Childhood Development Expert: ‘The First Five Years Are Absolutely Critical’

with Erika Watson of Easterseals

The first five years of a child’s life are critical to their development, and delays can be indicative of issues that may impact them later in life. Early diagnosis and access to services can help children develop skills for success in school and beyond.

Erika Watson, National Director of Childhood Development, Education, and Equity at Easterseals, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss an initiative called “Make the First Five Count,” including a tool to help parents track a child’s development.

Posted on:

March 31, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the closures of businesses, nurseries, schools and playgrounds across the country, and life for infants changed significantly as parents tried to balance work and childcare. A new study suggests that children born during the pandemic are experiencing delays in verbal, motor and cognitive development. So what should parents do? Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Andersen. The first few years of a child's life are critical to their development, and delays can indicate problems that may impact them later in life. But research shows that early intervention can make a big difference, which is why screening and detection are critical. And joining me to talk about all of this is Erika Watson, national director of Childhood Development, Education and Equity at Easterseals. Erika, thank you so much for being here.

Watson: Tetiana, thank you so much for having me, and thank you for this wonderful opportunity to talk about this important work.

Anderson: So, as a national board member of Easterseals, I know that we talk a lot about a child's ability to develop the physical and cognitive skills needed to really be successful from kindergarten on. So, Erika, I'm wondering how important the first five years are. I mean, set the scene for us.

Watson: Tetiana, the first five years are absolutely critical, and really it's zero to three. Zero to three are perhaps the most foundational and instrumental years of a child's development, and most of that happens in the home environment. So parents have a lot of influence, caregivers have a lot of influence on how well a child develops verbal skills, how well a child develops social and emotional skills, and how well a child shows up for kindergarten at age five. And the important thing about zero to three is those developmental years happen at home. So the parents, extended family, caregivers have a lot of influence over a child's ability to be considered kindergarten- or school-ready. You have a foundational opportunity to begin teaching verbal skills, to begin teaching social-emotional skills, to begin laying the foundation for how your child makes meaning of new content as they discover new information.

Anderson: And, Erika, Easterseals has the Ages & Stages Questionnaire to be used as a resource. And I'm wondering, what is that looking for specifically?

Watson: Mm-hmm. The Ages & Stages Questionnaire comes from Brookes Publishing. It has been used for many, many years by pediatricians, educators, interventionists. And really, what that tool helps us to understand is, again, how your child is making meaning of new information. What's your child's ability to identify and make meaning of numbers, letters, shapes? What does your child understand about basic utterances and how those things come together to form words and form language? All of those things are really important to a child being considered kindergarten- or school-ready or a pre-reader. The tool also helps us get underneath behaviors and social-emotional cues. So is your child an adventurer, an explorer, or is your child on the shy and more reserved side? And there's spectrums of all of these things, and all of these things in and of themselves are okay. But what this tool helps us do is identify if there is a place where we want to lean in and do a little bit more investigating, because it could be a leading-edge indicator of a deeper issue.

Anderson: So, every parent obviously wants to believe that their child is right on schedule, that there is no need for help. But, you know, we know that's not always true. So how much of a barrier is stigma when it comes to parents who are seeking help?

Watson: It's a huge barrier, Tetiana, particularly within communities of color that oftentimes don't have the best relationship with their health care provider. In some instances, they potentially don't have a family health care provider. So they're using emergency rooms or urgent care where they're seeing different medical providers each time they present for an issue. So it's a big problem. And that's one of the reasons why Easterseals is really focusing not just within communities where socioeconomic barriers or lack of insurance prevent families from seeking support, but particularly within communities of color. What we do know is that the average African-American child isn't diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders until an average age five, whereas dominant culture children are typically diagnosed around age three. Some -- many, in fact -- as early as 18 months. So that disparity of two years really puts children from communities of color behind the eight ball in a deep well that, quite frankly, throughout their educational journey many of them never overcome.

Anderson: So, early diagnosis is -- is clearly key. But why is that so important? Why do we need to know sooner than later whether or not a child has challenges, and what does that have to do with the services available?

Watson: We need to know sooner rather than later because the interventions work. One thing that comes with the diagnosis is your insurance now all of a sudden kicks in and supports you getting your child the services that they need -- behavioral therapies, speech therapies, occupational therapies, physical therapies. Those things now all of a sudden are not paid out of your pocket, but they're covered by insurance if your child has the diagnosis. So really making sure that you're showing up to appointments, that your child is getting screenings, that your child is seeing your pediatrician, that you're current on vaccines, that you're current on all of these things in your early stages really helps to make sure that your child can get the support and therapeutic services that we know really produce dividends in their educational journey and experiences. We also know that it makes it easier for families to be able to provide those services to their student, to their child, if their child has a diagnosis, because now all of a sudden, Medicaid kicks in, CHIP kicks in, your private insurance if you have it kicks in. And so we want to be able to avail ourselves of all of those resources when we're trying to do the best thing for our children, which is what any parent, any caregiver wants to do.

Anderson: So, Erika, I know people are going to have questions. They're going to want to learn more. What's the website?

Watson: Our website is, and they can go there to learn more about the early childhood work that Easterseals is doing right in their own communities. If they want to access the home-based assessment tool that we've talked about, they can go directly to

Anderson: Erika Watson of Easterseals, thank you so much for being here.

Watson: Absolutely. Again, thank you for the opportunity.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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