Pinal County parents can sign up to have personnel from the UA Cooperative Extension screen their child for free by calling 520-836-5221.
Ninety percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 5, which is why it is so important to monitor the progress of infants, babies and toddlers as they grow.
Are they hearing well? Do they see clearly? Are they developing fine motor skills and speech on pace with their peers?
Parents in Pinal County are learning the answers to these formative questions about their children — and finding out what to do if help is needed — through an early childhood health program led by University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, which is part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Over the last four years, more than 10,000 children in Pinal County have been screened for vision, hearing and developmental indicators through the program. More than 1,100 of those children — up to 5 1/2 years of age — were referred for diagnosis and treatment, which is on par with national averages.
"Parents are a child's first and best teacher," said Cathy Martinez, a UA Cooperative Extension associate agent.
"A lot of times, parents see kids as adults in miniature, but just because they are able to walk and talk does not mean they are fully developed," Martinez said. "They come with a different set of capabilities. We are helping parents understand what's typical in terms of development, and giving them games and activities to play that help in that process."
The program is funded by Arizona's First Things First, a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help children be successful once they enter kindergarten.
The program includes hearing and vision screenings that can be completed in about five minutes in public settings such as day-care centers, libraries, schools and community events. Cooperative Extension also offers individual developmental screenings with parent and child that can take from 20 to 45 minutes, often in the family home.
Hearing checks, in particular, are critically important because babies, toddlers and preschoolers are prone to ear infections, which can leave fluid in the ears that doesn’t drain for months, muffling sound. Untreated hearing loss can result in problems with speech development.
"We have activities for each age group and each stage of development," Martinez said.
Covering the County
Pinal County is the third largest in Arizona, stretching from Pima County to Maricopa County across an area about the size of the state of Connecticut and with a population of about 390,000.
Eight percent of children in the county are age 5 and younger. Because of a shortage of speech, occupational and physical therapists in the state, it can be difficult to reach children and families to deliver early intervention programs in the wide tracts of rural areas in the county.
The goal of the program is to help prepare children for success in school and life. Little changes can make a big difference.
A grandmother thought her "little angel" was just a clumsy 3-year-old, running into the coffee table and tripping over things. Then the girl's vision was tested "and sure enough she could barely see," said Esther Turner, program coordinator with UA Cooperative Extension in Pinal County.
"With her vision corrected, that little angel's life has been changed. She's experiencing things she never was able to see before — and is no longer walking into the furniture," Turner said.
Martinez, Turner and instructional specialist Robyn Powers are based in Casa Grande. Together, they cover a lot of miles, attend many events and ask plenty of questions.
The screening tool they use is known as ASQ-3, which stands for Ages and Stages Questionnaires, developed by Brookes Publishing Co. It includes numerous questionnaires spanning the months from birth through age 5 1/2. The program is easy to use and highly regarded by pediatricians, Turner said.
"We go in person with a bag of tricks and puzzles and blocks and all kinds of toys," Powers said. "We play with the child and the parent — observing and asking the questions."
Parents also can answer the ASQ3 questions online, keying in the birthdate of their child and completing the appropriate questionnaire.
"Parents know their child the best," Turner said, noting that they observe whether a baby can roll over or whether a toddler can form two-word sentences.
Understanding What's Typical
"Sometimes there's a bit of fear that something could be wrong with their child," Turner said. "Certain things come very naturally, and some things children and parents need help with. Our program staff makes tools available — easy and fun activities they can do to help a child in an area that’s a challenge."
Many of the activities are simple, like giving a baby plenty of opportunity to try out different toys, or teaching a 3-year-old use child-size safety scissors that strengthen muscles in hands and fingers. Encouraging children to play dress-up not only stimulates the imagination but also builds fine motor skills as they button buttons, zip zippers and try on shoes.
"Kids understand a lot of language long before they can ever speak it," Martinez said. "If you say, 'Pick up the ball,' they can do it even though they cannot say 'ball' yet. We’re helping parents understand 'What is a 2-year-old capable of?'"
Screenings are recommended twice a year up to age 3 and annually after that. All screenings and home visits are free.
"We don’t diagnose — we screen for indicators," emphasized Turner, who reminds parents that these types of developmental screenings also are available through their child's pediatrician.
"This is the first step," Powers said. "If we have a concern, we can help guide the conversation that the parent will have with the pediatrician and with the folks who can get them help."
Added Turner: "We encourage them to look into resources available through Arizona’s First Things First program. They are true champions of our children."