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Observing Your Child's Development



A child's early years are extremely important for his or her future health and development. It is for this reason that so much attention is paid to how a child is progressing toward their developmental milestones.

There are different ways to observe and track a child's development, beginning with frequent, informal observations made by a parent or caregiver. These informal checks (or monitoring) should be supported by less frequent, more thorough checks, such as a developmental screening. If for some reason any of these checks result in a concern for the child's development, a more formal evaluation or assessment may be recommended.

To find out more about each of these developmental checks, click on the menu bars below.

Developmental Monitoring and Observations

Developmental monitoring refers to the informal ways that a child's growth and development are checked to make sure they are progressing and meeting their developmental milestones. These frequent, ongoing checks can be done by parents, grandparents, early childhood providers, and other caregivers. They are usually the day-to-day observations that let you know if the child is playing, learning, speaking, behaving, and moving in ways that are appropriate for their age. Developmental monitoring is also done by your doctor during your child's well visits. This, too, is done informally, through asking questions or talking and playing with your child during the visit. 

All of these simple checks come together to build a picture of your child's development. Most of the time, your child's development will remain on course and they will meet their age-specific milestones. But what if you notice your child struggling with a new skill or if you feel like something just isn't right with how they are progressing? If this is the case, it's important to notify your doctor or early childhood educator as soon as you have the concern. The next step will most likely be to take a closer look at your child's overall development.


Developmental Screening

A developmental screening takes a closer look at how your child is developing. It often consists of a short test or parent questionnaire that gathers information about the skills that your child is learning, as well as those skills or milestones that they may be struggling with or missing. The main purpose of a developmental screening is to make sure a child's development is on track, and if it's not, to discuss the concerns and make a referral to the appropriate agency for follow-up.

Research has shown that identifying and intervening as early as possible when a developmental delay is suspected, can have a significant impact on the child's development. It is for this reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that developmental and behavioral screenings be done when the child is 9 months, 18 months, and 24 or 30 months of age. 

Effective screening requires the active participation of both the provider and the parent. In order for parents to feel a part of the screening process, it's important that providers take the time to:

  • Explain what a screening is and why it is being done
  • Review the purpose and overall goals of the screening
  • Openly discuss the results of the screening with the family and make recommendations to continue to support the child's development, for example, suggesting activities or resources, or making a referral, if necessary, to address possible concerns
  • Answer questions, give information, and define any terms that may be difficult to understand, such as "developmental delay," "disability," "evaluation," etc.


Developmental Assessment and the Referral Process

If a child's developmental screening shows that their skills are below those of their typically developing peers, a more comprehensive assessment of the child's development may be recommended. Unlike a screening, a standardized assessment is a more in-depth, time-intensive look at the child's skills, with the main purpose being to see if the child meets criteria to qualify for special education services. 

If you are concerned about a child's development and would like to talk to someone about making a referral for a more comprehensive assessment, please contact the following depending on the age of the child:

If it is determined that a standardized assessment is necessary, a referral will be made to an early childhood specialist in the Department of Health Services (for children ages birth to 3 years) or Department of Public Instruction (for children ages 3 to 21 years). The following sections provide additional information about special education and the services available to children within different age ranges.

For Children from Birth to Age 3

Each county in Wisconsin has a Birth to 3 Program that provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers who qualify for special education services. If a child qualifies for early intervention services, the special education team, including the family, will develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).  

The development of the IFSP is based around the idea that by supporting a child's family, you are in turn supporting the child. For this reason, the plan of services developed by the early interventionist will naturally center around responding to a set of goals that are important to the family (e.g., having the child learn sign language, finding respite care for the family, finding activities that the family can attend in the community, etc.).  

The IFSP also contains specific information about the types of services that will be provided, where they will be provided and by whom. It's important to keep in mind that the services that are provided should take place in the child's natural environment, which means they could be delivered in the child's home, in the community, in an early childhood program. For more information about assessments and special education services for children birth to age 3, please use the following link:

Wisconsin's Department of Health Services - Birth to 3 Program

For Children Ages 3 through 21

Each public school district has a special education department in charge of providing special education and related services to any child age 3 to 21 that qualifies for services. Similar to the Birth to 3 system, if a child qualifies for special education services, a team of people that includes the child's parents, the early childhood special education teacher, the regular education teacher, specialists, etc. will develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

An IEP is similar to an IFSP in that it is a plan that contains goals to address the child's special needs, as well as a list of services (e.g., special education, occupational therapy, speech therapy, etc.) that will be provided to help them meet those goals. The main difference between an IEP and an IFSP, is that the IEP has less of a family focus, instead concentrating on supporting the child within an educational setting or program. 

We know that children under the age of 6 don't always attend an early childhood program within a school building, and therefore it is recommended that services be delivered in the setting that the child spends the majority of their day (referred to as the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)). This setting could be in a preschool, a 4K program, or a child care program. It's important that the special education team, which includes the family, works together and discusses the different options available for service delivery. A final note, even though a child care provider is not a required member of the special education team, the family does have the right to choose who they would like to bring or have attend the meeting. This is something that a child care provider should discuss with the family.

For more information about assessments and special education services for children ages 3 to 21 years, please use the following link:

Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction - Early Childhood Special Education



If you have questions or concerns about a child's development (physical, social-emotional, or cognitive), contact: Well Badger Resource Center (formerly First Step Wisconsin) at 1-800-642-7837.  Information about Early Identification/Screening, Child Find and other early childhood topics can be found at the Collaborating Partners website.