September 6th, 2022
Senior Policy Research Associate
Among the 2022-2023 California state budget's important investments were a number of historic changes to Early Start. These changes will improve the ability of our state to meet the developmental needs of infants and toddlers across California.
Early Start is California’s early intervention program run primarily through 21 community-based Regional Centers. Infants and toddlers from birth to three years old may be eligible for early intervention services through Early Start if they have a developmental delay, or are considered at high risk of having a substantial developmental disability.
Early Start’s early intervention services are very important. Early intervention for developmental delays supports children’s development when connections in their brains are most adaptable. These connections are the foundation for learning, behavior, and health and become harder to change as a child gets older. This is why intervention is likely to be more effective when it is provided earlier in life. For example, for a toddler experiencing speech delays, early intervention may help them catch up and avoid persistent language difficulties and trouble learning upon kindergarten entry.
Despite the importance of these services, they can sometimes be hard to access. Three main drivers of low access are low rates of developmental screening to identify delays, narrow eligibility criteria, and complex early childhood delivery systems that are hard to navigate. The 2022-2023 budget’s changes hold the promise of making early intervention easier for families to access, addressing some of these system issues.
First, starting July 1, 2022, the eligibility criteria for early intervention services for an infant or toddler changed from a 33% delay to a 25% delay. This lower threshold allows more infants and toddlers who have not gained the expected level of development for their age to receive early intervention services.
Second, there are now two communication development categories: expressive communication and receptive communication. This change increases the total number of developmental areas children are evaluated on for eligibility for Early Start services. Before this change, a child developing on track in receptive communication, but struggling with expressive language may not have been eligible for Early Start due to their combined communication delay score across categories. By separating these items, a child can be considered eligible for Early Start based on his or her development in each of these areas.
Third, as a result of this year’s budget, Regional Center coordinator-to-consumer caseloads have been decreased to 1:40 for children five years old or younger. The previous ratio for children under three years old was 1:62. These additional staff will help families get connected to the services they need more efficiently. This will also support families navigating the transition between Early Start and special education at three years old.
Also to support this transition for three-year-olds, the budget allocates funding for specialists at each Regional Center that are knowledgeable about the federal requirements of Early Start and the transition to special education. Specialists will train and support service coordinators working with children exiting Early Start and will provide technical assistance to the Regional Center and the school.
These changes are significant and will open access to Early Start for many more children. They will also require significant additional Regional Center staffing and resources. Regional Centers will need sufficient support to ensure that they are able to meet existing requirements and expand their services through these new policies. Furthermore, local community systems of screening and referral will need to be strengthened to ensure that all children who need early intervention are identified and connected to the right supports.