Developmental Screening - Critical for Every Child

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR

Developmental screening is designed to identify problems or delays during normal childhood development. When properly applied, screening tests for developmental or behavioral problems in preschool children allow improved outcomes due to early implementation of treatment.

Developmental delays or behavioral problems that can be identified by screening programs include learning disabilities, speech or language problems, autism, intellectual disability, emotional/behavioral conditions, hearing or vision impairment, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Less than half of these problems are identified before the child reaches school age, meaning that the problems may have worsened and critical intervention opportunities have been missed during the preschool years. Studies have shown that children who receive early intervention and treatment for developmental disorders are more likely to graduate from high school, to hold jobs as adults, and are less likely to commit criminal acts than those who do not receive early intervention.

Developmental screening of infants and toddlers along with the provision of treatments and services for those with developmental delays is required by U.S. law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the U.S. is a law that guarantees intervention ensuring services to children with disabilities. IDEA determines how individual states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million children in the country.

Developmental screenings are done by physicians or other health care professionals in clinics and doctors' offices, community health departments, or schools. Professionals use a variety of tests and checklists to determine if a child is developing normally. These tools are designed to identify potential problems and do not establish a diagnosis of any particular disorder. One example of a commonly-used screening tool for children aged 0 to 6 years old is the Denver Developmental Screening Test (DDST). Many of the tests evaluate so-called "developmental milestones," or steps in development that a child should reach by a given age (for example, a seven-month old should respond to his/her name and be able to transfer objects from hand to hand). A list of accepted developmental milestones is provided online by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Screening of children involves examination of all aspects of development, including social/emotional behavior, vision and hearing, motor skills and coordination, cognitive abilities, and language and speech. Since early detection and treatment can be critical for a child's prognosis, all children should undergo developmental screening at every well-child checkup. It is important to remember that children develop at different rates, and a normal child may develop faster than average in one area and slower in another. Your pediatrician can explain more about developmental screening tests if you have any concerns about your child's behavior or development.

See the following articles for more information about developmental milestones at different ages.

  • Infants: Child Development (0 to 1 Year Old)
  • Toddlers: Child Development (1 to 3 Years Old)
  • Preschoolers: Child Development (3 to 5 Years Old)
  • Young Children: Child Development (6 to 8 Years Old)

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Facts About Child Development." Dvision of Human Development and Disabilities, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. 12 Sept. 2011. <>.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "What Are Developmental Disabilities?" Dvision of Human Development and Disabilities, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. 29 Dec. 2011. <>.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Developmental Milestones." Dvision of Human Development and Disabilities, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. 1 Sept. 2011. <>.