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The upside to early intervention is becoming obvious

In educational circles, it's a trailblazing adventure in identifying need and then delivering the product to accommodate that need.
Sandi Klatt

In educational circles, it's a trailblazing adventure in identifying need and then delivering the product to accommodate that need.

Sandi Klatt and her tiny crew of consultants may not identify themselves as pioneers, but in many respects they are exactly that, as they take the calculated steps forward with an absorbing early childhood intervention program (ECIP), the first of its kind in Saskatchewan.

When the provincial Ministry of Education got together with the South East Cornerstone Public School Division to establish the project, the ideas began flowing and a strategic master plan evolved. That plan attracted the immediate attention of Klatt, an Estevan-based educator/administrator who felt her background in early education programming and administration would fit in nicely with what was being planned. Apparently the education partners felt the same, and Klatt, with her background in pre-kindergarten administration in Estevan schools as well as in special education and a principalship, soon found herself in the leadership position, directing a team of three veteran educators with solid backgrounds in early education.

The project focuses on youngsters from birth to age five who might be at risk in the educational system for one reason or another. ECIP is designed to ease them into their pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes with as little transitional pain as possible, thanks to the early detection of any emerging problem and professional intervention that will assist the children and their families as the child advances to the school system's traditional entrance date.

Klatt informed the Cornerstone trustees during a March presentation that early intervention boosts the youngster's cognitive skills as well as physical and emotional development to the point where a transition is made, in many cases, almost seamlessly into a traditional kindergarten setting.

To do this requires a network that begins with Klatt's team, along with co-operative parents and support from other agencies such as social services and health regions.

The Cornerstone project is being funded through a separate section in the Education Ministry and it has been assured of stable funding.

"Intervention in this form identifies developmental delays early on and saves money over time," said Klatt. The other obvious benefit is that there will be distinctly lower failure rates.

Youngsters who may be at risk are referred to the program in a variety of ways, including the parents themselves as well as educational consultants, social and health professionals and so on.

"We had 21 new referrals as of March and 14 were added to the caseload, making it 35 in total so far," said Klatt.

The ECIP consultants go into the homes to work with the child and family making it an inclusive intervention of play while the child learns.

Klatt told The Mercury that only one family had rejected the intervention offer and the others had enthusiastically embraced it, knowing what the upside could be.

With eight pre-kindergarten programs now included in six of the Cornerstone school facilities, the ECIP project dovetails nicely with what they are offering.

"I'm very pleased to see early learning is a priority in our school division," said Kathie Betnar who moved into the program as a consultant almost immediately after retiring as a kindergarten teacher. Her retirement didn't last that long and now she's fully engaged in this new adventure in education.

The program in southeast Saskatchewan started in September of 2011. It provides the home and centre-based services with the consultants (three in Cornerstone) building trusting relationships with families as they mutually identify the goals they want and need to achieve for a strong transition into a kindergarten program.

"Children who are involved with ECIPs are usually delayed in reaching age-appropriate developmental milestones such as walking, talking, eating, manoeuvring, playing or socially interacting with others," said Klatt. They might be youngsters born with a condition or diagnosis that makes it more difficult for them to develop at a typical rate.

So that's where the consultants jump in and do their educational magic bit by bit. They visit the home twice a month, support the parents in establishing goals, provide educational materials and information for the parents which will help the parent teach their child. There are networks provided that can link parents to other parents if desired or to other professionals and there is, of course, the assistance provided when the transition is made into a pre-kindergarten or other suitable program.

The assistance doesn't stop there, though. There is community awareness for other professionals, community involvement, observations to make and record, and continuing strategies to plot that will be tailored to each child's needs.

"There is no cookie-cutter situation in this world," said Klatt with a big smile.

The referrals in the southeast have come from a variety of sources including social services, public health professionals and assessment clinics as well as from the schools themselves.

Although she's not obsessed with the economic side of the register, Klatt said that early statistical information indicates that $1 spent now on intervention will save about $8 later when developmental problems would have to be attacked with a child at a much more advanced age.

There are proposals already being formulated for more programming in this sector, said Klatt.
Because the program is new to many, Klatt said "making sure that people know who to contact is still one of our big challenges. We still see some youngsters coming into kindergarten who haven't got the readiness skills."

That means the consultants are on the road a lot, identifying the needs, reacting to requests and providing assessments while working on programs for each of the 35 children who are already in the program. They also check on the new referrals.

"Right now we don't really know where the caseloads will peak or how many can be handled. If some students need help but not total intervention, we can refer them to other programs in the system such as those offered by the Family Centre in Estevan," said Klatt.

Marc Casavant, director of education for Cornerstone, the southeast school division that includes 8,100 students in 38 facilities scattered throughout a huge geographical region, said he and other administrators were proud of the work being done within this mandate.

"It's the first one, so everyone is watching. Early results are promising and we have some dedicated people doing the delivering."

So far most of the youngsters who meet with the consultants on a regular basis are those with certain developmental problems such as speech or social impediments and often that requires a little more interaction.

Klatt said the program is being monitored closely by the Ministry of Education and she has monthly face-to-face or video conferences with ministry officials who are tracking the Cornerstone experiment.
Betnar told the trustees the process can become hugely rewarding, noting at the outset of her presentation to the board that they were about to see "a whole lot of cute."

It's obvious that the rewards aren't just felt by the young learner and parents but also by those who deliver the assistance and when it comes down to that aspect of the project, it's never about the money, it's about results, and in this instance in southeast Saskatchewan, positive results are becoming very obvious already.