New UF program to prepare students to fill therapy workforce gap in early childhood programs

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For children with disabilities, early intervention by therapists can make a significant difference in their motor, cognitive, sensory processing and communication development, leading to better health and well-being for the children and their families.

Yet in Florida, there are not enough qualified occupational, physical and speech-language therapists to meet the growing demand for services for infants and toddlers with disabilities. The shortage has led to longer wait times for therapists through Florida’s early intervention program, Early Steps. For example, across 10 North Central Florida rural counties, there are only a handful of Early Steps therapists available to treat children with disabilities.

A new University of Florida program hopes to change that. Beginning next fall, the Interdisciplinary Related Services Personnel Preparation for Early Childhood, or INSPIRE, program will train 45 UF occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language pathology graduate students, giving them the skills to treat very young children with disabilities. The five-year program is supported by a $1.24 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“If we can increase the workforce in early intervention and early childhood programs and provide very high-quality services, I think we’re going to do a lot to improve the lives of young people and their families,” said INSPIRE Director Christine T. Myers, Ph.D., OTR/L, a clinical associate professor in the department of occupational therapy at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

INSPIRE scholars will be trained to treat children with high-intensity needs who have significant disabilities or multiple disabilities. These may include physical, cognitive, emotional, sensory or learning disabilities. Children with such needs are usually treated more frequently or for a longer duration of time, and their care may involve coordination among a large group of professionals.

Attracting therapists to careers in state-funded early intervention and early childhood programs has traditionally been a challenge because the compensation is typically lower than in other settings, Myers said. In addition, many degree programs do not have the ability to provide in-depth training on working with this patient population, so therapists may not feel adequately prepared.

“Even though the pay in early intervention isn’t as high as in other practice areas, it’s extremely rewarding work because you get to work with children and families, usually in their homes or in their communities. You get to know the families very, very well and you can really help to make a difference in these children’s lives,” said Myers, the director of UF’s Master of Occupational Therapy and Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs.

To address financial concerns, the INSPIRE program will cover one full year of tuition for INSPIRE scholars, helping to reduce their student loan debt and relieve some of their financial burden after graduation.

Led by Myers, along with co-directors Lori-Ann Ferraro, M.A., CCC-SLP, a clinical lecturer in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, and Claudia Senesac, Ph.D., P.T., PCS, a clinical associate professor in the department of physical therapy, INSPIRE scholars will participate in specialized coursework and fieldwork over the course of a year and a half. The INSPIRE program will also collaborate with the UF College of Education’s Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, which promotes and supports transdisciplinary research, teaching, model demonstration and outreach activities. The Anita Zucker Center administers Project Prepare, a program that trains education students to teach young children with disabilities. INSPIRE and Project Prepare scholars will participate in seminars and workshops offered by both programs.

INSPIRE scholars’ training includes mentoring from local therapists and the opportunity to work directly with children and families, capped off by a simulation experience where scholars will meet with children and their families in a clinical setting to prepare an evaluation and develop a treatment plan.

Throughout, the INSPIRE curriculum will emphasize working in interprofessional teams and using coaching strategies with parents and caregivers.

“Using coaching models with parents and caregivers has been shown to be the most promising type of approach for working with infants and toddlers,” Myers said. “Providing caregivers with the knowledge and skills to be able to support children’s growth and development is highly effective, rather than just depending on the therapist to come in once a week to work with the child. I think any graduate who has the ability to use coaching models is going to be in very high demand because it’s something even experienced therapists need training and guidance to use.”

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