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Judges' Choice: Nipissing District Developmental Screen

"It assists the parents when there is extra help needed in where to go and to get going on it early so all children will be ready for school."

What began as a great idea in the heart of North Bay's child development community 15 years ago may soon be used to examine the health of every single child in Ontario.

Known as the Nipissing District Developmental Screen (NDDS), this simple tool is having a big impact on whether young children are getting the proper attention to prepare them for the world ahead.

Just last year, the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services licensed the NDDS for use as part of its upcoming program to screen all babies at 18 months for medical and developmental progress.

"When you're seeing a child entering the school system with significant delays in all areas and somehow they've fallen through the cracks, it's something you hope wouldn't be happening," says Marg Peterson, president of the NDDS, the not-for-profit organization which shares its name with the tool it promotes.

"The sooner we can get going with them, the better the outcomes are going to be. That's the name of the game."

Peterson was one of a dozen North Bay women working on the front lines of child development who realized in the early 1990s that far too many children with developmental delays were not being identified until after age three. With no real idea where the journey would take them, they decided to do something about it.

Armed with varied backgrounds ranging from speech language pathology to occupational therapy to nursing and social work, they debated and haggled, each looking to share their expertise. By 1993, they had hammered out an easy-to-use checklist that was initially designed to be filled out by parents as they sat in the waiting room, and examined at a glance by the doctor.

However, interest in the tool has since exploded. Sales have soared from a few hundred pads per year to more than 20,000 annually, a number that continues to rise.

In recent years, New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories have adopted the NDDS as their developmental screening tool of choice, and American interest has been such that the company established a sister firm in Virginia.

Through the recent agreement with the Ontario Ministry, the tool is now free to all Ontario residents and has already been used to assess nearly 2 million children in the province alone. It's also available online, with efforts currently underway to integrate results of the tool as part of an electronic medical record.

The tool not only helps to guide first-time parents who may be unfamiliar with the proper developmental processes, but also brings up "teachable moments" that help to guide their children's growth.

"It structures a conversation in looking at the whole child in many different areas of development," says Peterson, a child and parent therapist with the Nipissing branch of the Children's Aid Society.

"It assists the parents when there is extra help needed in where to go and to get going on it early so all children will be ready for school."

The screen examines 13 key developmental stages reaching from one month to six years of age, and determines whether the child is adequately meeting those benchmarks. The tool is used to analyze a child's skills in the areas of vision, hearing, speech, language, communication, gross motor, fine motor, cognitive, social/emotional and self-help.

As an example, the screen includes questions on whether by three years of age the child can twist lids off jars or turn knobs, or if they can speak in two- to five-word sentences. With two or more "no" responses, parents are advised to reach out to particular developmental service agencies.

It also includes a number of suggested activities which are appropriate for that age, with clear and concise criteria for each. Frequently reading colourful and interesting books to your child is advised, for instance, with the designation of a set time as part of a daily routine to help develop their speech and language skills.

While NDDS' 15-year journey has been not-for-profit, the outfit has received practically no outside funding -- merely $1,000 from the government for printing costs at the very outset. Since then, all expenses for marketing, production and moving the project forward have been self-sustaining.

In fact, aside from a business manager and a part-time employee, the remainder of the operation is done on a volunteer basis. Eight of the original 12 founding women remain on the board today.