Easterseals helps children hit crucial developmental milestones

This story is produced through an underwriting agreement between 83 Degrees Media and the Children's Board of Hillsborough County to spotlight programs and people that make a positive difference in the lives of children and families in Hillsborough County.
In Hillsborough County, Easterseals Early Learning & Intervention Program works with young children who have difficulty meeting developmental milestones such as learning to talk, or need help with fine motor skills, such as picking up a spoon.

“How do we get their attention? Through play,’’ says  Infant Toddler Developmental Specialist Lisa Negron.

“I bring a big tote of different toys,” she says. “Every time I go I have a different goal. So if I am working on their fine motor skills, I know that I have to bring them Easterseals Infant Toddler Developmental Specialist Lisa Negron.something that’s going to help them use their hands, preparing them for writing skills, preschool preparation activities, like coloring, cutting, matching... stacking things, building blocks. All those things help with their fine motor skills.”

If the child is delayed in speech, she uses a lot of repetition, “so that they say the words also.’’

The program, which aims to help children from birth to age 5 and teach parents the skills for success, receives the majority of its funding from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. With a budget of $66.1 million, most of it from ad valorem taxes, the Children’s Board funds 66 nonprofits and 110 programs in Hillsborough County.

Developmental specialists like Negron go to the families’ homes to provide direct intervention services on a short-term basis. Easterseals offers 5 programs in Hillsborough County focused on children and families with disabilities. The Early Learning and Intervention Program specifically works with 65 to 80 children at any one time, says Easterseals Vice President of Programs Jenn Siffermann. The intervention lasts at least two months but no more than 12 months; most families need help for just a few months.

“All of our specialists come with that experience in knowing how to best meet a child’s needs where they are,’’ Siffermann says.

And, according to feedback from parents, the program makes a real difference.

“It absolutely does because something as simple as self-feeding, let’s say, or being able to drink, can become very frustrating for the child and the family,’’ Siffermann says.

“The majority of what we do is play-based, so the child is interacting with different learning materials in a play-type world, so they don’t even realize the intervention is taking place,” she says. “And it’s simple things that the families can implement whether we’re there or not. And they can continue to work on those skills.’’

Making a difference

Danesha Simmons turned to the Early Learning & Intervention Program to help her two-year-old son, Davish, catch up. The family had previously lived in Fort Myers, and Simmons says the staff changed in Davish’s daycare center and the new staff mostly spoke Spanish.

“So what was happening at the pivot point of him learning language, he was not really learning a lot of his verbal cues just because he was not hearing them often,’’ she says.

When they moved to Tampa, they sought out speech therapy programs in order to “play catch-up,’’ she says, and they were eventually referred to the Easterseals program. Negron has been working with Davish, Simmons says, “and it has been going tremendously well.’’

Siffermann says a lot of times it comes down to modeling and repetition. Parents just may not know what techniques are needed to help their child. The program requires that parents be present when the specialist is working with the child so that they can learn the skills and work with the child when the specialist isn’t there.Easterseals Vice President of Programs Jenn Siffermann.

“They know that their child may not be able to articulate quite yet and speak on the level that they’re supposed to be speaking at, but they don’t know how to get from point A to point B,’’ she says. “What would that in-between step look like? And that’s where our specialist will come and they baby-step… everything out to help the parent.’’

Creating a plan for each child

The program screens every child, reviews screenings of the child from other programs, interviews the parents and uses parent questionnaires to create a support plan for the child, Siffermann says.

Of the children who need help speaking, 80 percent start out not speaking at all, Negron says. Usually by the three-month mark, she starts to see a difference, where they’re saying simple words, like “uh-oh’’ or “ready-set-go.’’

The developmental delays happen for various reasons, Negron says.

“Every child is different, we always tell parents, because they always compare. ‘My friend’s child is three years old also, and they’re doing this.’ And we always say to them, every child is different. Just like adults, we have areas that we’re very strong in and we have some areas that we need a little bit more support.’’

Not all, but some children with delays are on the autism spectrum, Negron says. And in the era of electronic gadgets and social media, she notes, a lot of kids aren’t being exposed to books and music.

“They’re not being exposed to language. Parents don’t have time. They’re busy with their work schedules, and just life,’’ Negron says. “And don’t forget that talking to their toddler is so, so crucial at a very young age, because they listen to everything you say.’’  

For more information, go to Easterseals Early Learning and Intervention and Children's Board of Hillsborough County.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.