Here's how to identify developmental delays in your child

Nikki Stevenson
Nikki Stevenson
Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
Updated on Jun 14, 2024 · 6 mins read

We all like to think of our children as unique, amazing little humans who have their own thoughts and personalities (truth!). But when it comes to tracking their milestones, we are pedantic about making sure they are on or ahead of the curve. While the curve is there for a reason (so we can benchmark standard progress), it is important to note that children often develop at their own pace and in their own time. However, if you have a feeling (or their teacher does) that your child is not meeting their developmental milestones, especially as they prepare to enter formal school or the first few years of it – identifying developmental delays and early intervention can make a world of difference.

Understanding developmental delays

Developmental delays occur when a child doesn’t reach specific milestones within the typical timeframe for their age. These delays can affect various areas of a child’s development, such as speech and language, motor skills, cognitive abilities, or social and emotional skills. Again, it’s important to remember that children develop at different rates, and minor variations in development are normal.

Stages of child development

Understanding the previous stages of your child’s development can help provide a framework for assessing your child’s progress. While each child develops at their own pace, there are generally accepted age ranges for achieving certain milestones. The following is a brief overview of the primary developmental stages:

Infancy (0-2 years): During this stage, children experience rapid growth and development, including significant gains in motor, cognitive, and language skills.

Early Childhood (2-5 years): In early childhood, children continue to refine their motor skills, develop more complex language abilities, and begin to engage in imaginative play. This is also when they start to form friendships and understand basic social rules.

Middle Childhood (6-11 years): As children enter school, they develop more advanced cognitive and problem-solving skills and improved emotional regulation. They also grow socially and emotionally, engaging in more complex friendships and group activities.

By understanding these stages of child development, you can better recognise if your child’s progress has previously been within the typical range for their age or if they might have already started experiencing a developmental delay.

Signs of delays in 5-year-olds

As children approach school age, there are certain developmental milestones that they should typically reach. Here are some signs of delays in 5-year-olds that may indicate a need for further evaluation:

  • If your child has difficulty understanding or following simple instructions, struggles with pronunciation, or has a limited vocabulary compared to their peers, this may be a sign of a language delay.
  • Delays in motor skills can manifest as poor balance, difficulty with age-appropriate tasks such as dressing independently, or struggles with fine motor skills, like holding a pencil or using scissors.
  • Signs of cognitive delays in 5-year-olds might include difficulty recognising colours, shapes, or numbers or struggling with basic problem-solving tasks.
  • Social and emotional delays may present as your child having trouble making friends, understanding and expressing emotions or engaging in age-appropriate play.
  •  If your child has difficulty with self-care tasks, like using the toilet independently or washing their hands, this may indicate a developmental delay.

Remember that the presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean your child has a developmental delay. But it is a good indication that a visit to a doctor or specialist to voice your concerns may be in order.

Developmental delays in 6 to 8-year-olds

As children progress into middle childhood, the focus shifts to more advanced cognitive, motor, and social skills. For 6 to 8-year-olds, developmental delays may present differently than in younger children. Here are some potential signs of delays in this age group:

  • Children who experience difficulty with reading, writing, or math that cannot be attributed to a lack of exposure may be showing signs of a developmental delay.
  • If your child struggles to form and maintain friendships, has difficulty understanding social cues, or frequently experiences conflicts with other children, this may indicate a delay in social development.
  • Children in this age group should be able to manage their emotions more effectively. If your child has difficulty controlling their emotions or seems overly anxious or withdrawn, it might be a sign of an emotional development delay.
  • At this stage, children should be developing basic organisational and planning skills. If your child struggles to complete tasks independently, remember instructions, or manage their belongings, this could indicate a delay in executive functioning.

Different diagnosis possibilities

While this article can’t act as a diagnostic tool, there is medical research we can draw from to explain different diagnosis possibilities when it comes to developmental delays in 5 to 8-year-olds. A medical professional will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to give an accurate diagnosis.

Learning disabilities: These can manifest as difficulties with reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), or math (dyscalculia).

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD may struggle with attention, impulse control, or hyperactivity, impacting their academic and social development.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): ASD is a developmental disorder characterised by challenges in social interaction, communication, and restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests.

Speech and language disorders: Children may be diagnosed with expressive language disorder, receptive language disorder, or a combination of both. They may also have articulation, fluency, or voice disorders that impact their communication ability.

Sensory processing disorder: This condition affects how the brain processes sensory information, leading to challenges in motor skills, attention, and emotional regulation.

Intellectual disability: Children with an intellectual disability may have difficulties with cognitive, adaptive, and social skills, which can impact various aspects of their development.

Developmental coordination disorder: This disorder affects a child’s motor skills, making it challenging to perform age-appropriate tasks requiring coordination and balance.

Social communication disorder: Children with social communication disorder have difficulties with social interactions and nonverbal communication, but their challenges do not meet the criteria for ASD.

What to do if you suspect a developmental delay

If you believe your child may have a developmental delay, start to keep track of their developmental milestones and any areas where they seem to be struggling. This information will be helpful when speaking with professionals. Reach out to your child’s paediatrician or a child development specialist to discuss your concerns. They can help determine if further evaluation is necessary and guide you in the right direction.

Early intervention services can provide targeted support to help your child catch up to their peers if a delay is identified. These services may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, or specialised educational programs.

You are the best advocate for your child, and staying actively involved in their development is best. Attend therapy sessions, communicate with their teachers, and practice skills at home to reinforce their learning. Most importantly, carry on providing a loving, supportive environment for your child to grow and learn.

And just like you are already doing now (well done!), educate yourself about your child’s specific needs and the resources available to you. Stay up-to-date with new developments in research and interventions that could benefit your child. There are plenty of support groups for you to connect with other parents facing similar challenges. They really offer valuable advice, resources, and emotional support for you and your family.

Remember that each child is unique, and variations in development are expected. Be sensitive to your child’s individual needs and progress, and celebrate their achievements along the way. Together, you can navigate the journey of child development and ensure your child has the opportunity to thrive.

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