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Giving children the best possible start

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Children naturally develop at different rates but missed milestones can be an early sign of problems. Dr Samantha Johnson and her team are fine-tuning a questionnaire, which aims to make it easier to spot developmental delay and learning difficulties so children can get help sooner.

Parents know their children best and will often notice if their little one doesn’t reach a developmental milestone as expected. Their child may seem late to walk or talk. Or they might notice differences in the way they play, learn, speak, act or move. But since all children develop differently, it can be hard for parents to know if professional help is needed.

Dr Samantha Johnson, a psychologist and expert in child development from the University of Leicester, aims to help. “What happens in early childhood can affect a child’s health and wellbeing throughout their whole life,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to check children’s early development to identify those who need support.”

Questionnaires completed by parents are often used to spot children who might need extra help. With Action funding, new research will see an existing questionnaire, currently used to identify problems in children who were born prematurely, adapted to make it suitable for use with all young children.

The research team are using information from more than 6,000 questionnaires, completed on children born at full term, to create new standardised scores. These children did not have any birth-related complications that are known to affect development. So this will show what sort of scores young children, aged around two, typically get and allow health professionals and researchers to identify whether a child’s development is delayed relative to this.

The questionnaire takes just 10 to 15 minutes for parents to complete and less than 10 minutes to score. And it will be made available free of charge online, so health professionals and researchers worldwide can use it with parents of all young children.

Dr Johnson says: “It will provide a quick, inexpensive and easy way to assess children’s development early and identify those who may need support.

“We hope this will ensure that those with developmental problems – even just mild difficulties – can receive timely intervention, at a critical point in their development, with the aim of reducing the lifelong impact of those difficulties and giving children the best possible start in life.”