Think of all the skills that children have to learn when they come into the world: smiling, turning over, responding to people, communicating, eating solid food, crawling, standing, and on and on. We expect these skills to emerge naturally over time and know more or less when they should. At 3 months, Susana will probably be doing this, at 4 months, she’ll be doing that. By a year, well, she’ll be tottering around, getting into everything.  The time-table for skills to emerge is commonly called the developmental milestones.

What’s considered normal development is described rather broadly. That’s because we know that children don’t learn skills at the same pace. Two different children born on the same day may learn the same skill months apart, and both can be considered “on schedule.” It’s when skills don’t emerge as expected, more or less on that broad schedule, that parents and caregivers may become concerned.

Talking to Your Pediatrician

Don’t be surprised if the pediatrician tells you not to worry, to be patient, to give your child more time to develop. Often, that’s what parents hear, especially in the early stages of investigating their child’s seeming delays. And it’s often true. Children develop at different rates; the pediatrician is well aware that many children show sudden bursts in development rather than slow, steady growth.

On the other hand, your pediatrician may recommend that a developmental screening be conducted. Its purpose is to see if, yes, your child is experiencing a developmental delay. The screening is a quick, general measure of your child’s skills and development. It’s not detailed enough to make a diagnosis, but its results show whether or not a child should be referred for a more in-depth developmental evaluation.

Developmental Evaluation

The developmental evaluation should be conducted by a highly trained professional who can use the results to create a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. The evaluation needs to look at five developmental areas. Those areas are:

  • Physical development (fine motor skills, gross motor skills)
  • Cognitive development (intellectual abilities)
  • Communication development (speech and language)
  • Social or emotional development (social skills, emotional control)
  • Adaptive development (self-care skills)

The results of the developmental evaluation will be used to decide if your child needs early intervention services and/or a treatment plan. Early intervention services are tailored to meet a child’s individual needs and, as such, are a very important resource to children experiencing developmental delays. Early intervention services can include:

  • Assistive technology (devices a child might need)
  • Audiology or hearing services
  • Speech and language services
  • Counseling and training for a family
  • Medical services
  • Nursing services
  • Nutrition services
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychological services

Things to Know

  • States have an affirmative obligation to help children who are experiencing a developmental delay in one or more areas.
  • Through the Child Find system that states operate, developmental screenings and developmental evaluations are typically provided free of charge to families.
  • If you’re concerned about your child’s development, talk to your child’s pediatrician, who can refer you to the Child Find system in your area.
  • Early intervention services are meant for children under the age of three. They typically are provided to eligible families either free of charge or on a sliding payment scale that’s determined by the family’s income.

How do I Find My ECI Program | You can search for the ECI program in your area by using the ECI Program Search tool >

Special education services are meant for children over the age of three. Services are provided to eligible children free of charge through the public school system. If your child has passed his or her third birthday and you’re concerned about a developmental delay or disability, call your local school (even if your child isn’t enrolled there) and ask how and where to have your child evaluated under IDEA, our nation’s special education law.

IDEA’s Definition of Developmental Delay

IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Through IDEA, early intervention services and special education services are made available to our nation’s children. Not surprisingly, IDEA includes a definition of developmental delay, which may be useful to know. Here it is:

Child with a disability for children aged three through nine (or any subset of that age range, including ages three through five), may…include a child—

(1) Who is experiencing developmental delays as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures in one or more of the following areas: Physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development; and

(2) Who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services. [34 CFR §300.8(b)]

It may be helpful to know that, under IDEA:

  • Your state may not require that your local school district also adopt and use the term developmental delay in working with children.
  • If your local school district decides to use the term, it must use the same definition and age range as the state does.
  • Your local school district may not use the term at all if your state has chosen not to use the term.

Check out our Babies and Toddlers section for more information on Early Intervention, Writing an IFSP for your child and more.

Additional Resources

Texas Health and Human Services
Early Childhood Intervention

Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) is a statewide program within the Texas Health and Human Services Commission for families with children birth up to age 3, with developmental delays, disabilities or certain medical diagnoses that may impact development.

National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (NECTAC)

National Early Childhood Transition Center
Toll Free 866.742.4015