or other health services.
In the Fredericksburg region, Early Intervention staff have seen a decline in referrals from pediatricians because of this trend. Standring said referrals ticked up in the summer when parents felt more comfortable going out to a doctor’s appointment, but that level subsided again toward the end of the year.
This trend—combined with other important experiences children are missing right now—is worrisome for Standring and Haskell.
“We think there is going to be a big group of children that have some developmental hiccups because they don’t get to go to playgrounds, they don’t get to climb and they don’t get to run,” Haskell said. “They’re not seeing other kids, going to story times and daycares and other important experiences at this age.”
Standring said parents with concerns about children ages birth to 3 should not hesitate to call 540-372-3561 to talk about a screening. Parents who have questions can find developmental milestones posted on the RACSB website at https://rappahannockareacsb.org/portfolio/early-intervention/.
“Ten months out of a little one’s life is a long time,” she said. “We want to maximize what is going on in those first three years.”
Parent Education – Infant Development Program
A service of the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board.