This is an essay I did as part of my psychology degree – the psychological advantages and disadvantages of early intervention.
Several definitions exist which define early intervention. Mitchell & Brown (1991:xii) defined early intervention as ‘systematic strategies aimed at promoting the optimal development of infants and toddlers with special needs and the enhancing of functioning of their families and caregivers’, whilst de Graaf (1993) defined it as ‘individualised, early, structured, long-term support, either at home or in a centre… carried out in accordance with a specific early intervention program’. It is believed that early intervention can lead to many accomplishments within the first five years of life through its successful implementation (Guralnick, 1998). Several conditions may require early intervention – these can range from prematurity at birth, to learning disabilities or social/economic disadvantages (Albrecht et al., 2001). The time between identifying a disability and beginning an early intervention programme is between birth and 3 years (Bailey et al., 2004). Advantages and disadvantages of early intervention will be discussed in relation to several conditions, as well as the more general advantages and limitations which early intervention holds.
One of the advantages of early intervention is that strategies can be implemented pre- and post-natally. The strategies consist of primary prevention (which includes, for example, stopping smoking during pregnancy, therefore minimising the risk of a disabled baby being born), and secondary prevention (such as pre-natal screening, which can help reduce the severity of disabilities or further impairments (Bailey et al., 2004). These strategies are useful as it allows the baby’s parents to adjust to his or her disability prior to the baby being born. Several studies have investigated the effectiveness of pre- and post-natal interventions, and, even though the identification of babies who have developmental problems (such as spina bifida or Down’s syndrome) is a rapid and efficient process, it is more difficult to identify disabilities which are less obvious, as it may take longer for the nature of the disability to develop and become apparent in the infant (Bailey et al., 2004). However, there has been support for early intervention in Down’s syndrome, as it has been shown that it can prevent much of the decline of intellectual development which usually occurs during the early years of a child with the disability (e.g. Sharav & Shlomo, 1986).
Early intervention is advantageous as it can be used to assist the development of children who are living with a wide range of conditions and circumstances. One of these is learning disabilities. Applied behaviour analysis (which consists of teaching programmes developed from behaviour principles) may benefit children with learning disabilities the most, as well as those with autism (Hamilton, 2004). Intervention strategies such as reinforcement procedures have provided improvements in, for example, language and communication, self-care and social skills, which are both reliable and lasting. The use of inclusive education too is believed to benefit children with learning disabilities as it provides a more stimulating environment for learning and the chance to make friends whilst doing so (Stainback & Stainback, 1990). It requires the child’s parents, peers, teachers etc. to collaborate and so it encourages a community approach to providing the intervention. Inclusive education as a form of early intervention has other advantages: it has been shown to improve social skills and the self-perception of cognitive skills for disabled children (Tapasak & Walther-Thomas, 1999). It also has a positive effect on reading and cognitive abilities of children who are in high poverty (Barnett, 2001). The Abecedarian project showed that these abilities were improved both in the short and long term as a result of early intervention (Campbell & Ramey, 1994). There are benefits for children with social disadvantages, or who are at risk biologically or environmentally too (Campbell & Ramey, 1994). However, early intervention in the area of learning disabilities has limitations, one being a lack of empirical support (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994). Even though children can acquire life skills via inclusive education, there are concerns that children may not be able to independently use these skills, as some children are unable to use them outside of the classroom, or rely on teachers for prompts (Hamilton, 2004). Questions also remain regarding inclusive education on how to ensure that the child feels part of the education strategy, and receives individualised instruction (Hamilton, 2004).