The Nisonger Center provides early intervention to young children with special needs.

Although most people might think of college students when they think of Ohio State University, there's another group that benefits from its educational offerings. The Nisonger Center, an arm of the university that serves those with developmental disabilities, is home to the Nisonger Early Learning Program for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.

The Early Learning Program educates children who have early intervention needs as well as typically developing youngsters who serve as peer models. The full-time child care program currently serves 72 children, 26 of whom have developmental disabilities, said Katie Walton, assistant professor of psychology at OSU and program director for the Early Learning Program.

Any family with a typically developing child can enroll at the Nisonger Center. Age determines how those with early intervention needs enroll. For children younger than 3, they must be part of Help Me Grow, a state program that provides family support in areas such as growth and development, discipline and safety. A referral comes from their service coordinator. For ages 3-5, the Nisonger Center works with their home school district to provide services in lieu of the district's offerings.

Christina O'Keeffe sent her 3-year-old son, Conor, to Nisonger's Early Learning Program after recognizing he needed more intensive intervention than his traditional day care could offer. Conor has Wiedemann-Steiner Syndrome, which causes delays with physical, communication and cognitive skills. He also needs a gastrostomy tube for feedings.

“Because of Conor's complex medical needs, we needed teachers to have the comfort level to do the feedings via G-tube or prescribed oral therapy,” O'Keeffe said. “The teachers never shied away from those challenges, even though they had a lot going on in the classroom.”

Early Learning Program teachers have the added challenge of preparing lessons for both groups of students. Erica Opachick, lead infant teacher, has seven typically developing children in her classroom and five who need intervention. Those five have a primary service provider in the room, such as a developmental or occupational therapist.

“There are two pages to my lesson plans,” Opachick explained. “The first is activities that I plan daily. It could be gross motor, fine motor, sensory or an art activity. On the second page, I break it down by skill level and how each individual child can do that activity. Some children sit around the sensory table, but some can't sit or stand, so on the carpet we have the same activity but with tummy time. We adapt to what each child needs. I want it to be exciting for everyone, and everyone can be involved.”

Beth Gardner, a speech language pathologist, works to marry teacher and parent priorities for each child. “I go into the classroom, go to centers [with the children] or work with the teachers to help with their goals,” Gardner said. “It's often multiple children in the room I'm working with. We'll do stuff as a whole group together. So I might have one child receiving intervention with three typically developing children in my little group. That peer modeling is really important.”

Peer modeling is one of the benefits of having children of different abilities in the same classroom. “For those with early intervention needs, they get to have the typical kid's experience,” said Walton. “They get to be a kid, play with their peers and get involved in the same activities. They get a more enriched environment, particularly in a social sense. For typically developing peers, they benefit in terms of understanding that everyone has their strengths and challenges and needs something different. It brings that understanding and acceptance of diversity and disability at a young age. Our kids are so little that they accept it as a part of life and integrate it in their worldview.”

O'Keeffe also enrolled her 5-year-old son, Devin, who is typically developing, in the Early Learning Program. She said it's nice for him to be surrounded by kids with special needs other than his brother. “He's grown empathy, and I've been told he is a big helper in the classroom,” O'Keeffe said.

For families considering the Nisonger Center, O'Keeffe encourages them to visit, talk to teachers and understand the philosophy. “When I toured Nisonger, I found it's an environment that is caring and provides positive reinforcement,” she said. “It builds on the strength of the children to reach those challenging goals. And they looked at us as parents and provided support for us, too.”

As early intervention students reach age 5, the goal is for them to move on in their school district and continue with an Individualized Education Plan. “As we see kids being successful,” Walton said, “we push for them to stay in an inclusive classroom if possible.”