Children are widely recognized as the future of any society of a nation. Practically, the new generations of any state and the level of their wellbeing determine the tendencies a country will be going through within the next few decades. That way, taking good care of the children and developing the programs and interventions to address the needs of young children and infants are a crucial part of upstream approach to various problems of the society such as public health issues, education, financial wellbeing, criminal activity, to name a few. Healthy young children have a variety of needs, but not all babies are born healthy. Children and infants with health conditions and disabilities require special attention and specialized educational programs to be able to function productively and without problems in the society as adults. This paper explores the definition of young children at risk, their recognition in the society, background of the social attitude to the individuals with special needs, legislative practices when it comes to the fulfillment of these needs, the aspects and development of the curriculums and materials for the education of young children at risk.
“At Risk” Definition
“At risk” is the term that is frequently employed to identify special categories of children and young people, and also carries quite a strong emotional and intuitive connotation (Moore 1). At the same time, there is no specific meaning of this term even though it is used widely in the contemporary society. The vagueness of this definition can be seen both as a positive and negative characteristic. On one hand, this term is quite general which may lead to stereotyping and stigmatizing of particular types of individuals. On the other hand, the broad meaning of “at risk” term allows the professionals who use it develop their own definitions suitable for the specializations of their organizations and facilities and the people they target.
When it is children who are spoken about from the “at risk” perspective, one may note that any child regardless of their health or financial status is exposed to a number of risks. However, instead of including a particular definition of risk, this term refers to “poor life outcomes in general” (Moore 1). Children may be called at risk if they dwell in poor ecological conditions, are exposed to such threats as future incarceration or unemployment, school failure, injuries or death. Children with special needs and learning disabilities are recognized to be at risk due to their limited opportunities to fit into the society and function productively in the future without special education. That is why a number of organizations are involved in the development of specialized programs for the children and infants at risk targeting their needs and conditions.
Today, there is a variety of schools, support programs, and interventions for the children at risk and their families. However, it has not always been this way. The history of human society is filled with tragic and violent stories of oppression and discrimination against the individuals with disabilities. For instance, in ancient times, the children with noticeable disabilities or impairments of mental or physical character were actively or passively euthanized (Shonkoff and Meisels 8). Later, during the medieval era such individuals were reduced to the roles of jesters or beggars, widely despised and mocked (Shonkoff and Meisels 8).
Further, the practice of institutionalization of people with mental disabilities appeared dooming them to social isolation and inhumane treatments. Shamefully, the individuals with special needs only started to be targeted by interventional and educational programs during the 1960s (Shonkoff and Meisels 10). In other words, the society first began to wonder about the determinants of the human capacities and abilities during the modern times; and this facilitated nature versus nurture argument. Due to a scientific research, many of the conditions currently can be detected and addressed at the earliest stages, and the development of other disabilities can be prevented or improved.
The right of education for the persons with disabilities has been first passed in the United States in 1975 and known as Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (EHA) (“Indiana First Steps System: Best Practices in Early Intervention” 1). The Act was amended in a decade and replaced with the policy that required all the states to develop and enforce Early Intervention Services for young children and their families that was also amended in a few years and changed into Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (“Indiana First Steps System: Best Practices in Early Intervention” 1). The further development of this legislation led to several changes. As a result, an important adjustment was introduced.
The new IDEA emphasized that the children with special needs who are characterized as being at risk, are provided the required support and education in natural environments. In other words, instead of isolating the infants from their homes and putting into segregated clinical environments, the children were assisted with their developmental and educational needs in specialized childcare homes and centers (“Indiana First Steps System: Best Practices in Early Intervention” 1). Another important characteristic of the newest intervention and support programs for children at risk is the family-centered approach that allows the families of the target children to be fully engaged in the intervention and education processes (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities par. 6). Today, multiple programs targeting young children and infants with special needs have been developed and launched under this legislation.
