Studies show that while the brain is hardwired for lifelong learning, a child’s first three years are critical for development. It’s during this time that children start learning what the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child refers to as “core capabilities” such as planning, focus, self-control, awareness and flexibility. These capabilities first manifest themselves in basic ways: focusing attention, responding to limit-setting and following simple rules.

For some children, learning these core life skills may prove difficult. Children with significant delays or a condition likely to result in a developmental delay may require early intervention. In Florida, Early Steps provides services that can help put these children on the road to develop at their full potential.

There are 15 local Early Steps regions in Florida. Covering Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties is the West Central Early Steps office.

Paula Keyser is the Family Resource Specialist with West Central Early Steps. Each Early Steps region within the state of Florida is required to have an FRS involved in the local program. The FRS must be a family member of a child who received early intervention services or who would have been eligible for Early Steps.

According to Keyser, her job is to be the eyes, ears and voice for families in the Early Steps program.

“I started working in Early Steps 12 years ago after finding out there was an opening for a Family Resource Specialist,” Keyser said in an interview with Tampa Bay Newspapers. “It is a unique position because it requires me to be the parent of a child who went through the program and allows me to connect with parents to support families who have a child who has a disability or developmental delay. I am also the ‘voice of families’ within our program which allows us to always remember families first when it comes to dealing with the complexities of state and federal policies.”

Florida’s Early Steps has partnered with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to provide early intervention and therapy services to eligible infants and toddlers with significant developmental delays. Children who might qualify for the Early Steps program may be impacted by physical or mental delays stemming from autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, congenital cataracts, congenital hypothyroidism, congenital Zika virus infection, Down syndrome, low birth weight, microcephaly, neonatal abstinence syndrome or spina bifida, among other conditions.

“We provide early intervention services to children when they have been diagnosed with an established condition or significant developmental delay,” Keyser explained. “We provide early invention services to children that are defined on their Individual Family Support Plan, which is developed by a team which includes the parents.”

Early Steps receives its funding from the Federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act funds through the Florida Department of Health. Early Steps services children from birth to 3 years old.

“Families can refer themselves to our program if they have concerns about their child’s development such as walking, talking and reaching milestones,” Keyser said. “We conduct a developmental screen and evaluate the child and determine if they are eligible for our program within 45 days of the referral. If a child is made eligible, then we start services within 30 days, so the whole process happens pretty quickly.”

According to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital website, the screening process assesses each child’s adaptive, cognitive, communication, physical and social-emotional skills. There is no income requirement to qualify for the program and families are not charged for services. Services are performed in the child’s natural environment, most often at the child’s home.

Early Steps services are crafted to capitalize on each child’s strengths and address needs. Among services offered are assistive technology devices, audiology services, behavioral services, family training and home visits, occupational therapy, speech therapy, service coordination and vision services.

“Our program uses a coaching model to help empower parents to increase their child’s development in their everyday routines and activities,” Keyser said. “As a child approaches the age of 3, if they are still eligible for services, we connect them with the local school district to continue services in a Pre-K classroom setting. Their IFSP then becomes an Individual Education Plan.”

The immediate goal of the program is to maximize each child's everyday natural learning opportunities and enhance development of critical life skills and participation in the community. Long-term benefits of Early Steps can potentially be measured in improvements in school performance, higher educational attainment and subsequent economic success in adulthood.

But abstract goals aren’t as effective as personal success stories at demonstrating how well Early Steps works.

“My son, Jeremy had a brain bleed prior to birth that resulted in hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and epilepsy and significant developmental delays,” Keyser revealed. “He did not walk until he was 27 months or talk or eat solid foods until he was 4 1/2. He was able to reach these milestones and exceed our expectations due to all the early intervention services he received.”

Keyser’s son is now a senior in high school and an honor roll student.

The West Central Early Steps region is headquartered at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, 480 Seventh Ave. S., St. Petersburg. Call 800-374-4334 or 727-767-4403. Visit www.hopkinsallchildrens.org/earlysteps.

To refer a child, call 727-767-4403. If you live in another county, you can find your program through the Children's Medical Services Early Steps website listing or by calling 1-800-218-0001.