Headshot of Dr. Claudi SenesacFor 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 physical, occupational, and speech-language therapists to meet the growing demand for services for infants and toddlers with high intensity needs. 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 in their home.

A new University of Florida cross-disciplinary program hopes to change that. Beginning in fall of 2019, the Interdisciplinary Related Services Personnel Preparation for Early Childhood, or INSPIRE, program will select and train 9 UF physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology graduate students — a total of 45 scholars over the granting period — 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 Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

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.

Led by Christine Myers, PhD, OTR/L, a clinical associate professor in the department of occupational therapy along with co-directors Claudia Senesac, PhD, PT, PCS, a clinical associate professor in the department of physical therapy, and Lori-Ann Ferraro, MA, CCC-SLP, a clinical lecturer in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, 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.

“Physical therapy scholars will not only build competencies for early intervention with this population but will develop important communication skills essential for interprofessional collaboration across multiple disciplines including families through teaming,” Dr. Senesac explained. “In addition, students will be trained in coaching techniques that will help to facilitate and empower families and caregivers to build confidence while acquiring new skills to help their child learn in their natural environment.”

Dr. Senesac showing the mother how to conduct the activity,
Dr. Senesac, the PT demonstrating standing activity with child at couch for gross motor, fine motor, and cognitive skills.
Dr. Senesac showing the mother how to conduct the activity while the mother is with her.
Working in natural environment coaching mom in activity to facilitate learning while working on head control, balance, and cognitive skills in sitting.
The mother performing the activity with her child.
Mom performing activity.