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Early Identification: Normal and Atypical Development

By: National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)

Normal development

Girl playing with cups

Children gather information from people, things, and events in their environment. They organize this information in their minds, and code it in ways that keep it usable and easily understood. They match the information with what they've learned before, noticing similarities and differences, and store the information for future use. Once this process is complete, children behave in ways that suggest that learning has taken place.

Children's development usually follows a known and predictable course. The acquisition of certain skills and abilities is often used to gauge children's development. These skills and abilities are known as developmental milestones. Such things as crawling, walking, saying single words, putting words together into phrases and sentences, and following directions are examples of these predictable achievements. Although not all children reach each milestone at the same time, there is an expected time-frame for reaching these developmental markers.

The following points are important to understanding the nature and course of children's development.

The course of children's development is mapped using a chart of developmental milestones

These milestones are behaviors that emerge over time, forming the building blocks for growth and continued learning. Some of the categories within which these behaviors are seen include:

Some children may be very advanced in their use of oral language while others may first be discovering the power of spoken words. Some children may be advance in motor skills while others are reluctant to use play equipment or engage in building activities or crafts projects.

Patterns of growth within different children can also vary

Children who show strength in one area of development might be slower to develop skills in another. For example, a child who has wonderful ability to understand spoken language might struggle with verbal expression.

Culture and environment contribute to the ways children behave

The course of development can be greatly influenced by cultural and environmental factors. Behaviors that are acceptable in one environment may be inappropriate, even strange, in another. It is important to remember that differences in behavior do not always reflect differences in development.

Behavior Possible variations due to cultural/environmental influences
Making eye contact Limited eye contact may show respect; maintaining eye contact may be an inappropriate way for children to interact with adults
Speaking to adults Responding only when spoken to first; answering questions with formal titles (sir, ma'am)
Taking initiative Waiting for adult direction; making sure to ask permission before starting an activity

Exposure to a foreign language can influence the way children learn and interact

Children who do not have a working knowledge of the primary language used in their classroom may not be able to express their needs or fully participate in classroom activities. Teachers can provide these children with opportunities for successful communication and participation while learning a new language. They can:

  • explain concepts using models or multi-sensory materials
  • facilitate vocabulary growth using pictures accompanied by verbal cues
  • provide opportunities for children to demonstrate understanding through non-verbal play
  • find alternate ways to help children communicate and participate until language foundations are secure

Atypical development

Children playing with blocks

Some children exhibit behaviors that fall outside of the normal, or expected, range of development. These behaviors emerge in a way or at a pace that is different from their peers.

Some important thoughts about atypical development are listed below:

Some children show patterns of behaviors that are unusual or are markedly different from their peers

Great care should be given to determining whether patterns of behavior are reflections of children's personality, or whether they exemplify areas of weakness and concern. Teachers and parents should note the:

  • time at which skills emerge
  • sequence within which skills emerge
  • quality of skill level and how it contributes to children's functioning

Atypical behaviors should be noted and carefully recorded. They may be isolated events that have little or no impact on later development. They might, however, be early warning signs of later and more significant problems. Patterns of atypical behavior can be useful in confirming areas of need. Teachers and parents should note the:

  • dates and times of occurrence
  • duration and frequency of behavior
  • type of activity: language, fine motor
  • settings and activities
  • interactions with peers and other influences

There is a world of difference between a skill that is delayed and one that is disordered

Great care should be taken to distinguish between skills that are slow in emerging and those that are different in quality, form, and function.

Every Child is Learning

Every Child Is Learning by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Helps parents, teachers, and early care providers recognize early warning signs for language and learning disabilities.

To order: National Center for Learning Disabilities 381 Park Avenue South, Suite 1401, New York, NY 10016, (212) 545-7510, $89.95 Toll-free Information and Referral: 1-888-575-7373

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Adapted from National Center for Learning Disabilities Every Child is Learning: A Training Program for Parents and Teachers