Professional Preparation, Growth, and Recognition in the Service Coordination Workforce : Infants & Young Children

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Original Articles

Professional Preparation, Growth, and Recognition in the Service Coordination Workforce

Nichols, Sarah L. BA; Connor, Susan M. EdM; Kastanis, Maria P. BA; Corso, Robert M. PhD

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/IYC.0000000000000229

Abstract

SERVICE COORDINATION (SC) is the only mandated service required for all infants and toddlers (birth to 3 years) who receive early intervention (EI) under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004). Service coordinators have been referred to as the “linchpin” in the EI system (Bruder & Dunst, 2006; Harbin et al., 2004). Service coordinators have a unique set of roles and responsibilities on the EI team and bring expertise on navigating the EI system, applying family-centered practices, building relationships with and linking families to community resources, and facilitating and documenting the EI process (Division for Early Childhood [DEC], Infant & Toddler Coordinators Association [ITCA], 2020). Qualifications and educational backgrounds for service coordinators vary widely across the nation, ranging from education, psychology, nursing, counseling, social work, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech–language therapy, and family members with or without a bachelor's degree (IDEA ITCA, 2019). Therefore, service coordinators enter their professional role with unique interests, career pathways, and talents, and much of what they need to learn to carry out their role and responsibilities must be supported through professional development. This is further validated by service coordinators across eight states who voiced the need for more training and networking opportunities specifically related to SC (Childress, Nichols, & Schnurr, 2019). Because more frequent provision of evidence-based, capacity-building professional development is more likely to be associated with more frequent use of different kinds of early childhood (EC) intervention practices (Dunst et al., 2020), it is imperative to understand the professional development needs of service coordinators. It is also important to ensure they have high-quality, specialized training opportunities available so that they can effectively support young children with delays and disabilities and their families (Childress, Raver, Michalek, & Wilson, 2013). In addition, when people are supported in developing their skills, they are more inclined to stay at their agencies and do their best work (Ransom, 2021).

In 2016, the National SC Training Workgroup was formed by EI professional development providers, Part C consultants, and administrators across the United States to share strategies and explore opportunities to work together, develop tools and resources, and prepare service coordinators for their critical role in EI (Childress et al., 2019). The National SC Training Workgroup served as a community of practice (CoP) for individuals with a shared interest in the training and preparation of service coordinators in Part C. Members met virtually on a routine basis to discuss and problem-solve SC topics of interest, share resources, and spotlight state's resources to support and prepare service coordinators through “show and tell” opportunities. The National SC Training Workgroup also cohosted two national SC webinars including The Role of the Service Coordinator in Building Relationships in Early Intervention (National SC Training Workgroup, 2018a) and How Do You Do It? Juggling and Overcoming Service Coordination Challenges (National SC Training Workgroup, 2018b), which garnered participation from more than 700 service coordinators and other individuals who prepare, train, and support service coordinators.

In 2017, The Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC), University of Connecticut Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, invited National SC Training Workgroup members to participate in an inaugural National SC Leadership Institute (hereafter referred to as the Institute). The ECPC is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and is “focused on building awareness that an integrated, comprehensive system of personnel development (CSPD) for the early childhood (EC) workforce in every state—one that is cohesive with state and national personnel standards, competencies, and recommended practices, will produce the most successful outcomes for children and families with disabilities” (ECPC, 2020). The commitment requirements to participate in this Institute included the following: (a) being a member of the National SC Training Workgroup; (b) participating in a 3-day leadership initiative and committing to the ongoing work for a minimum of 1 year; and (c) being a decision-maker, or work closely with decision-makers in their state regarding SC activities (i.e., Part C Coordinator or CSPD Coordinator) so that activities identified are supported and may be implemented accordingly. Eight states agreed to the commitment requirements for this inaugural Institute.

As a result of the Institute, national and statewide action plans were developed to focus on professionalizing, preparing, empowering, and supporting service coordinators in Part C EI. This article provides a summary of findings that resulted from one state's action plan. Findings may be used to (a) support the need for service coordinators in Part C EI to possess certain required knowledge and skills; (b) provide guidance to this state and other Part C professional development systems as they create and assess meaningful opportunities for growth and professional development supports for service coordinators; and (c) provide direction for local, state, and national leaders working to understand possible motivators and effective retention strategies for Part C service coordinators.