Identification of Risks
Before being treated as the children at risk and placed into specialized programs, the infants and babies are to be carefully evaluated based on their abilities. Unfortunately, due to the increased number of various special schools and programs there is an ongoing competition between such organizations. Some of them may over-diagnose the infants in order to gain more clients and capitals. However, when treated and implemented responsibly, the process of identification of the children at risk is to involve such steps as the examination of all the risk factors as well as protective impacts, the organization of ongoing observation for the children and their development, careful and thoughtful formulation of the risk status, the development of a plan addressing the individual needs of every eligible child, the delivery of the professional support and care services with the further observational data collection, and the provision of an intervention based on the acquired results (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities par. 3).
The contemporary intervention programs work based on the principle of early identification that means that all the risks have to be determined and addressed as early as possible. This aspect is important because early intervention allows the professionals deal with the risks using the upstream approach and prevent the development of some of the negative factors and outcomes at the root. The risks are usually determined with the help of thorough observation and analysis of every child. For example, health issues and learning disabilities in young children and infants are located through the application of multiple maturation standards. The character of developmental delays and patterns helps that professionals to identify the type care required to address the appearing problems, minimize or slow them down.
The tight connection that exists between the children and their families may play both a positive and a negative role at this stage. The parents or caregivers who communicate with the child on the regular basis are the most likely to notice some abnormalities in their behavior or development very early and report them in search for help. At the same time, often, parents fail or refuse to report various problems because they do not want to believe that something may be wrong with their child. This example explains how vital the cooperation of a child’s family is for their intervention. If an abnormality is reported, the process of monitoring of a child includes such steps as screening, the analysis of all the potential risks and protective factors, a careful observation, and the evaluation of the risk if it is detected (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities par. 12).
The risks may come from versatile sources of perinatal, biological, genetic and environmental characters (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities par. 14). At the same time, the presence of risk factors in a child’s daily life does not necessary warrant the future development of abnormalities in these children or the fact that the children will suffer any particular damages.
Children and infants at risk require various supports and services to stimulate their further development and eliminate the deterioration of their conditions. The objective of the supports and services for a child at risk is to make sure that the child’s learning, developmental, or behavioral needs are met. Besides, when it comes to young children at risk, the services for their support are to be family-centered, culturally sensitive, and adequate for the developmental pace of a child. The supporting services are to be directed at a variety of tasks.
For instance, they are to include the family in the support process by, first of all, educating them about the problems their child is facing, and helping them understand what is happening with the child. Moreover, the supporters are to provide thorough observation and evaluation of a child at risk in order to be able to design the most appropriate intervention program answering the needs of a child on every level. Also, it is the job of the supporting services to connect the family of a child at risk with various communities that can assist them. In addition, these communities are to be compatible with the family’s views and cultural beliefs. Finally, the school education program of a child is to be coordinated with the developmental needs that may be fulfilled through the interaction of a child with the family members and caregivers.
All the best modern practices of the intervention for young children are focused on the identification of the possible problems and risks as early as possible. This approach is viewed as the best practice due to multiple pieces of evidence provided by the researches that prove that early life experiences are the most crucial for the future development of a child (NECTAC 1). The first three years of a child’s life are especially important because their neutral circuits still can be influenced. That way, the best practices of infant and toddler interventions have to target the children during these years mainly.
This perspective is suitable for the practices that target developmental risks as well are for those focused on the environmental risks as the vulnerable brain of a child younger than three years is especially perceptive of all the external stressors such as impoverished living conditions, harmful surroundings, and emotional pressures. At the same time, positive experiences are also very influential. In addition to the high effectiveness of the early childhood intervention practices, they are also less costly than those provided to older children (NECTAC 2). Moreover, the best practices work based on the principle that early identification of risks allows more effective prevention, and this is why they target the children during the first months after birth.
Currently, the need for such practices in the United States is very high. The delivery of interventions for all the children in need is limited by such factors as lack of qualified professionals and the unavailability of the interventions to some population groups. For instance, the research shows that families of color with children at risk receive appropriate services and interventions more rarely than those of white origin.
