Wouldn't you want to know that your young child is healthy, growing well and showing no signs of any problems that could interfere with her physical, mental, emotional, communicative and social development?
At the same time, wouldn't you want to know right away whether her moving, behaving, reasoning or communicating is delayed or abnormal? And in that case, wouldn't you want to know what the delay means, how it happened and what you can do about it?
Getting the answers to these kinds of questions is so important that all children should be screened to reassure parents or identify potential challenges early enough to get the right help.
Since health affects behavior, concerns raised by developmental screening may be the earliest indication of a serious medical condition. And even when there are no health issues, developmental challenges can wreak havoc with a child's well-being.
Developmental delays and disabilities occur in children from every economic and cultural background. Without screening, children often go undiagnosed until they begin elementary school. By then, they're at great disadvantage academically, socially and emotionally.
Yet less than half of the pediatricians in the United States routinely perform standard developmental screening in their practices.
A child's development proceeds in a predictable sequence. Babies support their heads, roll over and begin to crawl. Then as toddlers, they stand up and walk. Then as preschoolers, they hop, skip and jump. As pre-teens and teens, they run and throw, join teams and hoist up trophies.
Children suck before they coo before they babble, then speak their native tongue, learn a foreign language — or text their friends in code. The same is true when it comes to the orderly progress children make in developing their fine motor skills, their ability to reason and solve problems, their way of processing and expressing their feelings and their capacity to relate sympathy, empathy, generosity and friendship.
Because we can anticipate and observe skills as they emerge, we can measure the timing, consistency and quality of every child's course of development.
A veritable industry helps pediatricians, teachers and parents apply the science of child development to screening tools. Some examine general abilities across multiple domains of behavior, thinking, communicating and relating. Others focus on one line of functioning, for example, hearing, use of language or social skills.
All of them are meant to discover challenges early on when children's brains and potentials are most able to respond to support.
The most widely used developmental screening instruments are very sensitive in their ability to catch children who have potential problems. They are also very specific, so children aren't labeled with concerns when none exist.
If a problem is found, the clinician who administered the test makes a referral to a developmental specialist who conducts a thorough assessment. From there, the appropriate help can be found.
If you're a parent and you suspect your child has any kind of a challenge, insist on an evaluation. In my experience, parents' instincts are usually right and should always be honored.
In Hillsborough County, the Early Childhood Developmental Screening Program provides free screening for delays or problems with speech and language development, motor skills, vision, hearing, cognition and behavior to any child from birth to age 5.
The program has screened nearly 20,000 children in the past 25 years. About three-quarters of the children screened need further evaluation — a high incidence that shows how astute parents are about bringing in their children when they think there's a delay or disability.
So ask your pediatrician to perform a standardized screening of your child's development. It is within our means to enable every individual to reach and tap his or her potential.
Peter A. Gorski, M.D., M.P.A. is the director of research and innovation at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County and professor of pediatrics, public health and psychiatry at the University of South Florida.