Easier than you'd think

Wondering about your child’s development is an everyday part of parenting. 

Is your daughter talking as much as other children her age? Is your son walking or moving around like his friends?

It’s common for parents to compare their children to others. But it can be difficult to understand what might be a developmental concern and what might be perfectly normal.

Children develop in different ways and at their own pace, of course. However, there are certain touch points — called developmental milestones — that are particularly important in a child’s first few years of life. 

Developmental milestones are based on years of observation and research into four main areas and can help parents understand what’s typical at different ages, and when there might be a concern: 

  • Physical or motor development (rolling over, crawling, walking, running, jumping);
  • Communication and language development (babbling, talking, understanding language and non-verbal messages);
  • Social and emotional development (relating to others, playing together, sharing, solving conflicts);
  • Cognitive development (thinking and problem solving).

Red flags

Developmental milestones can also help parents determine when to seek help and support.  

Accessing intervention services as early as possible — during infancy, toddlerhood and the preschool years — can help ensure the best developmental outcomes for a child. 

Parents, however, are often reluctant to seek out services. 

This can be because of tough emotions surrounding a child’s challenges (such as denial, stigma, guilt, fear); because a doctor has encouraged a wait-and-see approach; or because of concerns about costs for care. 

However, if your child shows any of the following signs, it’s important to take immediate action, including talking to your child’s doctor and seeking services to help your child:

  • No babbling, pointing or other gestures by 12 months
  • No single words by 16 months
  • No two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Any loss of skills at any age
  • Delays in meeting developmental milestones (such as not walking by 18 months)
  • Hard to understand speech (relative to the child’s age or compared to other children of the same age)
  • Vision or hearing problems.

What you can do

In Minnesota, it’s easy to access early intervention services, thanks to Help Me Grow MN, a statewide milestones-education initiative that also connects parents to special services. 

Doctors and other care providers can refer children to Help Me Grow MN, but parents can also self-refer their children at helpmegrowmn.org or by calling 866-693-4769.

Referrals are sent to the child’s local school district, even though most children who are referred aren’t yet attending school. 

When the school district receives a referral, an early childhood specialist calls the child’s parents to discuss their concerns about the child’s development. 

This discussion helps determine next steps, which may include a screening or evaluation. 

This call will usually happen within one to two weeks of the referral. (The initial contact may be delayed if the child is older than 3 and the referral is received during the school’s summer break.)

School staff may decide to first conduct a screening to help determine if a child should be evaluated for eligibility. A screening isn’t an evaluation and doesn’t establish eligibility. 

Screenings and evaluations are provided at no cost. 

Children who are deemed to be developmentally eligible for services receive them for free in their home, child-care setting or preschool. Eligible children receive these free services regardless of the family’s immigration status.

Services and supports

After a child has been found eligible, a service-planning team will decide which services and supports are needed for the child and family. This team includes specialists in many areas of early childhood development, including education, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and more. 

Parents may be offered strategies on how to support their child’s development at home. 

Decades of rigorous research show that children’s earliest experiences play a critical role in brain development. 

High-quality intervention services can change a child’s developmental path. 

In fact, some children catch up to the same developmental levels as other children their age. Families benefit by being able to better meet their child’s needs from an early age.


Early intervention success stories! 

Many parents who have reached out to Help Me Grow MN — a statewide milestones-education initiative that also connects parents to special services — have said seeking help was an important step meeting their kids’ developmental needs. 


Vivian

Jill Elfering of Richfield said her daughter, Vivian, made major strides because of early intervention. 

When Vivian was 2, Elfering worried that she was behind in speech — and maybe even social skills. 

Elfering had been completing the Ages & Stages Questionnaires — offered by the Minnesota Department of Health’s Follow Along Program — since Vivian was a baby. 

With that outside evidence supporting her concerns, it became that clear intervention was needed. 

Vivian soon began receiving services at home. When she turned 3 — and could start preschool — she became eligible for classroom services.

