Westmoreland IU 7: Early Intervention Kids Grow by leaps and bounds

A profile in the PAIU series, "Early Intervention Changes Lives:
Pennsylvania Families and the Intermediate Units that Serve Them"

Changing lives: The Tessa Smith story
Natalie Smith always knew that her first daughter, adopted at 8 months old from China, had developmental delays. By age 2, her parents were told Tessa would probably never walk or talk.

Today, Tessa is in fourth grade, “and now she is a ballerina,” says the mom who credits Westmoreland IU 7’s Early Intervention with helping her daughter learn to communicate and grow.

The Smith family experienced that fluidity and child-centered approach firsthand. Initially, Tessa Smith had outpatient occupational and physical therapy, but it did little to serve her needs. “She made no connection with why she was doing this in that sterilized environment,” says her mom, who is also a Westmoreland IU special education supervisor.

But after enrolling in Westmoreland IU 7’s Early Intervention classroom, Tessa “grew by leaps and bounds.” Among the goal-oriented efforts, Smith and the teachers created a pictorial “song board” for Tessa to hold, so classmates could request favorite songs by interacting with her. With Tessa’s language and social needs all plowed into the activity, “it made sense to her,” says Smith. “By the time she was 5, I was able to put her in a generalized preschool with support.”

Now age 10, Tessa does her homework and dances in annual productions of “The Nutcracker.” She is “doing great,” says her mom. “She is a miracle child, and it’s because of Early Intervention.”

The Westmoreland IU 7 approach: A foundation of relationships
Westmoreland IU 7 builds its standards-based Early Intervention services on relationships. In recent years, EI staff have concentrated on collaborating with educators and other community partners. They work with Infant/Toddler Early Intervention for seamless progression to services for 3- to 5-year-olds. They also participate on many committees, including the United Way of Southwestern PA’s Early Childhood Educators Roundtable, to enrich preschool and child care environments for each child. And by meticulous collaboration with all 17 Westmoreland County school districts, they facilitate smooth transitions for children entering kindergarten to ensure success.

“When you talk about Early Intervention at the basic level, it’s about relationship-building with community partners and families, because you have to provide that trust,” says Brandi Binakonsky, Westmoreland IU’s Early Intervention Administrator. “Once you look at it from a relationship perspective, it makes everything more fluid. Everyone is on the same page and focused on the needs of the child.”

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