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News (Noticias)

Improving Early Intervention Outcomes by Engaging Staff in Research

A few years ago, I received a call from an upset mom of a child in Early Intervention. We’ll call her Maggie. Maggie’s son, Oliver, was referred to Early Intervention by his pediatrician, who had diagnosed Oliver with Down syndrome. Oliver was exhibiting delays across a variety of developmental areas, but the family’s primary concerns were his difficulties with speech and eating.

Following the referral, the team conducted an assessment and developed an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) with the family. That is where Maggie’s concerns lay. Maggie said that her pediatrician had recommended that Oliver receive speech, occupational and physical therapies, all twice a week. Maggie really didn’t see how their family could fit six therapy appointments a week into their busy schedule, but she wanted to make sure she was providing Oliver what he needed.

However, the Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS) service coordinator recommended only speech therapy once a week, along with time for the therapist to consult with her team of therapists from other disciplines for ideas to support Oliver’s entire development. Maggie wondered how Oliver would make progress with only one visit a week compared to the pediatrician’s recommendations.

Maggie was a chemist by training, and so she wanted research. She and I spoke, and I also gave her some material to read. As a result, she was comfortable going back to the IFSP team and talking through the best plan for Oliver and their family.

The exchange got me thinking about how we could do more to support our service coordinators in understanding and incorporating research into their thinking about Early Intervention and be more comfortable talking with families about research in ways that best fit each family. Our service coordinators come to this work with diverse experience. While all have strong educational backgrounds in areas related to human services, their exposure to research varies greatly.

RMHS isn’t a research institution, but we do have a mandate to provide evidence-based services, and we know that we can set ourselves apart the more we can show positive outcomes and high-quality best practices.

So how do we engage our staff in these efforts?

We are fortunate to have longstanding research partnerships at RMHS. We have partnered with the University of Colorado Denver on many projects related to Early Intervention, autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities over the years. Recently, we have worked closely with a research team led by Beth McManus of the University of Colorado Denver and Mary Khetani of University of Illinois at Chicago, who have a number of projects related to Early Intervention outcomes. This work has resulted in several journal publications and conference presentations. While some of our management staff have been very involved in these projects, service coordinators’ involvement has mostly related to sharing research opportunities with families.

The research team recently designed a project to be much more participatory, with service coordinators serving as the recruiters. While typical research involves research staff doing all recruitment and screening, we wanted to make it part of the standard work flow for service coordinators and have families interact with the people they would naturally interact with as Early Intervention clients.

We found that it was challenging to engage service coordinators in recruiting families. We wanted to know how we could better engage staff in research in a meaningful way. We wanted their experience implementing Early Intervention in the real world to inform research designs, so research results would be more likely to inform their work in Early Intervention.

Briana Rigau, a doctoral student who has been working with the research team, is very interested in this topic, because her goal is to work as an occupational therapist who incorporates scholarly practice into her work. Briana designed a project for her doctoral dissertation that is helping RMHS build our organizational capacity in this area. The project was broken into three parts.

  • Part 1: Learning Modules — Online learning modules were designed to address the importance of conducting research in Early Intervention, why service coordinators should be involved in research, and how service coordinators can use research to support their Early Intervention practice.

  • Part 2: Writing Group Simulation — This was a one-hour activity that allowed service coordinators to practice the process of contributing to a draft research manuscript.

  • Part 3: Writing Group Fellowship — This is an ongoing group that meets on a regular basis to partner with the research team on manuscripts and presentations.

This work, “Building organizational capacity for research in early intervention,” will be published in the ZERO to Three Journal in July.

In addition, the group continues to work together on a number of publications and presentations related to Early Intervention outcomes, and the writing group is now helping to contribute to these. We are excited about these developments for a variety of reasons:

  • By engaging staff in research, the research team is designing projects that are more relevant for our families.

  • Staff engagement helps researchers interpret their findings in ways that are more meaningful for families.

  • Our staff have professional development opportunities that can make their work more exciting and meaningful to them, which will in turn help to keep them engaged in the Early Intervention field.

  • The insights gained from research can be more quickly translated into practices that can help our families.

It is my hope and expectation that these continuous efforts will help service coordinators feel comfortable sharing what we do and don’t know as professionals when someone asks for the rationale for a recommendation, and parents’ questions will help spark new research ideas when they present questions to which we don’t yet have answers.

Jodi Dooling-Litfin, Ph.D.

Director of Developmental & Behavioral Health

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