SERVICE COORDINATION LANDSCAPE

The model of SC in this state can best be described as a dedicated role, with service coordinators providing SC only, under a regional system point of entry. At the time of this study, this state had approximately 450 full-time equivalent service coordinators serving approximately 25,000 families at any point in time, residing in urban, suburban, and rural communities (Illinois Department of Human Services, Bureau of Early Intervention, 2019). This regional SC model (see Figure 1) includes wraparound support services within each of the 25 system points of entry consisting of program managers, social emotional consultants, parent liaisons, local interagency council (LIC) coordinators, and developmental pediatric consultants. Figure 1 uses directional and bidirectional arrows to illustrate the relationships between personnel and families at the regional system points of entry. Directional arrows illustrate the range of personnel support available directly to service coordinators, and bidirectional arrows illustrate the reciprocal partnership between service coordinator supports and families.

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Figure 1.:
Service coordination model. Note. This figure illustrates the service coordination model and the range of personnel for support at the system point of entry. Service coordinators maintain the primary relationship and reciprocal partnership directly with the family. When necessary, service coordinators connect families with the parent liaison who may engage in a reciprocal partnership with the family as needed. Other support personnel represented provide support directly to the service coordinator and do not maintain a direct relationship with families.

Program managers, social emotional consultants, parent liaisons, and LIC coordinators are employed by the regional system point of entry, whereas the developmental pediatric consultants are typically engaged in a contractual relationship with these programs. These specialized professionals provide region-specific supports and services to each program. Each system point of entry is responsible for implementation of the EI services system in accordance with state and federal rules within geographic regions, ensuring all families referred to the system receive timely access to family-centered EI services. This state also has a credentialing system that requires all service coordinators to apply for and maintain an SC credential. Minimum requirements for individuals to apply for a temporary SC credential in this Part C EI system include employment with a regional system point of entry and a bachelor's degree or higher in human services, behavioral science, social science or health-related field or a current license as a registered nurse (Early Intervention Services System Act of 1995; Illinois Department of Human Services, Bureau of Early Intervention, 2017). According to 2019 data from the state's credentialing entity, 86% of service coordinators in this EI system have an educational background in psychology, social work, or counseling (Provider Connections data, personal communication, 2019).

Upon hire, service coordinators have 90 days to complete a comprehensive SC training that encompasses approximately 30 hr of a “blended” online training. Initial training is aligned with evidence-informed professional development in that it includes a blend of synchronous and asynchronous activities with job-embedded practice and opportunities to reflect over time (Dunst, 2015). Once service coordinators complete their required training during a 90-day probation period, they obtain a full credential that is valid for 3 years. Continued professional development and employment with the system point of entry are required to maintain their credential over time.

There are both uniformity and variation in how states implement their Part C programs, including implementation of the service coordinator's role. All states must designate a service coordinator for eligible children and their families, and SC must be provided at no cost to the family (Edwards & Gallagher, 2016). Service coordination is broadly defined by Part C of IDEA as “services provided by a service coordinator to assist and enable an infant or toddler with a disability and the child's family to receive the services and rights, including procedural safeguards, required under this part.” More specifically, Part C of IDEA (2004) outlines 10 specific SC activities that all service coordinators, regardless of the state, SC model, or region (i.e., urban, suburban, or rural) they work within, are expected to carry out. On the basis of national data collected by the IDEA ITCA in 2019, 49% of state respondents reported using a dedicated SC model. Respondents also indicated considerable variation in service coordinator qualifications, and educational backgrounds, despite differences in lead agency and system structure. Regardless of SC model, system structure, or educational background, service coordinators represent a critical role on EI teams and require the training, preparation, and ongoing support needed to be able to create strong partnerships with team members and provide high-quality, family-centered practices (DEC/ITCA, 2020).

SERVICE COORDINATION ACTION PLAN

Two state representatives, the Associate Director and a Professional Development Specialist from the statewide Part C professional development entity, with support from the Part C Coordinator, participated in the Institute. Their participation led to the development of an action plan focused on empowering, preparing, supporting, and retaining qualified service coordinators in this state. A long-term outcome identified in the action plan was to develop SC competencies with a quality indicator component so that (a) service coordinators have necessary knowledge and skills to partner with families as they navigate the EI system; (b) service coordinators are recognized and acknowledged as professionals in EI; (c) service coordinators have opportunities for professional growth, which may help ensure staff retention; and (d) children and families receive consistent, high-quality SC across the state.

A key strategy identified in the action plan was to gather stakeholder input by developing a statewide SC Stakeholder Group who would cocreate and help distribute an SC Stakeholder Survey. The goal of the survey was to obtain feedback from a cross section of stakeholders who possessed intimate knowledge of EI policies, procedures, SC roles and responsibilities, and motivators for growth and recognition of service coordinators. Therefore, service coordinators, and those who lead and support them at the local level, were the primary stakeholders involved in this state's effort to carry out its SC action plan. This was an important step in the exploration stage of the implementation process (Smith et al., 2014).

