Early Detection of Developmental Delays Could Help Close the Achievement Gap

“I depended on my doctor to tell me if my baby was OK or not.”


Over more than a decade as an early childhood professional, I have heard these words time and time again from many parents and caregivers.


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that as many as one-quarter of all children ages 5 and under are at risk for a developmental delay or disability, because they are not formally diagnosed. Early detection allows parents, caregivers and educators a chance to intervene with more effective and less expensive treatment during the preschool years, rather than costly special education services later, in grade school.


While the majority of pediatricians are committed to delivering high-quality care to their patients, they face systemic obstacles to detecting developmental problems in their youngest patients. Here are just a few:


  • Medical students receive little training in how to conduct in-depth developmental screenings.


  • Doctors spend an average of 10-12 minutes with young patients and their families during a pediatric visit.


  • Doctors are often unaware of the early intervention services available to families and don’t know how to connect them to those services.


To better understand what these problems mean for children in the long term, I did some research. Here’s what I found: these issues are a key factor in the educational achievement gaps among school-age children. You see, nationally, children living in poverty are more than twice as likely to be at high risk for developmental delays, compared to their peers living in higher-income households.

When children living in poverty are not  receiving screenings earlier in life, the achievement gap begins. The gap is the difference in academic performance between children with limited access to resources and those children from more advantaged backgrounds. Lack of developmental screenings for very young children is also a racial equity issue. According to the National Survey for Children’s Health, Black and Latinx children were more than twice as likely as White children to have high risk for developmental delays.

It is critical that we give children the supports they need in their first three years of life, because their brains develop at a very fast pace. Efforts to address the problem after children enter kindergarten—like tutoring, ESL classes, out-of-school time programs—are often too little, too late. There is no catch-up time built into the school calendar for children who enter the public school system behind, and the achievement gap widens as they move through the grades.

The challenge is clear. Developmental delays are under-detected. Despite the acknowledged importance of screening for delays and monitoring children’s progress, this is not standard pediatric practice.

If we are serious about giving every child the best possible start in life and closing the achievement gap, then we must change our current pediatric practices. Doctors must make developmental screenings routine, and they need information and training to help families access needed follow-up services when delays are found.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash



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FaKelia Guyton

FaKelia Guyton is the director of DuPage County's Early Childhood Collaboration. She began her career as a Head Start teacher. Her journey has taken her through training early childhood teachers, administration and program management and now providing leadership in building systems and shaping policy. She was named a 2017 Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellow.

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