The Regional Center's Early Start Program

It goes without saying that parents understand their own children's needs better than anyone else. That's why if a parent or primary caregiver has a concern about a child's overall development, it is paramount to identify the area of concern as soon as possible. The first three years of a child's life is a delicate time and a marvelous predictor of what's to come, so any unnecessary hesitation can sometimes lead to bigger issues later in life.

Families whose infants or toddlers have developmental delays or disabilities—or even appear to be at risk of having delays—may qualify for early intervention services via California's Early Start program. The application process is rather simple since the only way to apply for early intervention services is through a local regional center.

In case you didn't know, Regional Centers are nonprofit private corporations that contract with California's Department of Developmental Services to provide or coordinate services and support for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities was enacted in 1986 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA.) This program is California’s response to federal legislation ensuring that early intervention services for infants and toddler with disabilities and their families are provided in a coordinated, family-centered system of services that are available statewide.


First Step: Establish Eligibility

All infants and toddlers from birth to age 36 months may be eligible for early intervention services through Early Start if, through documented evaluation and assessment, they meet one of the criteria listed below:

  • Have a developmental delay of at least 33% in one or more areas of cognitive, communication, social or emotional, adaptive, or physical and motor development including vision and hearing; or
  • Have an established risk condition of known etiology, with a high probability of resulting in delayed development (such as Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome); or
  • Be considered at high risk of having a substantial developmental disability due to a combination of biomedical risk factors of which are diagnosed by qualified personnel

Second Step: Make the Referral

Anyone can make a referral, including parents, medical care providers, family members, foster parents, and day care providers. After discussing your concerns with the child’s primary health care provider, you can call the local regional center or school district to request an evaluation for the child.

After contacting the regional center or local education agency, a service coordinator will be assigned to help the child's parents through the process to determine eligibility. Parent-to-parent support and resource information is also available through Early Start Family Resource Centers. 

To find the local regional center that serves your area, simply click here.

Third Step: The Evaluation & the IFSP

Within 45 days of the referral being made, the regional center or local education area shall assign a service coordinator to assist the family through evaluation and assessment procedures. As well as the following:

  • Request written parental consent for an evaluation
  • Schedule and complete evaluations and assessments of the child's development
  • If an infant or toddler is eligible for early intervention services, an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) will be developed that addresses the strengths and needs of the infant or toddler, lists parental concerns, and details early intervention services requested
  • Identify appropriate early intervention services that are provided in the family home or other community settings

Final Step: Start Services

Based on the child's assessed developmental needs, as well as the families concerns and priorities, as determined by each child's Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) team, early intervention services may include:

  • Assistive Technology
  • Audiology
  • Family Training, Counseling, & Home Visits
  • Health Services
  • Medical Services for Diagnostic/Evaluation
  • Nursing Services
  • Nutritional Services
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Physical Therapy
  • Psychological Services
  • Social Work Services
  • Special Instruction
  • Speech and Language Services
  • Transportation and Related Costs
  • Vision Services

All early intervention services that are deemed necessary for each eligible child are purchased and arranged by the regional center. Family Resource Centers provide family support services.

Expected Costs Related to Early Start Services

There is no cost for evaluation, assessment and service coordination. Public or private insurance is accessed first for medically necessary therapy services including speech, physical and occupational therapies. Services that are not covered by insurance will be purchased or provided by regional centers or local education agencies.

An annual Family Program fee may be assessed in some circumstances.

If you have questions about this process, please feel free to message us at California Advocacy Group any time.