Service coordination Stakeholder Group

Recognizing the importance of involving key stakeholders in the exploration, planning, and implementation of the action plan, and building upon the strengths of the state's SC model, a statewide SC Stakeholder Group was formed to cocreate the SC Stakeholder Survey for this state's work. Cocreation has been described as the development of a “shared body of usable knowledge” across scientific, governance, and local practice boundaries (Van Kerkhoff & Lebel, 2015, p. 2). According to Metz (2015), “Complex systems consist of dense webs of relationships where individual stakeholders self-organize through interactions. In turn, interactions produce co-learning and collaborative problem solving of complex system challenges” (p. 1). The statewide EI professional development entity in collaboration with the Part C office extended an open invitation to all 25 system points of entry in the state to join the SC Stakeholder Group. Interested individuals participated in one of two orientation meetings offered. The purpose of the orientation meetings was to review the statewide SC action plan developed at the Institute, discuss any questions they had about the action plan and their participation in the SC Stakeholder Group, and establish a future meeting schedule to accomplish action plan tasks and activities.

The SC Stakeholder Group consisted of professionals from the statewide EI professional development entity, Part C EI lead agency staff, and stakeholders such as service coordinators and program managers from the system point of entry who were willing to volunteer their time. Group members representing urban, suburban, and rural regions of the state made a commitment to meet 1 hr per month for a minimum of 6 months. The primary objective of the group was to explore the feasibility of the action plan, identify next steps, and support implementation of the action plan. The SC Stakeholder Group held monthly meetings between September 2018 and November 2019, which resulted in the development, distribution, and analysis of a statewide SC Stakeholder Survey.

Service coordination Stakeholder Survey

The purpose of the SC Stakeholder Survey was to (a) identify knowledge and skills necessary for all service coordinators; (b) understand what service coordinators seek for professional growth and recognition, including the prevalence of these opportunities; and (c) contribute to the evidence base and national initiatives aimed at elevating the SC profession. Because of the unique and complex roles and responsibilities of all service coordinators, regardless of the program or location (DEC/ITCA, 2020), the SC Stakeholder Group determined that the target audience of this survey would be service coordinators, or those who lead and support service coordinators. These individuals would be able to provide firsthand knowledge of necessary knowledge, skills, and opportunities for growth and recognition, gained from their direct work in these roles. The SC Stakeholder Group recognized the valuable input that other SC stakeholders (such as family members, EI providers, community partners, etc.) can provide around SC knowledge and skills and determined that other opportunities for obtaining this input (e.g., focus groups) would be necessary and explored in the future to develop a deeper understanding built upon multiple perspectives. Because this state's SC model included wraparound supports with parent liaisons employed by each system point of entry, there was an opportunity for a limited level of input via this survey by individuals who identified as both a family member and a professional in EI.

METHODS

Participants

The statewide EI professional development entity obtained e-mail addresses for all active SC stakeholders from the statewide credentialing agency and the lead agency. The electronic survey was disseminated by the statewide EI professional development entity in April 2019 via a SurveyMonkey e-mail collector to 593 SC stakeholders, with the majority being service coordinators (n = 429). Additional recipients included program managers, social emotional consultants, parent liaisons, LIC coordinators, developmental pediatric consultants, EI professional development specialists, and lead agency staff. Three reminders were sent over the course of 6 weeks to individuals who partially responded or did not respond to the survey. Approximately 50% of the 593 e-mails sent to SC stakeholders were delivered successfully and opened. A web collector survey link was also used to ensure the survey reached individuals who were unable to receive e-mails from SurveyMonkey as the sender due to firewall security at their place of employment. The web collector was e-mailed to members of a statewide SC CoP and to program managers at each system point of entry with a request to distribute to their staff as a reminder.

In total, 107 responses were received from SC stakeholders who fulfill a role in the SC model (see Figure 1). Respondents represented 24 of the 25 system points of entry located within urban, suburban, and rural parts of the state. Ninety-one of the overall responses were from service coordinators, representing 20% of the SC workforce in this state at the time of the study (Illinois Department of Human Services, Bureau of Early Intervention, 2019). Respondents identified themselves primarily as service coordinators (n = 91), followed by program managers who supervise service coordinators (n = 15), social emotional consultants (n = 4), parent liaisons (n = 4), LIC coordinators (n = 3), other administrative staff (n = 3), trainers (n = 2), and developmental pediatric consultants (n = 2). This survey question was designed to allow respondents to check multiple roles; therefore, some respondents are represented in multiple roles.

Participants represented an experienced workforce, with most respondents having 10 years of experience (n = 42), followed by those with 1–3 years (n = 23), less than 1 year (n = 14), 4–6 years (n = 13), and 7–10 years (n = 8). Nearly half of the respondents (48%) reported having an educational background in psychology, social work, or counseling, followed by EC/EC special education (18%), human services or related field (14%), other backgrounds (11%) including health-related field, social science, nursing, and behavioral science, and elementary/secondary education (8%). Some respondents chose not to complete this demographic question; therefore, the total number of respondents for years of experience is slightly lower than the total number of survey respondents.

