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The Value of Special Instruction (aka Developmental Services)

Last week, the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) released its newest position statement: The Role of Special Instruction in Early Interventionshutterstock_178682132. I was fortunate to be the chair of the workgroup that developed this statement after 2 years of intensive work. Cori Hill, my colleague here in VA, also served on the workgroup, along with dedicated professionals representing former special instructors, administrators, therapists, faculty, students and parents from 10 other states. Our goal was to help define the important role played by the special instructor on the EI team and make recommendations for best practices for these providers. This work grew out of consistent calls from DEC’s membership and others in the field to raise the bar on special instruction and reiterate the value of this service.

The Value of Special Instruction/Developmental Services

In Virginia, we call special instruction “developmental services.” In other states, it’s called specialized skills training, developmental therapy, etc. Regardless of what you call it, special instruction is often an undervalued service within the array of early intervention services. We suggested possible reasons for this in the position statement, and I also wrote about it in another blog post I wrote for DEC about the development of the statement (follow the link for more info).

One of the reasons for the undervaluing of this service that our workgroup identified was this: special instruction is not recognized as its own discipline. Physical therapists provide physical therapy and receive a degree in this discipline. Speech-language pathologists get their “CCCs” and provide speech therapy. These professionals are recognized as having specialized training in their discipline. Depending on a state’s requirements, special instructors have varying levels of education, from a minimum of a high school diploma to a Master’s degree, depending on your state. Across states, there are also disparate requirements for professional backgrounds, knowledge and skills for those who provide this service, from few to very specific requirements. It might just be this lack of specificity that is what undervalues our work. I strongly believe that it’s time to re-examine this as a field and am so happy to have been a part of the development of DEC’s stance on this issue. I’m hoping that this statement starts some conversations about this service and those who provide it. Even if we can’t make special instruction a discipline, we can develop the respect for this role as a highly qualified professional who is a valuable member of the early intervention team, no matter the state in which he or she practices.

Okay, I’ll step down off my soapbox now. 🙂

What Do YOU Think?

I’d love to know what you think about how special instructors are viewed on your early intervention teams:

Do you find that special instructors/developmental service providers are valued as having expertise? Is the service you provide viewed as equally valuable as other EI services? Of course, the decision about which service is most appropriate for a child and family is a team decision that’s based on the IFSP, but in general, think about the role that special instruction/developmental services plays in your program.

Do you see special instruction/developmental services recommended only in certain situations, such as when a child has mild or global delays? 

Do you think special instructors are well-qualified professionals? If yes, what are the requirements in your locality or state? If not, what would you like to see happen to raise the bar? The position statement takes a strong stance on minimum education and qualification recommendations. Check them out and let me know what you think.

Share your insights in the comments below. Let’s get this conversation started!

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10 Comments to “The Value of Special Instruction (aka Developmental Services)”

  1. It was my pleasure to be a part of this important work group. I whole-heartedly believe that the time is ripe to use our energy and our voices to work toward enhanced awareness and professional acceptance for the specialized expertise in the role of developmental specialists/special instructors.

  2. Hi Dana,
    Thanks for this post and for serving on the work group. What we do is not understood by many, sometimes not even by the administrators and policy makers in charge of funding and running the important programs we are part of. I have been trying to establish a PLN on Twitter with other people in the field and it has been difficult because we don’t have a common title or a common language. This makes establishing helpful tools such as hashtags difficult. I am hoping that DEC takes more of a lead in this area, encouraging our field to become connected educators. Social media is a powerful tool for advancing a profession and raising awareness. Many other educators are connecting via social media as a way to be heard, develop their skills and advocate for students. I am hoping that our field will start to leverage the power of social media so that we can be a collective, powerful voice for early intervention. I am glad DEC is being a voice and advocating for the field by taking a strong position on this issue. Our job is so important, there should be high expectations. Here are a few urls that will lead to a few related posts on my early intervention blog. By the way, I enjoy reading your blog, thank you for taking the time post. http://goo.gl/KJJv7b http://goo.gl/P3H2ht

    • Thanks so much, Jodi! I visited your blog – thanks for letting me know about it! You have some great stuff on there! I love the idea of establishing a PLN on Twitter too. Honestly, I’m new to Twitter but will do my best to remember to use #earlyedsped. We’ll also be tweeting from our project’s new account (veipd) too. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of the special instructor’s role and having high expectations! Having a common language and understanding about this role was definitely a goal of our workgroup in writing the position statement!

  3. As an SLP who has her “CCCs” with lots of specialized education, supervision, and testing I have a soapbox, too 🙂

    What I find is that the use of DI varies depending upon the council, and that in some cases, services from DI have been used in place of service providers that other team members or the parents feel would be better suited to the child.

