KINGSTON — Since its inception in 1975, the Early Stimulation Programme (ESP) has been transforming lives and making the future brighter for youngsters with varying types of developmental disabilities.
Administered by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, the ESP caters to children, from birth to six years, with challenges, such as cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation; and children with various forms of mental and physical disabilities, and multiple disabilities.
Director of the ESP, Antonica Gunter-Gayle, explains that the programme provides an assessment and early intervention programme and serves clients from across the island with the concentration of work in the Kingston and St. Andrew metropolitan area, St. Catherine and Portland.
“These children are referred to the programme by hospitals, health centres, clinics, various agencies and institutions, social workers, basic schools, especially when they (the children) are not performing at the required levels; and by persons who have benefited from the programme,” the Director tells JIS News.
Mrs. Gunter-Gayle explains that as soon as the child is referred, an assessment is done and the child is placed in a special intervention programme where various activities are carried out to help the child reach his or her highest potential.
“We prepare our children, we work with them, ensure that they possess the pre-requisite skills for primary level education and at the end of six years, we refer them, according to their development, to the School of Hope which is for children with various types of disabilities and they do the placements in the various units across Jamaica,” she points out.
She stresses the importance of early stimulation, which is the exchange of sensory stimuli of touch, hearing, visual and movement sensation, usually between the mother and child or caregiver and child.
“This is very crucial, because if early stimulation is absent or minimal, then the child would become impaired or learning become reduced…so ESP is important for all children, more so those with developmental disabilities,” the Director adds.
She informs that the programme's services fall into two main categories – centre-based and community-based, with the former comprising clinical assessment, re-evaluation, reviews, physical therapy, speech therapy, parent orientation and counselling, and parent/staff training workshops.
"The community-based aspect entails home visits by specially trained early childhood workers called child development officers. These workers visit homes, basic schools, day care centres, private as well as government institutions, to train parents and caregivers to stimulate the child in the various areas of development, such as language, cognitive, self-help, motor and socialisation," she highlights.
The Director notes that the programme engages the parents and caregivers in the intervention process. “After the child is assessed and we have a working diagnosis, the parent, caregiver/family is called in to the office and we sit with them and share with them, in a simple manner that they can understand, what is wrong with the child, what is our aim, what we are going to do with the child, how they fit in as parent or caregiver, to help this child reach the highest potential,” Mrs. Gunter-Gayle tells JIS News.
She informs that to foster special early childhood education, the ESP, for the past four years, has been operating a pre-school – Stimulation Plus Child Development Centre (STIM-PLUS) – for children ages three to six, located at 1A Ostend Road in East Kingston.
Another major initiative is the Portland project, which sees over 120 children from various communities in Buff Bay, Orange Bay, Port Antonio and surrounding areas receiving intervention and stimulation. This programme is administered from the Buff Bay Health Centre.
The Director says that currently, the programme is being offered to some 1,400 children by 40 child development officers, who are based at the Hanover Street head office, but travel islandwide to provide intervention.
“Children are referred to us on a daily basis, they come in to us for assessment and intervention, so we know that with all that we are doing, we are still in need of more officers to go out in the communities,” she states.
The Director notes that despite the odds, the ESP is committed to assisting children with disabilities, adding that the greatest joy or accomplishment is when the children progress and show marked improvement in their abilities.
“When you look at some of the things they are doing that they were not doing before…when a child is referred to us and the child comes to us not even being able to open the fingers and after a period of intervention and stimulation to see that child gradually open those fingers, and is able to take up a cup or pencil, that is an achievement,” Mrs. Gunter-Gayle argues.
She notes that the future looks bright for the ESP, with plans to further expand the programme by establishing a western regional office to facilitate children at that end of the island. She adds that plans are afoot to develop centres or special facilities for children who are unable to attend the special education school or a regular school.
“I would encourage parents that if they see any signs that a child might be slow or not doing certain things at a certain age…probably not walking or saying certain words…do not sit and wait, but go to the nearest health centre or find an early intervention centre and have the child assessed,” the Director urges.
More than 30,000 children have benefited from the ESP since its inception. For further information on the ESP, persons can call 922-5585 or visit the office at 95 Hanover Street in Kingston.
By Kadian Brown, JIS PRO