Measure

The 15-item survey (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix A, available at: https://links.lww.com/IYC/A23) was designed in an online format by SC Stakeholder Group members over a series of meetings. The group utilized existing resources and references (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix B, available at: https://links.lww.com/IYC/A24) including, but not limited to, (a) SC activities under Part C of IDEA; (b) DEC Recommended Practices (DEC, 2014); (c) common terms and definitions such as standards, indicators, and practices; (d) SC competencies from other states; (e) Common Cross-Disciplinary Early Childhood Competency Areas (Bruder et al., 2019); and (f) state laws, policies, and procedures. Then, group members engaged in brainstorming sessions to identify necessary knowledge and skills to provide high-quality SC services to children and families in EI, potential motivators, and opportunities for growth and recognition. Following several brainstorming sessions, and independent review and reflection of materials between meetings, SC Stakeholder Group members narrowed down the items to those identified as applicable to all service coordinators regardless of their location (i.e., urban, suburban, or rural). These are the items that were ultimately included in the SC Stakeholder Survey.

An intentional survey design decision was made by the SC Stakeholder Group to ask questions around professional growth and recognition early in the survey as it was hypothesized that the existing SC workforce would be eager to provide feedback on inquiries that had the potential to lead to advancement and support in their role. Participants were not required to respond to every question; therefore, the number of respondents varied across survey items.

Questions focused on the following areas: (a) respondent demographics; (b) professional growth and recognition; and (c) required SC knowledge and skills. An overview of the three focus areas of the survey follows:

  • Demographic information was collected to help determine whether responses differed on the basis of geographic region, years of experience, educational background, and role in the EI system.
  • Professional growth and recognition questions sought to understand the ways service coordinators (a) seek professional growth (e.g., ongoing professional learning opportunities such as trainings, connecting with a coach or mentor, participating in a CoP, informal networks of support, continuing education); (b) ways they are motivated (e.g., professional advancement, increased or varied level of responsibilities and/or leadership, opportunities to mentor or be mentored, opportunities to earn an award, bonus, or tuition reimbursement); (c) availability of opportunities for professional growth and recognition at the local level; and (d) barriers to attaining professional growth.
  • Required knowledge and skills questions asked respondents to reflect on the following: (a) knowledge areas: philosophy of EI, roles of team members, EI and non-EI services supports and services, child development, funding, state and federal laws, family rights and procedural safeguards, cultural awareness and implicit bias, and transition; (b) skills: coordinating and conducting services, communication, teaming and collaboration, leadership and facilitation, home visiting, professionalism, advocacy, and time management and organizational skills; and (c) top three knowledge and skill areas for which they seek support.

A combination of question types was used to collect these data including Likert scales, check boxes, and open-ended comments. A description of how the SC Stakeholder Group determined the survey design and measures within each question type follows:

  • Likert scales were used primarily to understand value respondents attributed to the questions being asked. Likert scales helped to (a) determine ways service coordinators seek professional growth by level of importance in an effort to understand the ongoing professional development opportunities that may be of most value; (b) identify motivators for professional growth to learn about opportunities service coordinators seek for advancement or recognition that could help them find satisfaction in their role; and (c) determine knowledge and skills for service coordinators in order to support families in EI. The objectives for asking respondents to reflect on preferred and required knowledge and skills were three-fold including (a) to make data-driven decisions on curriculum development and requirements for the SC workforce; (b) to allow SC stakeholders to help shape future decisions about competencies, training, and hiring requirements; and (c) to help prime respondents for a subsequent survey question related to knowledge and skill areas of need within the SC workforce. The deemed not necessary option in the Likert scale was intended to help identify any disagreement between the knowledge and skills the SC Stakeholder Group determined to be essential and responses from the existing SC workforce.
  • Check boxes for respondents to identify opportunities for growth and recognition that were available to them, as well as knowledge and skill areas in which service coordinators need support. This question type was used because SC Stakeholder Group members anticipated responses to vary on the basis of region, experience level, or educational background. Collecting this information in conjunction with demographics was intentional so that areas of strength, gaps to be filled, and areas of need could be analyzed and addressed as needed on a statewide and regional level.
  • Open-ended comments were included so that respondents could provide additional information if their experience was not fully captured in the options available within the survey questions. Respondents used open-ended comments to (a) identify additional ways they seek professional growth and opportunities for motivation; (b) identify barriers to creating or attaining professional growth; (c) describe additional required knowledge and skills and areas in which service coordinators need support; and (d) provide comments about any other topic they deemed important (at the end of the survey).

