Bringing Early Intervention to Her Community She wanted parents to understand just how critical the fIrst years are and to help children when it matters most. So she got creative. Features
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Features  |   February 01, 2014

Yanira Crespo uses a frog puppet to engage a child in Toddler Club, where participants work on motor, language, social and other skills.

Bringing Early Intervention to Her Community
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Special Populations / Early Identification & Intervention / Features
Features   |   February 01, 2014
Bringing Early Intervention to Her Community
The ASHA Leader, February 2014, Vol. 19, 58-59. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.19022014.58
The ASHA Leader, February 2014, Vol. 19, 58-59. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.19022014.58
Living in a small apartment in Manhattan, Kansas, with a limited budget to buy toys, Yanira Figueroa Crespo discovered that her 6-month-old daughter’s favorite toy was her. Anaís Sofía responded the most to Crespo’s songs, the tone of her voice, their dancing together. Even the most mundane household tasks like doing the laundry could be turned into something fun … and a learning experience (textures, colors, temperature)!
As her daughter grew, Crespo created a space in the family apartment to stimulate Anaís Sofía’s integral development, just like she used to when she’d been lead teacher in the “Toddler 3” classroom at Kansas State University’s Child Development Center. There, before she became a stay-at-home mom, she’d been in charge of developing lesson plans to promote fine motor, gross motor, language, art, science, play and other skills—all within a weekly theme.
So it seemed natural to recreate all this in their apartment: Crespo had the fine motor box, the gross motor basket, the reading corner, the dramatic play chest, the music station, the art backpack. Each week she would choose a semantic category to work with, such as family, farm animals, food or body parts.
During her time in the United States and after moving back to her homeland of Puerto Rico a few short years later, Crespo was surprised to find that many fellow parents were unaware of the importance of their children’s first developmental years. They bought their children toys but didn’t sit with their kids on the floor, play with them, follow their lead or observe their preferences.
“A dad once told me that infants don’t talk, so there’s no need to talk to them,” she recalls. “Imagine my reaction—communication is far more than talking!”
This revelation inspired an idea. Crespo wanted to create a club where new moms and dads could share their worries and thoughts; she could share her knowledge about early intervention and education; and their kids could socialize at the same time. But—life got busy.
As the years passed, Crespo became a full-time mom of three and took on work as a part-time speech-language pathologist. Still, she never forgot about the club she envisioned.
In 2005, she took an initial step toward her dream. She organized her first “conference” for three pregnant women—on her mother-in-law’s patio. She spoke to them about how they could start stimulating their baby’s brains even in the womb. Crespo relished the oportunity to counsel moms-to-be from the point of view of both SLP and fellow mother.
In 2007, Crespo accepted a position as a professor in the speech-language pathology program at the University of Turabo, Puerto Rico, where teaching an early intervention course is among her responsibilities.
Another major professional milestone followed in 2010: In her hometown of Caguas, she opened her privately operated Toddler Club, a much grander version of the one she’d started on her mother-in-law’s patio years before. Attendees—children grouped by age (12 to 18 months, 18 to 24 months and 24 to 36 months)—work on fine motor, gross motor, vocabulary, attention, association, memory, cognitive, play, language and social skills.
Their caregivers learn about developmental milestones, how they can encourage language development, the importance of play, and how to select apropriate toys, among other topics.
The club limits enrollment to three children per group to facilitate socialization and appropriate caregiver training. After 12 sessions, caregivers receive reports, recommendations and information about any early signs of autism. All caregivers learn the key lesson Crespo gleaned from her first year of motherhood: Your child’s favorite toy is you.
“We’ve had the opportunity to have an impact on many families, to identify kids with developmental delays early and to refer them to other specialists, and to prevent developmental delays by training the caregiver,” she says. “It has been a truly amazing experience.”
Crespo also distributes an early intervention newsletter, actively uses social media to share information, and organizes seminars at local toy stores, preschools, and elementary schools for parents and teachers. In this work, she’s drawn on ASHA’s early intervention-focused public education campaign, Identify the Signs, particularly the Spanish-language materials.
“Many parents suffer a lot of anxiety thinking their children could have a developmental delay, but hesitate to seek help from a specialist,” she says. “I often find that one parent strongly believes a child needs help but the other parent thinks there is nothing to worry about, resulting in a lot of discord and stress. Better education is sorely needed.”
Part of getting the word out about early intervention is changing the conversation about it, Crespo believes. “I know that the word ‘delay’ is hard to process for any parent,” she says. “The words ‘therapy,’ ‘clinic’ and ‘rehabilitation’ also have negative connotations. We need to find ways to attract families that need our assistance.”
Those connotations, she says, is why she calls her practice a “club”: a word choice meant to bring smiles to caregivers’ faces, as opposed to the looks of dread she’s seen when they refer to “speech clinic.” Crespo also finds that parents like to know when a program will begin and end, and to see compelling results. “When they see how their kids start to imitate words, socialize, recognize their names and sing, they start to view speech intervention in a positive way,” she says.
Crespo knows there is more to do. She dreams of equipping a “Toddler Club Bus” with early intervention resources and driving it to needy neighborhoods. Given how much she’s already accomplished, it would seem her dream of a Toddler Club Bus could well materialize.
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February 2014
Volume 19, Issue 2