From: Reuters
Published December 26, 2007 11:46 AM

Screening toddlers' language cuts special ed needs

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Screening toddlers for problems in their language development may help reduce their need for special education once they start school, a new study suggests.

Researchers in the Netherlands found that a program to screen toddlers' language skills reduced the children's need for special education later on, and seemed to cut their risk of having difficulty with spelling and verbal skills.

Reporting in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers say their findings argue for widespread screening of young children's language development.

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It might seem logical that catching children's language delays early would be beneficial, but this is the first study to show this is the case, noted lead researcher Heleen M. E. van Agt of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

It can't be assumed that early screening is a good thing, she told Reuters Health. For example, children's initial language delays often resolve "spontaneously" and do not require therapy; screening can also detect language problems where none exist at all, creating "false alarms," van Agt explained.

But in this study, she said, "the health gain of the screening turned out to be large. Children who were early screened had better language skills at school, and the percentage of children attending a special school was reduced by 30 percent as compared to unscreened children."

The study included 9,419 children who were 15 months old at the outset. The researchers randomly assigned the children to either have their language development screened twice -- first between the ages of 15 and 18 months, then again at age 2 -- or have their development monitored in the typical manner, during routine doctor visits.

The screening assessed how well the children could understand simple words and sentences, how well they could express what they needed, and how many words they knew for things like animals, food and toys.

Children who scored relatively poorly were referred for further testing by a speech and hearing specialist and, if necessary, received language-skills therapy.

By the age of 8, van Agt's team found, 2.7 percent of children in the screening group had been placed in a special-education school, versus 3.7 percent of those in the comparison group. In addition, children who'd been screened were one-third less likely than their peers to have problems with spelling, and tended to have less difficulty with speaking skills as well.

"Given the evidence, I think language screening should be an important addition to the routine monitoring of the development of young children," van Agt said.

It would be helpful, she noted, to gain additional evidence from similar studies in other countries.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, December 2007.

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