The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author.

DATA ANALYSIS

Results from SurveyMonkey were exported into SPSS to develop frequency tables and compare means across a number of variables, including (a) ways service coordinators seek professional growth to support them in their role; (b) primary motivators for professional growth and recognition, and the availability of those within the system; (c) knowledge and skills required for service coordinators to fulfill their role as they serve families in Part C EI; and (d) knowledge and skills service coordinators report needing the most support. An external evaluator was used to analyze the initial themes from the quantitative and qualitative data collected.

An inductive approach was used to allow the themes to emerge from the data without any preconceived themes to understand the barriers service coordinators face when seeking and attaining professional growth and recognition. Data were further analyzed by region (i.e., urban, suburban, and rural), experience level (length of time in EI), and educational background to determine whether there were any significant differences when these filters were applied. In addition, a multistep, reflective, thematic approach was utilized that allowed the authors to review analysis from the external reviewer independently, which was followed by a joint discussion on key findings, questions, and themes. This permitted the research team to use both a collaborative and objective approach as they made sense of the qualitative and quantitative data.

Once themes were identified, members of the research team reviewed the findings with the SC Stakeholder Group and the lead agency to check for understanding and assess the need for further analysis. No further analysis was deemed necessary at this time.

RESULTS

Service coordinator professional growth and recognition

The results include quantitative and qualitative analyses of data collected on professional growth and recognition, as well as knowledge and skills for service coordinators. First, we discuss the results for professional growth opportunities by level of importance, motivators for professional growth, and barriers to professional growth.

Professional growth opportunities by level of importance

Survey data revealed that 72% of respondents identified ongoing professional learning opportunities (e.g., training or webinar offered on a specific topic) as highly important (n = 77). Another professional growth activity deemed highly important by 63% of respondents (n = 67) was connecting through an informal network of service coordinators (e.g., peers in the office or from a training). Activities such as connecting with others in the state who work in the same geographic region and participating in a CoP with others in the same role were also identified as somewhat to highly important by more than half of the respondents. The activity that was identified as the least important was connecting with others in EI outside the state (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2.:
Ways service coordinators seek professional growth: Percent rated highly important. Note. This figure illustrates the ways service coordinators seek professional growth by level of importance. EI = early intervention; SC = service coordinator.

Professional growth and recognition motivators

Survey data indicated that respondents were highly motivated by opportunities to earn a bonus (86%), receive tuition reimbursement (72%), be awarded/acknowledged for quality performance (65%), and be offered varied levels of responsibility with workload and compensation to match their skills and experience (60%). Interestingly, when asked about the availability of opportunities for professional growth and recognition at the local level, the most highly rated motivators were also the most limited in their availability. See Figures 3 and 4 for a comparison of high motivators as they relate to reported availability.

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Figure 3.:
High professional growth and recognition motivators. Note. This figure illustrates the high, medium, and low motivators identified by respondents for professional growth and recognition. CFC = Child and Family Connections (system points of entry which employ service coordinators).
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Figure 4.:
High motivators for professional growth and recognition as compared with availability. Note. This figure illustrates the highest motivators for professional growth and recognition as compared with their availability to the respondent. CFC = Child and Family Connections (system points of entry which employ service coordinators).

Barriers to professional growth

A thematic analysis was performed to understand the barriers to creating or attaining opportunities for professional growth. Themes that emerged from responses included the following: (a) the number of families served per service coordinator is too high; (b) not enough time to do everything, to take on more responsibility, to attend training/tuition advancement; (c) lack of funding—compensation and incentives to attend training; and (d) lack of opportunities offered for advancement with limited positions available. These themes are consistent with data collected and reported by Childress et al. (2019) when service coordinators provided guidance on how to improve SC in their respective states. The guidance included decreasing the number of families served by individual service coordinators and improving compensation and funding, including increased pay to better reflect workload requirements and to attract and retain highly qualified staff.

Required service coordination knowledge and skills

The quantitative and qualitative results for required knowledge and skills are discussed next. These include the top three knowledge and skill areas service coordinators report needing more support.

