A higher proportion of kids under age three in Massachusetts receive early support services relative to other states, according to a new report about early childhood special education services from a national research institute.

About 10% of kids in Massachusetts from birth to age three received what’s known as “early intervention” programming in the 2020-2021 school year, compared with the national average of 3%, according to a new study out Wednesday from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Massachusetts is one of just six states that provides services to more than 5% of infants and toddlers. Depending on a child’s disability, these services can include speech and language training to services focused on developing social skills.

The report’s authors believe Massachusetts provides a higher rate of support for this age range due to broad qualification factors. An infant up to age three need only be considered “at risk” for a developmental delay, which could include not reaching “age appropriate” milestones in language, social skills or motor skills.

However, most states only offer these early interventions services to kids who have a medical diagnosis or have more concrete risk factors like low birth weight or premature birth.

The study’s authors noted in a media briefing Tuesday that it’s hard to track exactly how great the need for such services is because each state defines risk factors and qualifying conditions differently. There are also varying levels of access to health care among kids that young.

Tiffany Gundler, of North Adams, was born with severe bilateral hearing loss. Speaking at the briefing, she said early intervention helped to ensure she didn’t experience significant development delays from language deprivation.

“The [early intervention] program not only helped me develop but it also helped educate my parents and my brother on the best way to communicate with me and live with my disability,” Gundler said. “I really believe it set me and my family up for a successful life.”

Gundler now works as a design and development engineer at a knee and hip replacement manufacturer.

The NIEER report also showed that, nationally, fewer kids under age 5 enrolled in special education programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such programs saw a roughly 15% drop in enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year.

The report said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to the decrease, but it was likely due to a number of factors including child health concerns, teacher shortages and challenges related to public health guidance such as social distancing.

There were also differences in the decrease in enrollment across racial groups. There was a 23% decrease in special education participation among Black 3- and 4-year-olds compared to an 18% drop among white 3- to 4-year-olds and 3% drop among and Latino and Asian kids of the same age.

“The pandemic made the differential access by race worse,” said Steven Barnett,  senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “And it’s important that that not be normalized going forward.”

To address some of the variations by location and race, the report authors recommend that the federal government increase the amount of base funding provided to states for special education services in early childhood. The organization is also pushing for the formation of a national consortium of early childhood special education providers.

“If the states could come together and share their solutions, we could find a way forward,” Barnett said.


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