kids playing peekaboo with toys

The Importance of Early Intervention for Our Youngest Learners

Alexandra Martinez's experiences as a high school student diagnosed with a learning disability and later as a special education teacher have given her a keen perspective on early intervention.
Thursday, April 28, 2016

I grew up loving school. I appreciated the structure and predictability, I loved creating stories and expressing myself through writing and I enjoyed being transported to a new world through a book. I also grew up aware that memorizing facts took me much longer than my peers and that I learned differently than my classmates. I quickly internalized that my way of learning wasn’t the “correct” way to learn. 

Kids running on grass

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. This diagnosis provided me with a sense of relief, as there was now an explanation for why it took me much longer to process information.  I expected that with my diagnosis, my experience in class would change and teachers would alter their way of teaching to help me best learn. Unfortunately, wasn’t the case and I was required to adapt to what I understood were acceptable ways of learning.

It wasn’t until my senior year in college that I had a professor who truly showed me that my way of learning was valid and important. My experiences bolstered my decision to teach in a special education setting. I wanted to give children experiences of feeling successful and valued as far as who they are as people and how they learn. 

As a 2011 corps member in South Louisiana—where I taught middle school special education—I encountered many children who, like me, had internalized that their way of learning was invalid. We worked together to figure out how they liked to learn, and I worked with their general education teachers to make accommodations and modifications to lesson plans to include the needs of all children in the class.  I witnessed as students’ beliefs about themselves shifted and they learned to advocate for themselves as learners.

After three years in my placement school, I was given the opportunity to become the director of special education at a founding elementary school in Baton Rouge. I jumped at the chance, eager to work with what I believed to be the youngest learners at the beginning of their schooling.

Kids with teacher at subway station

However, I quickly realized that elementary school students were not the youngest learners and I was not their first teacher. While this may have been their first time at school, these students had been learning for five years and had many teachers in their homes and communities.

These experiences solidified the importance for me to work in early intervention and work closely with very young children and their families. The opportunity gap does not just emerge in kindergarten, and differences in learning and development occur well before formal school entry and expand over time. Learning begins at birth, and early childhood is a crucial stage in the development of a child’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and social abilities.

I am now in graduate school working on my master's degree in social work and my master's in education, with a focus on infant and family development and early intervention. I am also working in an inclusive classroom for children ranging from six months to three years old, as well as with parent/toddler playgroups for children who receive early intervention. In both roles, I work with families who have children between the ages of birth and age three who have identified delays in one or more areas of development.

Infants and toddlers learn from their primary attachment figures and their early experiences in the world, so we work to support the attachment relationship between the primary caregiver and the infant and help them provide early experiences for the child in which the child feels successful as they interact with the environment. Our goal is not to speed development up, but to support it as it naturally occurs.

Alexandra Martinez headshot

If we spend the first months of a child’s life getting to know them, learning what they like and dislike, discovering their quirks, and learning from them, children can internalize from infancy that they are important, that they matter, and that their way of learning and interacting with the world is valid.

This isn’t something I realized until I was in college. It wasn’t something my former students learned until middle school. It is my hope that all educators will embrace the differences in their students and support their academic, social, and emotional well-being.

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