Elfering found getting help was easier than she thought it would be.

“The local early childhood program even worked with us around Vivian’s other preschool schedule, including providing busing from her preschool to her service school, and then home,” Elfering said. “They even visited her preschool to observe her and talk with her teachers there to include them.”

The other thing that surprised Elfering was the individualized instruction her daughter received. “I felt they really looked at her and evaluated her needs and met those needs perfectly,” she said.

Elfering’s advice to other parents is to let go of negative connotations about special education. 

“In our case, our daughter didn’t have any learning or physical delays. She just needed to work harder and get more practice in a few areas,” she said. “Now she is absolutely thriving, and you would never know she had speech and social delays as a toddler and preschooler.”

Vivian sang by herself in front of her entire school — 300 students — as a kindergartner, Elfering said. 

“I owe it all to early intervention,” she said. “My advice is to put any pride you have aside for the sake of your children, and listen if someone mentions they have concerns about your child. It’s not necessarily because of something you did or didn’t do as their parent. We need to give our children every possible chance to succeed.”

Working with early intervention services on her speech and social skills, Vivian later “graduated” from services at her 5-year evaluation.

 


Shalini Manivasager (above) of Inver Grove Heights holds her preemie dress, showing how much she’s grown since she was born, weighing 1 pound, 3.5 ounces (below).

Shalini 

Jessica Manivasager of Inver Grove Heights sought help through Help Me Grow MN for her daughter, Shalini, who was born prematurely at 26 weeks. 

“Our child was our first, and we didn’t have any background in child rearing,” Manivasager said. 

“After she came home from the hospital, we wanted to make sure that she had the best possible chance to ‘catch up’ to her actual age, developmentally.”

Manivasager, who also received advice on her daughter’s sleeping and feeding challenges, quickly became comfortable with the services staff. 

And her daughter couldn’t wait for the weekly home visits by the service provider, Connie, who always brought along special toys.

Manivasager was most surprised by how easy the services were to access. 

“I think a lot of people are wary to participate because they don’t know if there’s going to be a cost. Inquiries are free and services are free to your child as well,” she said. “Most of our experience was through one school district, and they were phenomenally organized — always came to appointments on time, followed-up on all concerns expressed at prior appointments, and were polite and professional. And, they come to our home, versus having to go to a hospital, school or center — so much easier to access than most services for children.”


Lucy

Tina Timm of Baxter said her daughter, Lucy, didn’t walk or talk as early as her peers did. 

Though the doctor said everything was probably fine, Timm was concerned and decided to pursue an evaluation through Help Me Grow MN, which revealed that her daughter qualified for help.

In fact, Lucy received weekly visits from an early childhood education teacher as well as regular physical therapy sessions.

“Everyone kept saying to give her time — and it’ll work out,” Timm said. “We learned so much about what we can do to help. Before long, she was walking, then signing and then having words. We also worked our way through some extreme behaviors. She was head banging, pulling out her own hair, hitting herself.”

Today those troubling behaviors are virtually gone. 

Timm’s advice?

“Don’t be ashamed or scared to call,” she said. “This helps everyone in the family.” 

Of parents considering referring their kids to Help Me Grow MN, Timm said: “They have potentially everything to gain and nothing to lose.”


Jayanthi 

Makayla Wijeratne of St. Cloud sought help for her daughter, Jayanthi, who showed a need to improve her motor skills when she was a toddler. 

Jayanthi, after receiving an evaluation, was able to receive weekly services until she was 3 years old, thanks to Help Me Grow MN. 

“Those services benefited her in so many ways, but the greatest was the amazing improvement she had in her fine and gross motor skills,” Wijeratne said. “When she was first screened, she never even scored in those two categories. When she was 3 years old, she scored so high that she no longer qualified.”

Jayanthi is now in third grade and participates in dance, swimming and piano lessons. 


Marty Smith is project coordinator with Help Me Grow MN as part of the Region 11 Interagency Early Intervention Committee.