Understanding early childhood developmental assessments

Assessment teams use a variety of strategies to gain an understanding of a young child’s developmental status.

A comprehensive developmental assessment provides a sense of where a child is on a developmental continuum. Photo credit: Pixabay.

A comprehensive developmental assessment provides a sense of where a child is on a developmental continuum. Photo credit: Pixabay.

When family members, early childhood professionals or pediatricians notice atypical development in a young child a developmental assessment is often conducted to identify the area(s) of delay, if any. According to Michigan State University Extension, this assessment is usually done by a team of family members and early assessment professionals. In Michigan, children birth to 3-years-old are assessed by teams from local early on agency and children 3-years-old to school age are assessed by staff from the local school district.

Parents and early childhood developmental experts form a partnership to complete the developmental assessment. Regardless of which assessment tool is used, usually it is a multi-part assessment. One part consists of medical information about the child from the child’s physician (including a hearing and vision screening). Another part is a comprehensive interview with family members about the family activities and routines. And, the third part is an observation of the child using a set of specialized items and equipment and responding to verbal cues.

In most cases, the developmental team will, with parental permission, ask the family’s pediatrician to provide a description of child’s physical health history. This document is kept in the child’s file at the agency which is available to the family at any time. A copy is also provided to the family when the assessment is completed.

Another part of the assessment involves an interview with the parents (and other family members if requested). Items on the interview include information about who the child usually spends time with, typical family activities and details of daily routines such as sleeping, eating, diapering/toileting, play, outdoor time and so on. The family is asked about any needs they may experience and are provided with resources upon request. Again, all information shared is part of the child’s file; a copy is given to the family and all information is confidential. Families must give approval if they wish to share information with any other agencies, organizations or individuals.

The comprehensive developmental assessment examines several domains of development. This usually includes physical development, cognitive or intellectual development, social development, emotional development, and language development. The observation section of the assessment may be completed by an early childhood developmental specialist, a physical, occupational or language therapist, a social worker or family therapist, and at least one parent. Whatever the make-up of the professionals on the team, a parent or other family is always included on the assessment team.

For young children, who cannot understand or respond to the items on the assessment, obviously the parents’ input and observations are a critical element. The team will observe the child at play in the child’s most natural or least restrictive environment. Many times, this is the home but developmental evaluations can also take place in an early childhood center or program with the child’s primary caregiver providing critical input. The point is to help the child feel as secure and comfortable as possible so they act as she/he normally does. The atmosphere is relaxed and children are not pressured to perform.

During the observation section the team shares typical toys and equipment with the child to see how they use these items. Things like small balls, a Cheerio, a truck, a doll and cups are some of the toys in the assessment tool kit. The team watches the child closely to see how they handle the materials, how they explore the cup or how they pick up the Cheerio. The way the child manipulates the items informs the team as to the child’s physical, cognitive and emotional development. Further, team members may try to elicit certain behaviors from the child involving the items. A team member might encourage a child to put a small item in a bottle and dump it out, repeat a word or name an object. When a behavior is observed directly and repeated during the assessment, it is recorded as a “behavior that is present and observed” skill that the child has achieved.

Sometimes the child shows no interest in the task during the assessment but the parent tells the team that the child has done it in the past. If the parent has seen the child use the skill repeated, then the skill is “behavior that is reported to be present” as by parent report. If the skill has been observed by the parent a few times, it is an “emerging” skill. If the parent reports that a skill has never been seen or very rarely seen, that skill is considered “not yet developed”. In this manner, the child’s typical behavior and skills are recorded throughout all the domains of development on the assessment document. Usually, a report is generated from this document and included in the child’s file.

Let us say right now, emphatically, that it is not the purpose of a comprehensive developmental assessment to “grade” the child as “passing” or “failing” a test. What is most useful is a sense of what skills the child has and where the child is on a developmental continuum. Most developmental assessments are normative assessments. That is, the child’s behavior is compared to a large number of other children’s behaviors to see what is typical for that particular age group. It gives the team a general idea of skill development and points out if there is a need for further testing.

Finally, please note that this description of a developmental assessment for young children is intended to be a general overview. Of course, families should inquire as to the specific type of assessment that is offered or suggested by the professionals on the assessment team and what the assessment procedure will be before they agree to the assessment. MSU Extension urges parents to participate in the assessment as fully as possible so that the child’s behaviors and skills are as authentic and normal as possible.