Identifying what is developmentally normal for young children — and what is not — can lead to earlier interventions and better outcomes. Two University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers are addressing this need in the world’s fifth-largest country.
Leslie Hawley and Natalie Koziol, methodologists at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools, are creating a screening tool to detect developmental delays in Brazilian children. They are working with Denise Ruschel Bandeira, a professor at Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.
“Right now in Brazil, there are no formal means of identifying kids with developmental delays,” said Hawley, a research assistant professor. “By creating a standard screening tool, we want to contribute to child development studies in Brazil and guide policy and economic decisions related to early childhood development, health, education and social assistance.”
To develop the tool, Brazilian researchers are surveying mothers of 1,400 children birth to age six. Participants include children with and without a formal diagnosis of developmental delays from varying geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Researchers are gathering information about children’s cognitive and motor skills, communication and language, social-emotional development and adaptive behavior. The team is then segmenting that information into various age groups, for example, four to six months and seven to nine months —a process that will help them create developmental thresholds.
These thresholds, in turn, will help pediatricians determine if children are developing normally and whether they may need further tests or additional services.
“It’s a big endeavor to measure development across age groups and also pinpoint those children who are struggling,” said Koziol, a postdoctoral scholar. “We have to be careful on both ends of the spectrum. We don’t want to miss anyone who needs help, but at the same time, unnecessarily flagging someone as developmentally delayed could cause undue stress.”
Hawley and Koziol are supporting the project’s methodology by refining the screening tool and ensuring it measures what the team wants it to. They are also providing expertise on developmental practices used in the United States — ideas Brazilian researchers can adapt.
The benefits are reciprocal, Hawley said.
“We learn from each other,” Hawley said. “This kind of work helps us think through sampling and validity issues. We’re going back and forth to ensure that, together, this instrument is methodologically as good as it can be.”
Hawley and Koziol’s research is part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln/Brazil Early Childhood Initiative. Launched in 2016 in São Paulo, the initiative fosters collaboration around priority areas in early childhood.