Whatcom View: Help for kids with delayed early learning

If you have contact with preschool children, write down this acronym and telephone number, SEAS and 715-7485; its importance is explained below.

In all seven of our county’s public school districts we commonly have kindergarten enrollees who were born here identified as severely delayed in learning or social skills and yet to have never received therapy or attended preschool. With intensive, targeted special education services and full parent buy-in, these children might catch up with peers by third grade. Students who don’t catch up, who cannot read by third grade, are more likely to drop out of high school or be poorly prepared for tomorrow’s workplace.

The number of school children in Whatcom County needing special services or modification of their learning environment for developmental, learning or behavioral problems in grades K-12 is growing. Fortunately, we know how to address this problem.

Developmental delays in infants and young children are too often not identified early enough for the most effective and least expensive intervention.

Early identification and enrollment in home- and center-based treatment services are critical for infants and preschool children who are not developing normal language, gross motor, fine motor, self-help, problem-solving or social-emotional skills. Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on early treatment services, up to $17 are saved by society on education, social and criminal justice services.

Without quality early learning environments in the home, daycare or preschool, under-stimulated children will be significantly delayed in multiple developmental areas by kindergarten. Enriched early learning programs that also engage parents return $10 to society for every dollar spent.

Why are early intervention services critical for a child’s future success? Why not wait and let school take care of learning problems on entry into kindergarten? The first five years of life form a critical period for the growth and development of the human brain. The brain doubles in size during these years. Vital learning connections (synapses) and pathways are created by positive experiences or destroyed when unstimulated. Further, persistent stress on a child’s brain from malnutrition, domestic violence, parental inattention or direct maltreatment, not only decreases brain growth, it alters pathways in the brain, producing life-long learning and behavior problems, such as reactive, angry and impulsive behavior.

Nationally, as in Whatcom County, about 15 percent of preschool children have developmental or behavioral delays. For 40 years, federal law has mandated early identification and intervention to address these delays from birth to three and provide special education to continue treatment in school after age three. Given the long history of federal attention, why are schools seeing an increase in special-needs children?

First, the mandates have never been backed by adequate funding, judged to be under 25 percent of what is necessary to run early intervention and quality preschool programs. Second, more children today are being raised in poverty or living under persistent and severe stress, which damages children’s brains. Third, developmental delays in infants and young children are too often not identified early enough for the most effective and least expensive intervention. Fourth, even after identification of delays, the fragmentation of our healthcare system, lack of family support along the way, and inadequate capacity of birth-to-3 programs create hurdles that block entry for three out of four children needing services.

Since 2009 families with children having special health care needs and community professionals who serve these children have collaborated to address these impediments to providing timely services. This group, Whatcom Taking Action for Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (Taking Action), created the Single Entry Access to Services (SEAS) 360-715-7485 telephone referral line in 2012 for parents or providers to call for help connecting with resources and services for kids ages birth to 21 who have (or may have) special needs. The Opportunity Council’s administers SEAS with funding support though a mix of agency dollars and the Chuckanut Health Foundation.

Taking Action was awarded a five-year federal Maternal Child Health Bureau grant in 2015 to develop a local interdisciplinary assessment system that will decrease the long wait times for evaluations of developmental or behavioral problems in children. The grant will also provide support for universal developmental screening of children 9- to 30-months by primary healthcare providers and by daycare and preschool providers, as well as encourage screening for family stress.

Ken Gass is a member and past president of the Northwest Washington Medical Society (formerly Whatcom County Medical Society), a former practicing pediatrician and Bellingham school board member, and on the leadership team of Taking Action. For more information online, go to whatcomtakingaction.org.