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Bright Start specialists provide extra support

Speech, behavior, occupational and physical therapists help Bright Start teachers, parents

Bright Start Parent/Infant Program photo

Three women arrive at a home in northwest Visalia and are warmly welcomed by Tiffany and her son, Luke. The women are from the Special Services Bright Start Parent/Infant Program and they are at Tiffany’s home to work with two-year-old Luke who clings to his mother. As the women encourage him to play with his cars and trucks, Luke becomes very upset.

Megan Hatherley, a behavior specialist, suggests that Kendall Leonard, an occupational therapist, engage Luke in blowing bubbles. Within seconds of finding the bottle of bubbles, Luke is laughing and chasing them around the dining room. Mrs. Leonard segues into a tactile exercise with oatmeal and pudding to familiarize Luke with different textures. Until recently, Luke had refused to eat solid foods except for crackers. He often rejected touching foods that had a wet or gelatin-like texture.

The pair spreads out a plastic sheet on the floor. Mrs. Leonard pours a layer of dried oatmeal onto a cookie sheet and encourages Luke to drive his toy trucks through the oatmeal, which he is happy to do. She then asks Luke to scoop some oatmeal into a cup of pudding, which he also does. She had hoped that he would willingly take some of the oatmeal/pudding mixture to his mouth to taste it. Luke was not yet ready to take that step.

Bright Start Parent/Infant Program photo

While the pair plays happily on the floor, Tiffany enthusiastically discusses with Megan Hatherley and Bright Start teacher Stephanie Stricklin all the foods that Luke has begun to eat – peanut butter, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, rice and grilled cheese sandwiches.

At the conclusion of their visit, Tiffany confirms their next appointment, and she and Luke walk the women out to their cars to wave “bye, bye!”

Megan Hatherley and Kendall Leonard are part of a 10-person team of speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy and behavior specialists organized from other Special Services programs to assist Bright Start teachers who serve nearly 1,000 children countywide with early intervention services. Children are referred to the Bright Start program through the Central Valley Regional Center (CVRC) if they are identified as being "at-risk" or have developmental delays or specific conditions (such as deafness, blindness or an orthopedic handicap). Identified infants and toddlers from birth to 36 months are eligible to receive Bright Start’s early intervention services.

“We believe that parents are their child’s best teachers,” said Bright Start Program Manager Ron Pekarek. “With that philosophy in mind, Bright Start staff works collaboratively with parents to identify developmental goals, incorporate effective teaching strategies into daily activities and routines, and monitor success as their child progresses through the program.”

In Tulare, Kendall Leonard visits the home of Roxanna, and her daughter, Rebecca. Mrs. Leonard is working with two-year-old Rebecca on drinking from a cup. Rebecca has mastered the skill of getting the cup to her mouth, but hasn’t quite developed the ability to suck from the straw. Roxanna is thrilled with her daughter’s progress. In the month that Mrs. Leonard has worked with her, Rebecca is drinking 4 ounces daily from a cup. The goal is to have her drinking at least 16 to 24 ounces of fluid each day so that the family can ask their pediatrician to remove Rebecca’s gastrostomy feeding tube. “It’s wonderful to see parents excited about the progress we’re making together,” said Kendall Leonard. The feeding consultations are a recent addition to the services the Bright Start specialists provide.

Bright Start Parent/Infant Program photo

Mr. Pekarek reports that Bright Start teachers can request the services of a specialist to consult with them. “When they feel they need the additional support of the team in addressing the development of the children they serve, they can request it,” he said. “Specialists can work as consultants to the teachers, or directly with teachers and parents during home visits.” Nearly one-third of Bright Start children are utilizing some type of ongoing support from one or more of the specialists.

In conjunction with a CVRC service coordinator, Bright Start assigns an early childhood special education teacher or child development specialist to the family of each admitted child in order to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan. Early intervention services are agreed upon as a team and provided in the family home, including ongoing developmental assessment, parent coaching and training, community-based activities and workshops, and preschool transition planning. “We know from research and experience that family-centered activities during the first three years of a child's life can make a difference in the child's growth and development process,” said Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak. “We are fortunate to have an in-house team of specialists supporting our Bright Start teachers and parents so that their children can reach their fullest potential.”

Back in Visalia, Dominque Niccoli is at the house of Jayce, a busy and happy nine-month-old boy. Dominque, a Bright Start physical therapist, is working with Jayce to develop his upper body and torso strength so that he can crawl on his hands and knees and continue to develop properly. Dominique shows Jayce’s mom, Sarah, techniques she can do while on the floor to strengthen his arms and core muscles as he reaches for toys. Jayce squeals in delight as he grasps the yellow block in front of him, unaware that all this attention is really part of serious physical development work.

For more information on the Bright Start Parent/Infant Program, call Ron Pekarek at (559) 740-4321.

Photos above:
~ Dominque Niccoli, a Bright Start physical therapist, ...
~ ... and Kendall Leonard, a Bright Start occupational therapist, work with children in their homes.
~ Roxanna, a Bright Start parent, helps her daughter, Rebecca, drink from a cup. Rebecca is receving in-home occupational therapy services to help her learn to drink on her own.