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Early Childhood | May 2010

IFSPs that help families: Two success strategies for interventionists

Young child playing outside in green serpentine jungle gym with older girl behind

As an early interventionist, you know that an effective Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) is key to a young child's progress and development. To guide your interventions and the important work of the other service providers in the child's life, an IFSP needs to spell out desired outcomes for the child and lead to meaningful progress. It must also address needs of the family—for example, how is day-to-day life affected by the child's disability? Will the goals you identify in the IFSP make a significant difference in the family's quality of life?

To ensure that IFSPs improve outcomes for whole families, you can enhance your everyday practice with two effective approaches: the routines-based interview (RBI) and progress monitoring with the IGDI tools. Both of these align with DEC's Recommended Practices and are comprehensive and easy to use for interventionists who work in home environments with young children and their families.

Getting Started: The Routines-Based Interview

The first step toward developing a successful IFSP is learning about the family's specific priorities and how children participate (or don't yet participate) in daily routines and activities. To collect this essential data, use the RBI, a semistructured parent interview that helps you evaluate and understand the child within the structure of the family.

In an RBI, you'll sit down with the family and ask questions that focus on family functioning, child engagement, social relationships, and independence. You'll uncover what concerns parents have about their child's behavior, what a typical day looks like, and what outcomes they would like to work toward. Because families themselves produce their own list of functional goals they want their child to work on, you'll come away with a wealth of relevant information you can use to develop IFSPs tailored to each family's needs and priorities.

When parents feel comfortable during the RBI, they're more likely to provide in-depth information about child and family functioning. Leading expert Robin McWilliam recommends these practical tips for conducting effective parent interviews and putting families at ease:

  • Help family members relax by approaching them with openness and informality

  • Avoid the use of jargon; if the parent uses jargon, ask what he or she means

  • Nod throughout the conversation to affirm that you are actively listening and involved

  • Ask about specific routines in order to keep the interview moving along if it is becoming too drawn-out; the goal is to end in 90 minutes.

  • From time to time, express understanding of, and admiration for, what the parent does with his or her family; for example, "You have a lot to balance here, and you're really doing a great job with it."

  • Find a point of personal contact and very briefly use 'self-disclosure' to put the family at ease; for example, "Early mornings are always the hardest time of the day for me; I can understand your frustration with trying to get everyone ready for school and work at the same time."

  • Monitor parental reaction: If the parent becomes emotional or cries, offer to stop the interview; if the parent seems to be getting very tense or upset, move to another topic, or begin asking questions about something that causes less tension.

In Nebraska, many IFSP teams are already using the RBI as their primary assessment tool. "Teams who have fully implemented it into their IFSP process have found that using the RBI leads them to a true family-driven assessment," according to Sue Bainter, an education specialist in the Early Childhood Office of the Nebraska Department of Education. "It gets past the old ways of discipline-specific goals and interventions because the child and family are viewed in the context of their daily lives and asked what is important to them."

IFSP teams in Wisconsin began using the RBI several years ago. Terri Goettl, an early childhood special education master teacher in the Eau Claire Area School District, describes her first experience watching a colleague do an RBI with a family of a student she was evaluating. "It was about halfway through the interview when a light went on for me," she says. "I could clearly see how my expertise was going to assist this family with the specific areas interfering with the child's functioning in his home and community."

During the RBI interview, Goettl explains, families can process their thoughts on how the child's disability affects their daily life, and then determine their priorities. For example, she discovered that one family never went out into the community because of the child's anxiety levels. Through the RBI process, the family identified "ability to cope" as a goal for the child. After targeted interventions using social stories designed to help the child in that area, the family was able to go on a trip to the grocery store—a huge step for them!

A successful RBI is a flexible process, not a rigid event, and multiple strategies can contribute to the dynamic of a successful interview. To get started with RBI and see how the whole process works, download this FREE tool from Robin McWilliam's new book, Routines-Based Early Intervention: Supporting Young Children and Their Families.

Monitoring Progress with the IGDI Tools

Once you've worked with the child's other service providers to turn the RBI findings into an IFSP, best practices also call for regular evaluation to ensure interventions are working. IDEA requires that the IFSP be evaluated and revised annually, with periodic reviews conducted at least every 6 months.

An ideal tool for frequent progess monitoring are the IGDIs—Individual Growth and Development Indicators for infants and toddlers. These relatively simple and quick evaluations can be administered as often as necessary to help you monitor child progress in five essential areas of development: communication, cognitive problem solving, early movement, social development, and parent–child interaction. As with the RBI, IGDIs are effective because they look at everyday activities, particularly those that take place within the family dynamic. Because children are less intimidated, results are likely to be meaningful indicators of progress.

IGDIs have distinctive features that set them apart from other evaluation tools and make them particularly relevant to interventionists:

  • IGDIs identify "authentic" child behaviors in natural environments: Authentic behaviors are particularly important for young children because compared with older children and adults, young children are less able and willing to "perform" specific skills on demand.

  • IGDIs assess key skill elements that are representative of important child outcomes: The skills measured by IGDIs are linked to evidence of their social validity and predictive utility.

  • IGDI data from separate administrations are comparable within a child and between children: IGDIs are unique in that the scores they yield allow for valid comparison from one occasion to the next, and from one child to another, or to a group of children. Guidelines for administration of IGDIs are standardized, ensuring that changes in children's performances between tests or between children are not caused by vast differences in how the IGDI was administered.

  • IGDI data meet standards of measurement reliability: Accuracy and reliability of IGDI results has been proven through interrater agreement (how similarly two assessors score a child's performance), internal consistency (how well key skill elements scores are correlated to one another) and alternate forms reliability (the assurance that change in IGDI scores over time is due to growth in the child's proficiency rather than the fact that he or she has simply memorized the test)

  • IGDIs are efficient and economical for practitioners: IGDIs are designed for use by early interventionists, and can provide practitioners with information on a child's current level of proficiency, response to intervention, rate of growth over time, and likelihood of reaching benchmark goals in the future given current rates of progress.

  • IGDIs are sensitive to children's individual differences: One problem with traditional measures of very young children is that the measures are not universally designed, and as a result, some children with special developmental needs are not accurately scored relative to their abilities. With IGDIs, this is not typically a problem.

  • IGDIs are sensitive to individual growth over time and intervention: IGDIs are repeatable, and for children receiving interventions, they should be administered with increased frequency. This will indicate whether or not the intervention is working and the child's performance is improving.

An IGDI provides a quick, easy way to judge whether the child is making progress toward a specific goal. If the child is making progress, he or she may be ready for the next skill level. If the child is not making progress, you'll find out immediately so you can work with the team of service providers and the family to modify the IFSP.

For a complete explanation of how to use the IGDIs (available for free at; training and certification is required before use), refer to the comprehensive new guide by Judith Carta & colleagues, Using IGDIs: Monitoring Progress and Improving Intervention for Infants and Young Children.

Download an excerpt here—a complete guide to the cognitive problem-solving IGDI, with filled-in sample forms and a case study on how the IGDI helped promote the cognitive development of a 20-month-old boy.


With the help of a meaningful, individualized IFSP and regular progress monitoring, children with disabilities and their families can thrive. Given the right tools, you as the interventionist can help children get the best possible start at home, with the goal of continued development that moves the child toward success at home, in the classroom, and in the larger world.

This article features downloads from the following books:

Routines-Based Early Intervention: Supporting Young Children and Their Families

Using IGDIs: Monitoring Progress and Improving Intervention for Infants and Young Children

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