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The Importance of Early Developmental Screening

The Importance of Early Developmental Screening
Posted on August 22, 2018 by CHS

A child’s brain develops faster in the first three years than at any other time in their life. During this period, it is particularly important to determine if a child’s development is on track and address any concerns as early as possible. Young children’s development occurs along a continuum, with milestones reached at ages that vary within an expected timeframe. Milestones not met within the expected timeframe can draw attention to possible developmental delays, health conditions, or other factors that may impact the child’s optimal growth and learning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 14 percent of children in the United States have a developmental or behavioral delay or disability, and as many as one in four children ages 0-5 are at moderate or high risk for developmental, behavioral, or social delays. Nearly 40% of young children in California are at moderate- or high-risk for developmental delays; however, fewer than 30% of developmental disabilities or delays are identified before children enter kindergarten. Research has found that many children with developmental disabilities are identified much later, often at age 10 or older. By this point, the child may have missed some opportunities for early treatment and support.

Early identification and intervention, particularly in the initial years, has the potential to significantly improve a child’s development. The sooner a child receives early intervention, the better their outcomes will be for health, academic achievement, and self-sufficiency in adulthood. When children have developmental delays, it can impact their school readiness abilities and ongoing success in school. With most delays not detected until a child reaches kindergarten, these children may be at a disadvantage that may have lasting impacts on the child’s later school success. Interventions have the greatest impact and are less costly when provided earlier in life. Children and families who participate in services to address delays or disabilities at a young age have improved social and cognitive skills – key components of school readiness– and higher academic achievement.

Developmental Screenings best connect kids to the appropriate early intervention programs. Developmental screening tools are formal, research-based instruments that include questions about a child’s development at particular ages. The screenings indicate whether a child is meeting expected developmental milestones or may have a developmental delay that requires further assessment. Age-appropriate screening tools are used to assess a variety of developmental areas, including physical development, social and emotional development, language and cognitive development, communication and language, and motor skills.

In addition to connecting children to needed services, such as early intervention, the administration of developmental screenings in early childhood settings can provide caregivers with the information they need to effectively support the child’s development. Screenings also provide an opportunity for caregivers to communicate with parents about their children’s development, and help parents support and interact with their children in a positive way.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened at least three times before their third birthday (9 months, 18 months, and 24-30 months) to ensure the earliest detection of a delay, yet we know that fewer than one in three children in California receive a timely developmental screening.  

Access: Federal health law requires insurance plans to cover developmental and behavioral screenings at no cost to children. Medi-Cal also covers developmental and behavioral screenings as part of the package for children’s preventive services. If you have concerns about your child’s development, discuss them with your child’s doctor. The doctor may recommend calling the local regional center or special education program at the school district or the county office of education.

In addition, there are other county and statewide efforts in California to promote early developmental screening and increase access to the screening at community-based locations and at child care and early childhood education locations. Help Me Grow, an effort of First 5 California, supports parents and caregivers to better understand and promote their child’s developmental milestones and encourages their readiness to learn and succeed in school. Help Me Grow is connecting the dots across healthcare, early education, community resources, and families to ensure children achieve their optimal, healthy development.  Children’s Home Society of California also provides a Developmental Stages Wheel and brochures on Special Needs for both parents and caregivers.

To see a map of counties participating in the Help Me Grow initiative and access local county contacts for early developmental screening, visit:

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