A few simple questions can make a big impact on a child’s development

Basic developmental screening in young children can make all the difference, so why aren’t more parents and programs doing it?

Most people know that the first five years are the most critical time period for a child’s brain development. When children develop on track, the result is a solid foundation for future learning and educational success.

With this much at stake, tracking healthy child development seems like a no-brainer. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as many as 1 in 4 children are at risk for developmental delays. Yet developing a system for universal screening and assessment for children ages birth through age five has eluded nearly every state and city in the country.

Once they enter kindergarten, students are assessed and tested multiple times per year until they graduate high school. Yet there is no system in place to comprehensively collect and analyze assessment data on children during early childhood.


In Boston, data shows over one-third of all Boston schoolchildren enter kindergarten unprepared to learn. Many have developmental delays that weren’t identified or addressed early on. And while they may get help in school, it is often too late – their likelihood of graduating from high school is already significantly and negatively impacted.

In 2013, United Way partnered with volunteers from its Private Equity Venture Capital Leadership Council to help create and launch DRIVE (Data & Resources Investing in Vital Early Education), a groundbreaking initiative to screen more children in Boston neighborhoods and use the data to help children, families, programs and communities.

Today, because of the strategic guidance and coaching from United Way’s PE/VC volunteers and funding from the Hogan Foundation, United Way has screened over 4,000 at-risk children in Greater Boston through DRIVE and has launched pilot to expand the initiative to Chelsea and Lawrence.

empowering parents

But DRIVE is about more than just screening and gathering data. In order to reach children and families who are not in formal early education programs, DRIVE uses an innovative parent screener model to reach children in informal settings, empowering parents as screeners who can meet with other families at places like the local library, park or community-based organization.

The screeners are trained to ask questions through a best-practice tool, known as the “Ages and Stages Questionnaire.” Once they have the results, the parent screeners review the outcomes with the families and provide targeted referrals and recommendations based on the score. This innovative model is now being replicated in other communities in the country.

In formal settings such as early education programs, the same questionnaire is administered by educators and program staff. All results are entered into the DRIVE database, which gives providers and United Way the ability to aggregate and analyze the data from programs and parent screeners.


Results to date from screenings through DRIVE show over 42% of children in Greater Boston with potential or strong concern of not developing on track. The data also reveals how children are tracking in the different developmental areas, such as communication, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, problem solving and social emotional skills.

More importantly, the data is then used to determine whether to refer a child to early intervention services or other resources. When re-screened, 62% of the children who had “strong concerns” for delays had shown improvement.

Even more promising, early education providers are now using their data to identify areas where they can improve or fine-tune their programming to help more children stay on track:

  • When DRIVE data revealed a high percentage of children with delays in fine motor skills, both South Boston Neighborhood House and the Dorchester Family Engagement Network held family events with activities designed to boost those skills and distributed “Fine Motor Kits” to parents.
  • The Roxbury YMCA found new ways to incorporate active play into their programming while their playground was under construction after DRIVE data revealed they were scoring lower in the gross motor skill area.

“DRIVE is a perfect complement to our goal of ensuring young children have access to high-quality early education,” says Ausiello. “Universal screening provides parents and early childhood professionals with the information needed to support the school readiness of individual children. It also ensures that the early education field, funders and policy makers gain a better understanding of the developmental progress of young children at a program and community level – and make the necessary investments and course corrections as needed.”