Glenn Farmer knew there might be children in his care who needed help.
Some could have developmental delays that could put them at a disadvantage when they start school. Others might have trouble hearing or seeing. There could be issues in interacting with other children or in focusing on tasks at hand.
The president and owner of Education Depot, a child care center on McWillie Drive in Jackson, knew that these children, if helped early, could progress at the same rate as their classmates or maybe better. But without help, these children could face years of struggle in school and beyond.
A visit to a specialist to get child-development screenings would take time and money, something in short supply sometimes for parents of young children. Taking a whole child care center to such screenings would be a production in logistics and funding.
“My sister (nurse manager Kimberly Edwards) works at UMMC,” Farmer said. “I talked to her about what we could do to help our children.” He contacted the Center for the Advancement of Youth (CAY) seeking help.
From there, CAY manager and early interventionist Jennifer Curtis, and Dr. Susan Buttross, CAY medical director and chief of the Division of Child Development, became involved in building a bridge between the two centers to develop a process to conduct developmental screenings for the children who need them. After brainstorming about ways to best help these children, Curtis and Buttross landed on the idea of conducting the screenings via telehealth. The funding for the screenings was made available by the Mississippi Department of Health's Early Intervention Program.
Curtis engaged the UMMC Center for Telehealth to set up equipment and began doing test runs in December. Once the first few tests were run, interest grew.
Farmer said the program is working well. “So far, so good,” he said Tuesday. “This morning, we had another nine requests for screenings to be scheduled.” Including those nine, there are 11 children in the program thus far with more to be evaluated in the future.
Catching developmental delays early is a goal for him at his day care center.
“Children with learning disabilities who aren't getting help,” Farmer said, “are labeled as behind by third grade. They never catch up. The odds are stacked against them. Unless there's intervention, once a child gets behind, they grow up to have problems getting jobs or don't have the opportunity to get better jobs. Early screenings mean stronger families, better communities and a better state. Screening children early helps everybody.”
Said Farmer: “If parents trust us with their children, we should look at how we can best help them as a family.”
Early developmental screenings are needed in Mississippi, Buttross said. “According to data from the Mississippi Children's Collaborative Project that offered developmental screenings for 4-year-olds in 11 counties in the state, 48 percent of children failed the screenings, meaning they were not ready for kindergarten.”
Kindergarten teachers surveyed around the state said 40 percent of children entering kindergarten are either not ready or are already behind, she said.
“The whole purpose of this effort is to identify children earlier and get them the help they need,” Buttross said. “It's such a tragedy for a child to enter school with developmental delays that have not been discovered. If we can intervene at age 2 or 3 with speech therapy, occupational therapy or behavioral therapy, then that child is likely to enter kindergarten and have a better chance at success.”
Center for Telehealth project manager Megan Duet said the screenings are conducted using interactive online video tools, with child development experts observing and interacting with the children.
“We are using Ages and Stages, an excellent screening tool for young children,” said Buttross.
Screenings started with ages 12-36 months, she said, and there are plans to include older children later on, since Education Depot also serves as an after-school care center.
“Children love the camera,” Duet said. “Screenings through telehealth allow the children to be observed in their environment, doing the things they normally do at school, such as playing games or looking at books.”
Key categories observed include problem solving, receptive and expressive communication, fine motor skills such as stacking blocks and gross motor skills such as running, jumping and walking up stairs.
The M-CHAT, or Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, is also used.
While the screenings have been easy for parents in terms of cost and convenience, Farmer said there has been some apprehension, “but there's a better understanding now and better feelings overall.”
Telehealth is available at some 200 sites in Mississippi, Duet said. “We are breaking down barriers and allowing people to have the access needed to healthcare in their hometowns. … Every day there is a new need for telehealth in our state and country. We are moving toward providing access to telehealth in all communities and schools.”