Why Early Screening - NCLD
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Why Early Screening

Research from the past 10 years clearly shows that educators and medical professionals can spot the signs of learning difficulties earlier than previously thought possible. Professionals can use a variety of easy and quick screeners in math and reading and provide helpful strategies and interventions to support struggling learners. For many years, advocates—particularly parents—have pushed for up-to-date information about children’s progress, feedback about how well they’re performing across subject areas, and insight as to whether they’re mastering skills needed for continued progress. Early screening offers answers to these questions, as well as pointing to characteristics that might identify risk for underlying disorders of learning and attention.

Child reading a book.
Universal Screening and Its Importance

Universal screening involves collecting performance data on all students in a given setting (e.g., a classroom) to determine if learning is on track in particular areas, such as reading or math. This type of screening allows parents, educators, and pediatricians to easily see which children are meeting expectations and which may need additional instruction or targeted intervention and support. Once screening takes place, a plan can be implemented to ensure that the needs of children found to be at risk can be addressed so they don’t fall further behind. Early screening is especially beneficial for students who did not attend pre-K programs, who are entering inclusive classroom settings after having received early intervention services, or who are from historically marginalized communities and may be entering school with developmental skills already lagging behind those of their peers.

This chart provides clarification about the differences between screening and other related terms. As you’ll see, each serves a different purpose, but all are connected in some important ways.

There are three major benefits of early screening:

Academic: Early screening can lead to timely recognition of learning difficulties and characteristics that might signal a risk for disorder of learning and/or attention. Neuroplasticity in young children offers windows of opportunity in virtually every aspect of learning because of the extent to which their brains are malleable (changeable and developing). In young children, brain networks for information processing are still being formed, which means that early experiences, and interventions, can have a greater impact on students when they are young. Early screening can result in children receiving extra help sooner and prevent them from falling behind.

Social and emotional: Early screening may prevent children from being inappropriately identified as having a learning disability or incorrectly being classified as needing special education services and supports. Children whose needs are identified and addressed early might make sufficient progress to mitigate the need for special education services. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma associated with being identified as having a learning disability, which can lead to higher rates of bullying, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The identification rate of students with specific learning disabilities is trending downward. Some speculate that this is because of an increased investment in Head Start and high-quality preschool programs, which often provide evidence-based interventions early in a child’s academic career.

Economic: The cost of screening young children for learning disabilities has been estimated to range from $3–$20 per pupil. However, the benefits of early screening far outweigh its costs. Effective early screening can lead to large economic benefits, given the high costs associated with remediation and the treatment of psychological or medical and psychiatric problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic conditions related to academic stress) that can result from failing to address students’ needs early. In addition, students who struggle academically or behaviorally have higher rates of unemployment and are at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system later on in life. Negative outcomes like these are costly for society. One study found that early interventions can lead to as much as a $31 return on investment for every $1 spent. If screening allows educators to address students’ needs earlier, students can remain on a trajectory toward successful grade promotion, high school graduation, college attendance, and gainful employment.