The European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) organises the conference “Growing Together” on Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) programmes, which are designed to support young children who are at risk or have been identified as having developmental delay or disabilities during the most intensive period of their lives and critical stage of human development (from prenatal period to eight years of age). As key note speaker, Mrs Emily Vargas-Barón, Director of the RISE Institute, will address the audience during the conference and explain the necessary elements to develop appropriate ECI programmes such as sustainable national systems or comprehensive strategies. Discover more about the topic by reading this interview.
In your experience, what are the key elements to a successful early childhood intervention service?
All of your questions merit long and detailed responses. I shall try to highlight a few important points. Some key elements of successful ECI services are:
- Provision of a national legal framework, such as a strategic plan, action plan and/or an ECI law or protocol.
- Establishment of national ECI programme guidelines and procedures plus ECI service standards.
- Adherence to core ECI concepts and principles.
- Universal screening, identification and referral systems.
- Development of responsive ECI services, including assessments of children, families and home environments, establishment of eligibility, and preparation of individualised family service plans.
- Provision of ECI services in each child’s natural environments, with the participation of parents, family members and caregivers.
- Development of programme exit and transition plans.
- Provision of transition activities to inclusive pre-school/kindergarten and primary school services.
- Inclusion of elements required for quality assurance in ECI services.
- Provision of a comprehensive system of pre- and in-service training.
- Development of personnel standards and related procedures for professional and paraprofessional personnel.
- Attention given to ensuring services are culturally derived and provided in families’ home languages.
- Development of fully accountable services, including a national ECI monitoring and evaluation system.
What are the main challenges in developing such services in Europe? Are the barriers to inclusive services different depending on regional context/background?
My approach is always participatory and strengths-based. Thus, I prefer to speak of “enabling factors” rather than only challenges and barriers. These do need to be identified and addressed, but on a national basis because each country has a different configuration of ECI strengths and needs.
Nations of Europe, including of course CEE/CIS, have long traditions of promoting child and family development. European nations have developed many outstanding ECI systems and linked them in positive ways with pre-existing rehabilitation and habilitation services as well as with inclusive preschool education and health systems. However, these systems sometimes lack one or more of the key elements I highlighted above. They may lack a theory of change, vision, mission and strategic priorities for systems development and improvement.
Fortunately, ECI resource bases in Europe and CEE/CIS are quite strong: excellent professionals in key fields; outstanding pre-service training systems that seek to achieve continuous improvement; and growing financial support from governmental and non-governmental sources for essential ECI services. However, significant gaps in resources exist in most countries, and these need to be addressed soon.
"Strong policy advocacy is always required to demonstrate the demand for ECI services and the importance of investing in children"
Which are the key elements needed in developing comprehensive legislative frameworks that could support the set-up of high-quality community-based services?
Effective participatory planning processes should be used to guide the improvement and expansion of national ECI services. However, key elements in developing comprehensive strategic plans or legislation will vary from country to country. They depend upon differing levels of: policy and political support from executive and parliamentary branches of government; national systems of governance; types of decentralisation procedures; governmental “institutional cultures;” and past trends in financing.
Strong policy advocacy is always required to demonstrate the demand for ECI services and the importance of investing in children with high-risk situations, developmental delays, disabilities and atypical behaviours. Some systems of governance favour the use of legislation, which may be less comprehensive, lower in impact and less sustainable than strategic plans. In some nations, rapid decentralisation has led to a loss of normative, qualitative and accountability roles of central government, resulting in reduced ECI service quality, technical support, and financial investment. In some nations, old bureaucratic practices only measure programme inputs and outputs without attention to outcomes, thereby limiting ECI service growth. The placement of budgets mainly in regional and municipal governments has sometimes inhibited the growth of investments in ECI services. In each nation, these dimensions and others should be considered.
Dr Emily Vargas-Barón is Director and conducts the activities of the RISE Institute. In addition Mrs Emily Vargas-Barón consults internationally in the fields of education and integrated early childhood development, focusing on policy planning, training, programme design and evaluation research. From 1994 to 2001, she was Deputy Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she directed the Centre for Human Capacity Development. Previously, she founded and directed a research and development institute for early childhood development in Austin Texas, called the Centre for Development, Education and Nutrition (now called Any Baby Can). Dr. Vargas-Barón was an Education Advisor for the Bogotá Office of The Ford Foundation and a Program Specialist in Education for UNESCO in Paris. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology with a focus on Education from Stanford University, where she was also an Associate of the Stanford International Development Education Centre (SIDEC). She is the author of many books, chapters, articles, research and evaluation studies, and she has worked in Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia.