Relationship-based early intervention services

Early intervention services have the capacity to make big improvements to childrens' outcomes, but how might these services impact and improve the lives of children with complex disabilities?

EI 1


Carolyn Blackburn


Early Intervention (EI) has the potential to improve children's long term outcomes socially, emotionally and educationally as noted by recent English policy reports. However, there is a paucity of specialist EI services and educator training for children with complex disabilities, such as those with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders or children born extremely prematurely (Carpenter et al., 2011).

The Champion Centre (picture above) provides relationship-based EI services to infants and young children with complex disabilities. Parents and children visit the Centre each week and have one-on-one individualised sessions with each of the members of a multi-disciplinary team. Children who attend the Champion Centre in their early years are more likely to subsequently attend mainstream primary education than children who have not received comparable EI services.

The project

The aim of this project was to capture effective and best practice by talking to practitioners and parents at the Champion Centre and observing children’s therapeutic sessions. An additional aim was to build international relationships within an interdisciplinary context that could be mutually beneficial for all stakeholders concerned with children with complex disabilities in the UK.

During her visit Carolyn also worked with Positive Path International to identify further educational settings that support children with complex disabilities to enrich her data and deliver CPD to educators in New Zealand.

The project was the outcome of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust 2015 Fellowships that provided the funds for Carolyn to visit New Zealand for one month with the aim of "travelling to learn and returning to inspire."

See more about the project on Carolyn's blog

Main findings

All parents interviewed were able to recall celebrations and successes in terms of their child’s development. Parents held high aspirations for their children’s inclusion in education, employment and society. Parents reported challenges in daily living for children that ranged from communication to motor development, daily living and challenging behaviour. Most parents had a secure social network to support them in their parenting role, including family and friends. Many parents also valued the support of other parents at the Champion Centre in terms of sharing similar experiences of raising a child with a disability. This highlights the role of peer support for parents in reducing stress factors that might disrupt relationships with their child and the benefits of a centre-based model of delivery.

Recommendations for UK policy and practice:
  • A scoping study to assess the viability of an EI co-ordination service that provides a point of entry for referrals for children at risk of/identified with developmental delays and disabilities and their families, taking into account the Canterbury model of Health and Education working collaboratively together under this umbrella. The aim would be to promote an ethos of informed choice about EI services in a way that empowers parents and reduces family stress.
  • A scoping study into the feasibility of an Early Intervention Teacher post-graduate qualification that recognises the additional child development, pedagogical expertise and interdisciplinary practice required to work with children with complex needs and their families. This would include models of teaching, learning, delivery and subject content and include contributions from the European and International community on Early Childhood Intervention as well as the Champion Centre.
  • Funding for a systematic review of literature on EI programmes and services that hold as their core aim to build relationships between parents and children as a foundation to emotional resilience, well-being and long-term mental health.
  • A centre-based model that recognises parents as children’s first and most enduring teacher rather than decontextualised programmes than risk devaluing children’s and parents competencies is recommended for EI services in the UK.
  • Consideration of the concept of nationally approved Specialist Service Standards that identify the features of effective practice for specialist services for children, young people and families.

Download the full final report (PDF)  

  • BLACKBURN, C. (2016) Relationship-based early intervention services for children with complex disabilities Journal of Children’s Services Vol. 11 Iss: 4, pp.330 – 344
  • BLACKBURN, C. (2016) Relationship-based early intervention services for children with complex needs: lessons from New Zealand, International Journal of Birth and Parent Education Vol (3) 27-30  

Carpenter, B., Egerton, J., Brooks, T., Cockbill, B, Fotheringham, J. and Rawson, H. (2011) Children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities: Developing Pathways to Personalised Learning London: SSAT.