Required knowledge

Data analyzed to understand the knowledge areas that respondents identified as required, preferred, or not necessary for service coordinators revealed that “all” knowledge areas were identified as preferred. In fact, at least 70% of respondents indicated the following knowledge areas to be required: EI services (85%), philosophy of EI (82%), role of all team members (82%), family rights/procedural safeguards (77%), typical child development (71%), Part C funding sources (71%), cultural awareness/implicit biases (71%), and transition options/resources (70%). The top three knowledge areas that respondents need support with include the following: (1) Part C funding sources, such as family participation fees and public/private insurance (51%); (2) cultural awareness and implicit bias (37%); and (3) community-based services and supports (30%). Nearly one third of respondents also identified the need for additional support in the area of atypical child development (29%) and transition options/resources (29%). Given that knowledge of Part C funding sources, cultural awareness and implicit bias, and transition options/resources are considered required by the majority of respondents, and they have also emerged as top areas of need for additional support, these may be areas that warrant more attention. Interestingly, community-based services and supports were rated the lowest, with only 32% identifying this as required knowledge; this item emerged as a top priority for additional support. Notably, none of the knowledge areas queried were deemed not necessary. Figures 5 and 6 illustrate respondents' perspectives regarding the knowledge that service coordinators believe should be required versus preferred and areas in which they seek additional support.

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Figure 5.:
Required and preferred knowledge for service coordinators. Note. This figure illustrates the knowledge areas determined to be required and preferred for service coordinators. EI = early intervention; IDEA = Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
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Figure 6.:
Knowledge areas for which service coordinators seek additional support. Note. This figure illustrates the need for additional support as compared with required knowledge areas. EI = early intervention; IDEA = Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Required service coordination skills

Descriptive statistics were used to understand the skills that respondents feel service coordinators need. These skills were rated as required, preferred, or not necessary. Skills identified as required by more than 90% of respondents included coordinating and conducting skills (e.g., managing and carrying out SC activities outlined under Part C of IDEA, communication skills, and time management and organizational skills). At least 82% of respondents identified professionalism, teaming and collaboration, and home visiting as required. Only two skills fell below a 70% threshold for required skills—advocacy and leadership and facilitation.

The top three skills respondents reported needing support included (1) time management and organizational skills, (2) teaming and collaboration, and (3) leadership and facilitation. Although leadership and facilitation were rated lowest, with only 66% of respondents identifying it as a required skill, this category emerged as a top priority needing additional support. It may be important to note that 91% of respondents identified time management as a required skill, and 55% of respondents also identified this as an area where additional support is needed. Similar to the knowledge areas, none of the skills queried were deemed not necessary. Figures 7 and 8 illustrate the required skills for service coordinators and areas they seek additional support.

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Figure 7.:
Skills service coordinators require. Note. This figure illustrates the skills required and preferred for service coordinators.
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Figure 8.:
Required service coordinators skills and areas for which support is needed. Note. This figure illustrates the required skills for which respondents need additional support.

DISCUSSION

An online survey was developed by an SC Stakeholder Group in one state to gain a deeper understanding of required service coordinator knowledge, skills, and motivators for professional growth and recognition. Respondents included service coordinators and those who lead or support them at the local system point of entry representing various levels of experience, educational backgrounds, and urban, suburban, and rural areas of the state. The data were analyzed by region, experience level, and educational background; there were no significant differences to report when these filters were applied.

Four topics emerged from the findings: (a) service coordinators seek professional growth in a variety of ways; (b) the ways service coordinators seek recognition (bonus, tuition reimbursement, award/acknowledgment, varied level of responsibility with compensation to match) are not consistently available; (c) knowledge and skills identified as required, including knowledge of child development, align with the Knowledge and Skills for Service Coordinators (KSSC; Workgroup on Recommended KSSC, 2020) embedded in the DEC/ITCA Joint Position Statement on SC in EI (DEC/ITCA, 2020); and (d) service coordinators seek more support on knowledge and skill areas specific to their role regardless of region (i.e., urban, suburban, or rural), level of experience (i.e., length of time in EI), or educational background. The following sections discuss each of these trends, support within existing literature, as well as gaps, which may highlight the need for further research.

Professional growth and recognition

Respondents reported the importance of seeking and attaining professional growth through a variety of opportunities including ongoing professional learning opportunities (e.g., training), informal networks (e.g., peers), others working in the same geographic region, and through CoP. These data could help inform how ongoing evidence-informed professional development (Dunst, 2015) may be designed and implemented to support the acquisition and application of professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions in practice (National Professional Development Center on Inclusion, 2008) and to meet the interests and needs of service coordinators within and across regions regardless of their educational background and experience level.

This study also illustrates a gap between the ways service coordinators seek recognition and what is attainable. Respondents reported being highly motivated by opportunities to earn a bonus, tuition reimbursement, award/acknowledgment for quality performance, and having opportunities to vary their level of responsibility and workload with compensation to match the workload. These findings are consistent with the trends identified by Childress et al. (2019), as service coordinators across eight states identified the need for a more balanced workload, increased compensation, and a desire to elevate the professional value and respect of SC. Unfortunately, respondents noted that these motivators were not readily available on a consistent basis across regions of the state. Further exploration as to how to make high-level motivators available to service coordinators on a consistent basis is warranted within this state and at the national level, given the alignment to trends identified in the literature base.

