Every child should have the opportunity to strive for their full potential.
By now, the back-to-school sales are over, summer sleep schedules are long forgotten, notebooks have begun to fill and pumpkins sit outside the grocery store. School is in full swing.
For most kids, the challenge of learning is met with excitement, energy and success. Yet for some, progress is frustrated by behavioral problems, learning disability and developmental delay. By this point in the school year, such delay has often become apparent to teachers in the classroom and parents assisting a struggling child with homework. The good news is that early recognition of delay, followed by appropriate assessment and educational intervention, can permit any child to reach his or her potential.
Developmental delay is common. According to a report last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.7% of U.S. children suffer from developmental delay or developmental disability. In addition, mental health disorders resulting in severe academic, social and/or occupational impairment will affect 20% to 25% of children sometime during their lifetime. The most common of these is anxiety, with an average age of onset of 6 years old.
In epidemiological terms, this is an epidemic.
Moreover, developmental disability has been on the rise since at least the 1990s. The reason for this is multifactorial. Much of the increase can be attributed to improved screening and recognition of conditions such as autistic spectrum disorder. Better recognition is a good thing, since it opens the door to early intervention and improved outcomes.
The optimal timing for the identification of developmental delay is early childhood, before children even begin school. This is aided by routine well-child care, where developmental surveillance systems are in place to identify high-risk children. Parents and early education programs also can help identify problems and advocate for formal testing when problems are suspected.
For the child who has already started school, the challenges of complex social interaction and the intense intellectual stimulation of the school environment can highlight delays.
The causes, breadth and range of severity of developmental and behavioral problems is substantial. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. What is most important is to screen, identify, evaluate and intervene – as early as possible.
Various laws in the United States afford children access to specialized educational and support services when developmental delay, behavioral problems or other challenges impair learning. These include the Every Child Succeeds Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Parents, teachers and health care providers can all play an important role in identifying children with developmental, behavioral, mental health and learning impairments. Evaluation and early intervention can make a difference for these kids.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.