It can be hard to be a parent – especially of young children.  I remember worrying over my two girls – are they developing properly?  What can I do make sure I give them the best chances possible in life?  Mark K. Claypool and John M. McLaughlin are CEO and Director of Research and Analytics respectively for ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education, have some tips below for us parents!

While parenting young children is a joy, it can be filled with uncertainties and worry, especially if there are concerns about developmental milestones. How does a parent know when there might be a problem? Who can parents turn to for help? And, if there are issues, how can the public schools help?

Be Aware of Milestones: Children develop on their own schedules, but there are windows of time in which certain milestones or behaviors should be reached or demonstrated for all children. If critical milestones are not reached in those windows of time, parents should seek help. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, has a helpful website which describes developmental milestones for children ranging in age from two-months to five-years.

There are countless books on raising children from Dr. Benjamin Spock’s common sense approach first published in 1946 to books focused on raising boys, raising girls, raising African-American babies, or getting a good night’s sleep. These books, many available at the public library, often provide clear guidance that can reassure parents or give them pause to seek further help.

Use Resources at Your Fingertips: Keeping a baby book of important firsts such as words, steps, pointing, and forming short sentences can be helpful and support a parent’s muddled or busy mind as time goes by.  Observations of the behavior and development of other children close in age offers one reference point for parents. Playgroups and childcare centers provide convenient places for comparison, but be cautious; peer comparison should be kept in perspective. Remember, when “5-year-olds” start kindergarten, the older children can be 20 percent older than younger children and have had 20 percent more time to develop.

While it’s respectful and convenient to check with grandmothers, great uncles, and people you trust for their wisdom and experience in raising healthy children, catching problems early makes a great deal of difference in the trajectory of a child’s life. Trusted elders are invaluable in family life, but advice like “wait and see” or “he’s a boy, they’re slower to develop” could cost the child critical time.

Seek an Expert Opinion: If the resources a parent uses confirm the concerns, it’s time to get a professional opinion. Family doctors, pediatricians, pediatric nurse practitioners, city and county health services, Easter Seals, and other professionals and organizations are available. A child who has had regular well-baby check-ups will have records helpful in assessing developmental worry points. But even for a child who has never seen a doctor, if a parent is concerned about developmental milestones, a medical assessment is crucial. The more a parent can express concerns, articulate worry points, give examples of problematic behaviors, and provide firm dates on other milestones (remember the baby book), the more helpful it will be to the health professional.

In the interaction with the health provider, a parent needs to be informed and engaged in the discussion and analysis. The doctor or health professional will make a clinical diagnosis based upon the symptoms the child displays on examination and the story the parent presents. There may be further lab work requested or diagnostic screening tools recommended to assess the child. But the more the parent can present the facts, the better the initial clinical diagnosis.

Get the School District Involved: Public schools are vitally interested and legally bound to provide assistance to toddlers and pre-school children with special needs. Under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, schools, with some responsibilities frequently shared with county health departments, are required to seek out and serve very young children needing additional support to be “school ready.”

The objective of Part C of IDEA is to provide the various therapies, such as behavioral, speech and language, physical, or occupational, necessary to address the child’s needs. These services are often delivered in the child’s home and at no cost to the family. Services provided under IDEA are not intended to teach children content such as colors or abc’s but to help prepare them behaviorally, cognitively, or physically to be ready for school at age 5, 6, or 7.

Getting Help is the Key: There is no mandated sequence a parent must go through in seeking help. A medical review is not required before contacting the school district, but it can certainly be helpful. On the other hand, if a visit to the doctor identifies a problem, the parent does not have to connect with the school district, but the school district will have resources to serve the child, again, at no cost to the family.

Parents want what is best for their children — and for children with special needs the earlier services are provided the better for the child. Waiting and hoping a child will grow out of a problem such as a language delay or a serious behavioral issue is never a good idea. Seek help from trusted sources, the medical community, and the public schools.

Mark K. Claypool and John M. McLaughlin are CEO and Director of Research and Analytics respectively for ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education which provides services for at-risk students and students with special needs in 27 states. Their latest book is How Autism Is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA.

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