The Difference Between Typical and Atypical Development in Children

Lists of childhood developmental stages abound. They track all facets of your child's progress. From the first time you hold your newborn in your arms until she heads off to college, doctor visits and school progress reports measure, weigh, and tally her growth in myriad ways. There's good reason for monitoring your child's development; should any out-of-the-ordinary growth level be observed, you'll either be delighted or have cause for concern. Typical development in children gives a generic picture of progress compared to same-age peers. Atypical development appears when a child either lags behind or jumps ahead of typical peer progress, in any regard -- physical, cognitive, social or in adaptive life skills.

Physical Development

Experienced parents take growth chart comparisons with a grain of salt. Children grow at different rates; girls often tower over their male peers in the pre-teen years, and adolescent boys may continue adding inches to their height into their early 20s. Catch-up is a game children often play, laying to rest any early concerns about physical development. However, a lingering pattern known as failure to thrive, according to family medicine doctor Sarah Z. Cole, affects 5 to 10 percent of children 2. This atypical red flag for physical development may be caused by medical or environmental conditions. It's diagnosed by a medical professional, who can then help create a treatment plan to minimize long-term negative effects on a child's physical development.

Gross and fine motor skills development are dimensions of physical progress that parents can also track. Should your preschool child fall behind typical peers in throwing a ball, climbing stairs or holding a pencil in a tripod grasp, providing him with regular practice opportunities focused on deficit areas can help him close the gap.

Cognitive Development

Having a grasp on how your child compares to her peers in terms of raw mental ability is a preventive tool for meeting any special needs she may have. Cognitive development can be measured through screening by a school district's child find program, with trained professionals and informally through careful parental observation of your child's apparent cognitive ability levels in comparison with typical peers. Atypical results -- either below or significantly above typical peer levels -- provide parents with the information needed to seek help.

Children who for whatever reason -- whether a genetic condition or traumatic brain injury -- trail their peers in cognitive function, may qualify for intensive help through the local school district or with private programs, as available. The same is also true for children with exceptional cognitive skills, far beyond their typical peers; they also have need for specialized opportunities to participate in academic activities that will pique their curiosity and nurture their desire to explore the world.

Social Development

Having appropriate social skills helps a child to create friendships. These same skills nurture bonding with adult role models and family members and spill over ultimately into satisfying life careers. Many informal checklists are available online. Parents can review these age-level checklists, noting any areas of concern. Again, the point of having knowledge of any atypical age-inappropriate social skills is to be armed, as a parent, in reaching out for help to close that deficit gap for your child.

Adaptive Life Skills Development

Think of adaptive life skills as any skill that helps your child to function as independently as possible. These skills are very much tied to age-appropriate subsets; you can expect your 3 year old to be independent in toileting, but not in tying his shoes. You can expect your 6 year old to tie her own shoes, but not sew on buttons or make a casserole for dinner. Consistent mastery of age-appropriate adaptive life skills as your child grows will prove important for her eventual progress to independent living. An effective way to monitor how your child is doing is to communicate with other parents. Ask them questions about what their children did at the same age; what could they reasonably expect them to do? How did they help them to master certain skills? Experienced parents can be a gold mine when determining if your child's adaptive life skills are typical or atypical. Never forget, the point of being aware of any atypical development level -- especially if below typical peers -- is to be able to strategize ways to close that developmental gap.

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