Examples of Programs and Practices
The Abecedarian Project (1972-1985)
This program targeted children of 0 to 8 years old and provided support for the low-income families of children at risk as well as intervention practices. The program addressed the issues of cognitive development of the children, their physical health, and the impact of substance abuse providing preschool and school intervention (Kilburn 26). The families enrolled in the program were referred by the hospitals, social services, and clinics. The program employees visited the families at their homes, and the program also had child care centers with a free transportation option where children were grouped and cared for based on their age. The program outcomes were evaluated several times as the participants grew up. The Abecedarian Project demonstrated effectiveness in both short and long terms as the enrolled children showed progress at school, fewer school failure incidents, fewer cases of drug and alcohol addictions, smaller percentage of becoming teenage parents, and more balanced adult development at the age of 21 (Kilburn 31).
Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP) (1985-1988)
IHDP was another program for young children that provided such services as health and parent education, family support, and works through home visiting and child care centers. IHDP targeted such risks as behavioral and cognitive impairments, substance dependence, and physical health issues. The program worked as a randomized controlled trial with the children with reduced birth weight as participants. The evaluation of the program showed significant positive effects in every cognitive aspect (IQ, speech, motor skills, perception). The control and intervention groups of children were compared throughout many years just like in the Abecedarian Project. The findings showed that the intervention groups demonstrated a much more advanced academic performance, better learning skills, better speech and vocabulary; besides, the intervention children were less likely to develop behavior problems (Kilburn 282).
Modern Curriculums and Materials
The materials for the early childhood interventions are based on family-centered approach; this means that the required needs of the children are addressed through the cooperation with their parents. The qualified professionals who visit the families at their homes deliver special materials designed for the particular issues and risks that children are facing. Home visiting personal has a goal to provide quality education for the parents concerning the conditions and needs of their infants and babies. This education may be provided through such materials as demonstrational videos and tutorials, written guides, charts, schemes, schedules, and plans. The parents need to be prepared to address the needs of their children the best way possible, and this is why the intervention professionals are to put a lot of effort working with the families.
Further, the work of parents is assessed and evaluated in relation to the improvements of the children’s conditions and environments. The parents may be also backed up by local communities and services. The intervention professionals are to ensure the contact between them and the families. Infants who are older and can be educated in child care centers are provided with age-appropriate and safe environments and educational materials specific to their learning and developmental needs. Some of such materials can be special games, tools, and kits used to address particular skills and abilities of the young learners.
The curriculum for young children and infants is shaped based on such principles as the engagement of the family for the facilitation of ongoing intervention, use of emotions as drivers of learning experiences, creation and maintenance of intimate connections between the tutors and the learners to ensure safety and trust, the stimulation for the children’s natural need for exploration, individual approach based on specific needs and background of a child (culture and language sensitivity included), diverse practices addressing all domains of cognitive, behavioral, and physical development and designed to target the areas of deficiencies with special attention. The curriculum is to include the participation of the parents, and regular exchange of information between them and the educators to evaluate the progress and further needs of a child.
An individualized approach is especially important for the children and infants at risk because the curriculum and the materials will vary significantly based on the aspects and factors that require intervention. Interventions for at-risk children can be challenging to design due to the currently ongoing debate of inclusion versus exclusion of the at-risk children from the standard child care groups.
The contemporary approach to the children at risk is much more humane than that of earlier times. Today, there is a great variety of evidence-based educational and developmental programs and projects for the children exposed to various challenges. The curricula, materials, and intervention strategies are designed based on the perceived needs of an assessed child. Family is a crucial actor during the intervention as they represent the main environment of an infant. That is why the intervention materials are to target families and caregivers providing them with necessary knowledge and education to enable them to support the child and have a better understanding of their challenges.
Indiana First Steps System: Best Practices in Early Intervention 2006. Web.
Kilburn, Rebecca M. Programs That Work, from the Promising Practices Network on Children, Families, and Communities. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 2014. Print.
Moore, Kristin Anderson. Defining the Term “At Risk”. 2006. Web.
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities and Young Children: Identification and Intervention. 2015. Web.
NECTAC. The Importance of Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities and their Families. 2011. Web.
Shonkoff, Jack P., and Samuel J. Meisels. Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.