Service coordination knowledge and skills

The findings from this study align with, and further support, the knowledge and skill areas identified by the April 2020 national survey of EI stakeholders, including infant and toddler development, family-centered practices, leadership/teaming, coordination of services, and transition (Workgroup on Recommended KSSC, 2020). Therefore, it is essential to understand the knowledge service coordinators have coming into the workforce so that any gaps can be addressed through ongoing professional development. For example, knowledge of child development has been identified as required knowledge for service coordinators by survey respondents in this study and is one of the six knowledge and skill areas in KSSC (DEC/ITCA, 2020; Workgroup on Recommended KSSC, 2020). Knowledge of atypical child development is also an area where nearly one third of respondents from this study indicated a need for more support. Given the varied educational and professional backgrounds service coordinators enter the workforce with (Bruder & Dunst, 2005; DEC/ITCA, 2020; Provider Connections data, personal communication, 2019), it will be important to ensure professional development opportunities are available to support those who may need to acquire knowledge in child development (typical and atypical) in addition to other knowledge and skills specific to SC activities.

Finally, these findings further support the need for ongoing professional development activities that are specific to SC activities, which is also a trend identified by Childress et al. (2019) as the need for increased training and networking opportunities specifically related to SC was reported. Based on data from a 2005 study by Bruder and Dunst of more than 400 personnel preparation programs, EC special education, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech–language pathology, and multidisciplinary personnel preparation programs have a minimal focus on SC and teaming practices in EI, and EI-specific content is not consistently embedded in these preparation programs.

This SC Stakeholder study identifies knowledge and skill areas that service coordinators report needing additional support with, ultimately adding to the evidence base with a deeper understanding of service coordinator support needs across geographic regions, experience levels, and educational backgrounds. One-half of respondents seek support with knowledge of Part C funding sources. This is consistent with findings identified by Childress et al. (2019), noting this as an area requiring additional support due to the complexity of funding sources within EI. More than one third of respondents also seek support with cultural awareness and implicit bias. According to Gillispie (2021), “It is essential to ensure that early intervention services are provided through culturally and linguistically competent assessment and evaluation tools and practices that minimize racial and cultural bias” (p. 8). This report further emphasizes the critical need for anti-racist and culturally competent, ongoing professional development that includes family engagement approaches.

Community-based services and support is an SC activity under Part C of IDEA (2004), although only about one third of respondents identified this as required knowledge. Interestingly, this area emerged as a top priority for additional supports, which may indicate that more education about the role service coordinators fulfill within community partnerships may be necessary. Furthermore, nearly half of respondents report needing support with skills connected to time management and organizational skills, teaming and collaboration, and leadership and facilitation. This trend is also consistent with the Childress et al. (2019) study, in which service coordinators identified the need to balance their workload by decreasing the number of families served and making a digital scheduling/data system available to streamline paperwork, timelines, and collaboration.

LIMITATIONS

A limitation to this study is that responses were collected from SC stakeholders in one state, representing one geographic region of the country and one model of SC within one state system structure. Responses may have been influenced by the SC model in this state, which includes additional wraparound supports within the system points of entry (i.e., program managers, social emotional consultants, parent liaisons, LIC coordinators, and developmental pediatric consultants). Although some respondents were parents (i.e., parent liaisons), limited data represent families' perspectives related to required knowledge and skills for service coordinators. It is also important to acknowledge that the majority of responses (53%) came from personnel with more than 7 years of experience. This may indicate a need for further studies to explore workforce retention and average length of time service coordinators remain in their role, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of necessary knowledge, skills, and opportunities for growth and recognition from a variety of EI stakeholder perspectives, including family members.

Another limitation is that of the 593 e-mails sent through the e-mail collector, only 289 were opened, 298 were unopened, and 6 bounced. Bounced e-mails are likely due to an invalid e-mail address. The authors hypothesized potential reasons for the 298 unopened survey e-mails. One hypothesis is that the high stress and day-to-day demands put on the primary target audience may have served as barriers to prioritizing the completion of a survey that was approximately 10 minutes in length. Another hypothesis is related to the impact that high turnover in the SC workforce had on this survey and the intended recipients. It is possible that some recipients were no longer employed and the system database had yet to be updated. It is also possible that those personnel new to their position were focused on onboarding activities and learning their new role and did not feel they could contribute meaningfully to the survey at the time of dissemination.

IMPLICATIONS

Service coordinators have a challenging and complex role that requires well-developed knowledge and skills across a variety of areas in order to provide quality services and support families and children in reaching their outcomes. Given the challenges reported by service coordinators with regard to their workload (Childress et al., 2019), the number of roles and responsibilities service coordinators have (DEC/ITCA, 2020) as they carry out all 10 SC activities identified in Part C of IDEA (2004), this study could have implications on professional development and the need to take a closer look at systems in place to ensure service coordinators can successfully carry out their activities.

