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There has been significant attention paid to the alarming negative effects the pandemic has had on the well-being of students in K-12 schools.

Just as concerning are the potential impacts on younger children, including those born during or just before the pandemic. Babies born during the pandemic have been getting lower scores on communication and fine and gross motor skill assessments; toddlers are speaking less and experiencing more language delays; and parents are worried about increased behavioral and social-emotional issues. An estimated 275,000 children have experienced the substantial trauma of losing a caregiver to Covid.

Federal lawmakers have tried to address these issues with funds that directly support young children and their families. Key to the success of these investments will be ensuring that the children and their families are matched to the speech services, physical and occupational therapy, material and financial assistance and health and mental health services that they need.

Early intervention is critical to effectively addressing language delays and behavioral issues, which become much more difficult to treat as children age. Children’s brains develop fastest in their early years, making the first years of life incredibly important.

Yet, it is not until kindergarten or later that some children are formally assessed for meeting developmental milestones. Universal early screening that can connect younger children and their families to necessary support services is one way to address these troubling effects.

While all states and territories have early intervention (EI) programs, they typically rely on parents to actively seek screening and assessment, a process that can be onerous and time-consuming. These barriers are particularly challenging for families with low incomes who may be unable to take time off from work or find transportation to attend screenings.

One established strategy for avoiding these issues is to screen children in places that they and their families already frequent — like doctor’s offices, child care centers and their own homes. This strategy reduces the burden on families and can increase participation in screening programs.

Given the high costs of addressing health and development problems caught later, preventive universal screening may generate cost savings.

A study of the Smart Beginnings program — which used universal assessment in pediatricians’ offices to maximize reach — found that interventions tailored to specific family needs effectively improved both parenting practices and language use.

Related: Finding hard-to-reach parents at the pediatrician’s office

Screening tools need to be thorough and effective at identifying needs — but without being so lengthy or invasive that families are unwilling to participate.

Once needs are identified, families should be matched to appropriate services.

Some of this work is already taking place on the ground. MDRC is currently working with Get Ready Guilford (North Carolina) to study a navigation service that is partnering with evidence-based pre- and post-natal programs to develop a universal assessment process for pregnant women and children ages 0 to 3.

In this initiative, screening information will be used to gain an understanding of child and family needs across a wide range of domains, including access to food, medical care, housing, safety, child development and adult well-being. Navigators will help connect families to specific programs in the county that address their needs — as they also did during the pandemic, when program staff saw a rising need for diapers, food and cribs, and connected families to local personal care pantries, food pantries and clothes closets.

Given the high costs of addressing health and development problems caught later, preventive universal screening may generate cost savings.

Our research on home-visiting programs found that families with the most severe needs also face the largest barriers accessing home-visiting support programs and are more likely than others to disengage from program services prematurely. One home-visiting program, called Child First, found that high-quality assessment information collected during the referral stage can help predict the families most likely to drop out of such programs early.

For cases like this, universal assessment information can help staff create tailored and targeted supports to keep families engaged for the long term.

Research on the ramifications of the pandemic on young children is only just now emerging. Yet initial indications for young children’s well-being and development are troubling.

Investing in universal assessment is an important approach to help states and communities meet the specific needs of young children and families and promote healthy development for our youngest citizens.

Rebecca Davis is a research associate and Shira Mattera is a senior research associate in the Family Well-Being & Children’s Development policy area at MDRC.

This story about early screening was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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