EWU Early Head Start Helps Children in Rural Communities Thrive

The Eastern Washington University Early Head Start program is making developmental screenings more accessible for families in rural communities.

The program held the first of its free “child development fairs” in Colville and Newport, Washington, in late summer. A total of 33 children, from infants to age 3, were screened by pediatric experts for potential delays in speech, motor skills and other benchmarks of healthy development.

Offering the screenings at convenient locations central to rural communities is helpful to families, especially those who are disadvantaged, because making the trip to Spokane requires reliable transportation, costly fuel and added time away from work.

“We were really excited to do this for the first time. Families got access to early childhood specialists and resources for free. It was inclusive as it was open to the entire community. It was overall a great opportunity,” says Jeana Nichols, the program planning and regional engagement manager for EWU Early Head Start.

The goal of the assessments, organizers say, is to identify potential delays and refer children who may be behind in their milestones to early intervention therapy providers. Those providers can then do more in-depth screenings and create an individualized therapy plans to help children overcome developmental delays and minimize the impact of disabilities.  

At the fairs, families from a variety of backgrounds rotated among different stations manned by an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, two speech language pathologists, a mental health counselor and early childhood educators. Practitioners at each table did developmental assessment activities and answered questions. 

EWU alumni, including Shelley Malone and Terrin Mace, both speech language pathologists, and Catherine Lochner, an occupational therapist, volunteered for the events, joining with Early Head Start experts to provide the comprehensive screenings.

“With all of the different therapists, families learned so many new skills with their kiddos,” says Nichols. Parents commented, for example, that they learned a lot about social-emotional learning from the mental health counselor, she says.

Therapists explained the processes they use to assess key components of a child’s development and taught the families about milestones for speech and language, movement, sensory processing and the articulation of feelings and emotions through pictures and interactive games. 

Families took home developmental toys, books and information about childhood milestones, along with some referrals to pediatric providers for children who could potentially have delays.

The success of the child-focused fairs has inspired the team, who are reviewing feedback from parents, to offer this service annually to the rural communities served by EWU Early Head Start. “We received positive feedback from the parents. They said they thought it was a great learning experience. It was very informative and engaging,” Nichols says. “It was fun for the parents and their kiddos. Families also really enjoyed that we offered take-home resources.”

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