Service coordination is an essential EI service, and “states must prioritize professional development for new and experienced professionals in this role” (DEC/ITCA, 2020, p. 4). In order for professional development offerings to be high quality and successful in preparing and supporting service coordinators in gaining both the knowledge and skills necessary for their work, professional development opportunities should include all or most of the key features of evidence-informed professional development as described by Dunst (2015) and must be coordinated through a strong collaboration between state systems of professional development and local-level SC entities. In addition, robust resources and supports at the local level are needed to ensure service coordinators are supported over time and have access to the opportunities for growth service coordinators seek, including coaching, mentoring, and opportunities to connect with other service coordinators in a CoP.

Given what was learned in this study about the ways service coordinators seek recognition for their work, a deeper look at recognition strategies for service coordinators as well as the availability of the highest rated motivators is necessary. Early intervention system funding is complex and often complicated by differences across states in eligibility criteria, funding streams, qualifications of personnel, the service delivery model (Cole, Oser, & Walsh, 2011), as well as the appointed lead agency. Recognition opportunities connected to funding such as monetary bonuses and tuition reimbursement may require more complex coordination between local and state entities but should be considered, as data from this survey suggest that they could be strong motivators for service coordinators. In addition, incentives, awards for high-quality work, and opportunities for varied levels of responsibility or advancement within their profession should be explored.

Considering what is known about the varied educational backgrounds that service coordinators in this state and across the United States often possess (IDEA ITCA, 2019; Provider Connections data, personal communication, 2019), and that EC special education, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech–language pathology, and multidisciplinary personnel preparation programs have a minimal focus on SC (Bruder & Dunst, 2005), it may be critical to identify strategies for EI systems, professional development providers, and personnel preparation programs to develop and strengthen partnerships with one another to more effectively collaborate in preparing and supporting the future SC workforce. This study may also help address goals for adequately preparing a highly effective workforce as identified by the professional home for service coordinators, the DEC, in their Priority Issues Agenda (DEC, 2020). As EI systems engage in systems planning related to attracting, supporting, and retaining high-quality personnel, this deeper understanding of what service coordinators desire in terms of professional growth and recognition may inform systems' decisions that could provide a strong foundation for a well-supported, knowledgeable SC workforce and have a significant impact on retention rates within the SC workforce (Ransom, 2021).

The implementation process, methods, and survey design used to complete this study could be replicated by other states, systems, or programs seeking to better understand the ways service coordinators or other EI professionals in the workforce seek growth and recognition. Since the completion of this study, the KSSC (Workgroup on Recommended KSSC, 2020) and the DEC/ITCA Joint Position Statement on SC in EI (DEC/ITCA, 2020) have been released. Stakeholders within other states, systems, or programs could also use these recently released materials, in conjunction with the survey questions located in Appendix A, to explore and support their own critical assessment of the strengths and needs within their SC workforce.

Data collected in this study are being used to develop and implement a Theory of Action (ToA) to support SC initiatives in this state (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix C, available at: https://links.lww.com/IYC/A25). “A ToA is a connected set of propositions, a logical chain of reasoning that explains how change will lead to improved practices. It ‘connects the dots’ explaining in a commonsense way which features are expected to produce results that lead to the final desired outcome (Haertel, 2009, p. 6).” Data have informed ToA elements such as leadership, evidence-informed professional development, and policies, procedures, and systems that impact personnel and family outcomes. The ToA will help guide cocreation of future initiatives to strengthen SC in continued partnership with stakeholders in this state.

The findings from this study have also resulted in (a) the exploration of a minimum pay scale for service coordinators; (b) the exploration of equitable recognition opportunities for service coordinators; (c) a review and revision of existing professional development offerings for service coordinators; (d) the development of a leadership fellowship; and (f) creation of initiatives to foster community and growth at the statewide, regional, and local levels for service coordinators and those who lead them within this state.

The data collected in this study will continue to be used within this state, and can be used by other EI systems, to inform decisions and develop a plan to ensure that service coordinators are well prepared with the knowledge, skills, and support necessary to successfully carry out their responsibilities and partner with families and EI professionals. Further research is needed to fully understand and describe the EI workforce and, in particular, those fulfilling the role of service coordinator. Future studies should investigate demographics, educational requirements and backgrounds, length of time in their role, retention rates, and reasons for attrition within this role. There is much work that still needs to be done in this area of research with lasting implications for state systems, personnel, and young children and families.

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Keywords:

early intervention; Part C; professional development; service coordination

Supplemental Digital Content

© 2023 The Authors. Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc.