Eighty-seven percent of states lack enough speech language pathologists to reach all the infants and toddlers in need. Eighty-two percent suffer from physical therapist shortages. And among the service coordinators who organize critical therapies for America’s youngest children, the turnover rate is a stunning 42 percent, according to information compiled by the IDEA Infant and Toddler Coordinators Association from a survey that had 45 state respondents. (The K-12 teacher turnover rate, by contrast, only reached a mere 10 percent during the pandemic.)

With all the attention recently to the teacher and child care worker shortages in communities across America, the sector facing the most severe crisis has received comparatively little notice from policy makers, the media or the general public: those providing critical early intervention therapies for children under age 3 with developmental delays.

Quality early intervention is critical for millions of families — and significantly reduces the likelihood that a child will need special education services in kindergarten. Most of the challenges and inequities in the system connect back to workforce issues. Staffing shortages are most severe in predominantly low-income communities, meaning longer waitlists when services are even available at all. Meanwhile, there’s a striking lack of diversity among early intervention personnel. One recent survey found that nearly 90 percent of early childhood special education personnel are white, 97 percent are female, and only 6 percent speak Spanish, according to Mary Bruder, the director of the University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service.

Increased funding for early intervention — translated into increased pay for therapists and case managers — is essential yet insufficient on its own. Both Rhode Island and Illinois are among the states that have significantly upped pay rates for early intervention personnel in recent years and continue to lack critical staff. “There has been a big effort to raise wages and have sign-on bonuses but still it hasn’t been enough,” said Leanne Barrett, a senior policy analyst at Rhode Island Kids Count.

The workforce shortage “is at crisis proportions,” said Bruder.

In the last month, I interviewed a half dozen experts about potential strategies for expanding and diversifying the workforce. Here are some of the takeaways:

  • Expand mentoring and apprenticeships
  • Create a pipeline from related jobs
  • Offer perks to those already in the profession
  • Build in more culturally relevant curriculum and training
  • Streamline higher education bureaucracy
  • Support, support, support

Read the full article about staffing crisis by Sarah Carr at The Hechinger Report.