Developmental delay and learning difficulties: spotting problems early so young children can get the help they need | Children's Charity

Developmental delay and learning difficulties: spotting problems early so young children can get the help they need

Published on 19 September 2017

Evidence suggests that one in 10 babies are diagnosed with developmental delay, which can have a long-term impact on their health and wellbeing.1 A team of researchers led by Dr Samantha Johnson at the University of Leicester plan to make it easier to spot developmental problems such as difficulties with learning or language early on. Dr Samantha Johnson and her collaborators are fine tuning an existing parental questionnaire so it can be used to assess the development of all young children quickly and efficiently. All children with developmental problems could then be offered the support they need to give them the best possible start in life.

How are children’s lives affected now?

“What happens in early childhood can affect a child’s health and wellbeing throughout their whole life,” says Dr Johnson. “That’s why it is so important to check children’s early development to identify those who need support. Getting doctors to check every single child would not be possible, so we need to find other ways to monitor children’s development.”

Parents know their children best. They tend to notice if their child doesn’t reach important developmental milestones as expected, for example if their child seems to be late to start walking or talking. They might also notice things that show up in the way children play, learn, speak, act and move that might be signs of early problems.

But children develop naturally at different rates, so it can be hard for parents to know if professional help is needed. The team aims to find a way to draw on parents’ understanding of their own children to identify those who need help.

How could this research help?

The researchers’ work focuses on an existing parental questionnaire, called the Parent Report of Children’s Abilities – Revised (PARCA-R). The PARCA-R is already being used successfully to spot moderate and severe developmental problems in two-year-old children who were born prematurely, but the researchers are developing it so that it’s suitable for use with all young children

At the end of this project, the team will make the questionnaire available free of charge online, so health professionals and researchers worldwide can use it with parents of all young children.

“The questionnaire will provide a quick, inexpensive and easy way to assess children’s development early, at around two years of age, and identify those who may need support,” says Dr Johnson. “That includes children whose development is delayed, and children who have problems with learning or language. We hope our work will mean children are offered timely intervention to reduce the lifelong impact of those difficulties and give children the best possible start in life.”


1. Parsons S et al. Disability among young children. Prevalence, heterogeneity and socio-economic disadvantage. Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) Working Paper 2013/11. November 2013. Website accessed 23 August 2017.

Project LeaderDr Samantha J Johnson PhD CPsychol AFBPsS
Project team
  • Ms Louise Linsell MSc
  • Professor Dieter Wolke PhD Dipl-Psych CPsychol AFBPs
  • Professor Neil Marlow DM FRCP FRCPCH FMedSci
  • Professor Peter Brocklehurst MBChB MSc(Epid) FRCOG FFPH
  • Dr Bradley N Manktelow PhD CStat
LocationDepartment of Health Sciences, University of Leicester
Other locations
  • National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU), Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford
  • School of Psychology, University of Warwick, Institute for Women's Health, University College London
  • Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham
Duration1 year
Grant awarded20 July 2017
Start date9 April 2018
End date8 April 2019
Grant amount£70,698.00
Grant codeGN2580

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