    For instance, I’ve arrived at homes where parents show me target words developed by the DI that are developmentally inappropriate and way too difficult. I’ve been part of teams where the DI is working on feeding with little to no knowledge of the mechanics of feeding, why the child may be having difficulty, how to manage textures, sensory issues, or how to look for possible aspiration or penetration. I’m aware of instances where a child with congenital/hand issues was working on dressing with a DI where an OT would be more appropriate for current and future development due to those congenital issues. In some instances, the parent has asked for more SLP services which were available, and were offered DI services instead.

    Depending upon the council, I’ve heard that DI has been encouraged to “save money” – I don’t know how that works, so maybe it’s so and maybe not. Two of the three councils I’ve been involved with do not use DI in general.

    Just as there are things a DI knows and can do that I do not/cannot, there are things I know and can do that they do not/cannot. Having said that, I work alongside some very talented DIs who are dedicated, knowledgeable, great team members. At a time when the Commonwealth is moving away from more specialized personnel to a Primary/”Preferred” Provider model, time will tell. It would be great to have guidelines as to when DI is and isn’t warranted, instead of, “Well, we’ll just put developmental services in instead of (fill in the blank.)”

    • You make some great (and scary) points. I agree that how special instruction (DI) is used really does vary from program to program, and I think that abiguity is likely due to the lack of a clear definition for this role and who is qualified to do it. We certainly found that to be the case on our workgroup (we had reps from 11 states). The definition in the federal law really doesn’t provide much guidance. I believe, as it sounds like you do, that the service provider who has the most appropriate expertise to support the family in addressing the IFSP outcomes should provide the service listed on the IFSP. The decision about which service or service provider is recommended should NEVER be based on a program’s financial situation. I’m really hoping that this new position statement starts conversations about this role in states and local programs to help us reflect on and fix some of the things you mentioned. As you also mentioned, there are well-qualified, knowledgeable special instructors out there. I have always taken this position – if it was MY child, I would want the best qualified, most knowledgeable person helping me with his development. Families in EI deserve no less.

      By the way, the appendix in the position statement is a table that lists what special instruction is and is not. We didn’t specifically address when to recommended it because that is an individualized, team decision. Our workgroup did acknowledge that it’s awfully hard to make a good recommendation when team members aren’t really clear on the role of special instruction, or don’t have faith in the knowledge and skills of the special instructors on their teams because the folks in these roles maybe don’t necessarily have a consistent background or bank of competencies and skills. It’s a challenging situation and there is definitely more work to be done. Thanks for sharing your soapbox! 🙂

  4. As an OT, I find a lot of agreement with Ms Behrer. In the state I practiced in, a DT evaluation was mandated so that “all areas of development could be assessed.” However, there was no standardized training or background for the DT, and essentially all that was required to become a provider was to attend a basic orientation course. Some DT providers were known to pitch their services to families before the IFSP meeting: “I can do everything the PT & OT can do!” Real quote. I don’t want this to sound territorial, I do respect the accredited teachers who provide early childhood special instruction, but without standards, the special instruction/developmental therapy is widely variable in benefit.

    • Completely agree, Cheryl. Without standards, the role IS variable because of such different backgrounds, training, experience, and even knowledge of what being a special instructor/developmental therapist really means. Ugh – that real quote you mention is so misleading to families. We all bring different competencies and skills to the table and we need each other. I have always thought that role sharing (between professionals and even between the parent and professional) is such a key to holistic intervention. As a special instructor, yes, I should hopefully be able to implement strategies used by a PT or OT with the therapists’ support but that doesn’t mean that I am a substitute for their expertise. Not having standards for special instructors muddies the waters – for all of us!

  5. Man! This is tough. As an educator working within a transdisciplinary framework, I see it as imperative to be an integrated team member who communicates their cases frequently and clearly to the team. An educator may be able to address some general issues related to other specialized disciplines, but only if that educator is in direct consult with the provider of that particular specialty. I would never purport that I can help a family address their feeding issues or motor issues without close consultation with my OT or PT respectively. More than likely, those providers would be primary instead.

    Also, as an educator surrounded by specialists, it is easy to find my identity lost in the generality of my field. I am a generalist in all five areas of development and so, often begin to wonder how I fit in. Don’t get me wrong. I know the value of my field and my job, but comparatively, it does seem to get lost (in my mind) among some of the other specialized disciplines. It is encouraging to hear that there are efforts to delineate the field more clearly. I appreciate your efforts in doing so. Thanks for addressing the issue, Dana.

    • You really summed the situation up perfectly, Jeff. I think it is that idea of educators as “generalists” that is both an incredible strength of our knowledge base and part of what makes our position on the EI team so fuzzy. When our workgroup was developing language for the special instruction position statement, we talked at length about the use of the term “generalist” – agreeing that our knowledge about global development and how it overlaps is key, but worrying that the term could seem so broad, as if educators don’t have a specialty. We decided that we are also specialists, with our knowledge and skills crossing all areas of development so that intervention strategies and support are well-integrated into a holistic picture of the child in the context of the family. We absolutely DO need our team members, and it is in that collaboration that we are all most effective. It is a tough subject, and I’m so excited too that there are conversations going on about this important role!

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