Early detection helpful

A simple and inexpensive mental health screening tool can benefit preschool-aged children by identifying problems that could be precursors to more serious disorders, according to researchers at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

ABLE is designed to screen pre-kindergartners for adjustment problems by evaluating information collected from parents and teachers. Adults are asked about concerns they have regarding a child’s attention, behavior, language and emotions. If a serious concern is pinpointed, a second level of screening is done.

Researchers stress that ABLE is not a diagnostic tool.

“Social emotion problems in very young children are real,” says Dr. Tanya R. Anderson, the deputy clinical director of child and adolescent services with the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health.

Untreated problems can impact a child’s success at school, she says.

“The challenge programs face is in finding an assessment tool that can easily and quickly be given by early childhood educators, that provides accurate, easily interpreted and useful results and that holds up under scientific scrutiny,” says Oscar Barbarin, Ph.D., the author of a paper in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry about the studies of ABLE.

ABLE, researchers say, appears to do just that.

Barbarin’s research indicates that 11 to 15 percent of children under age 18 have a diagnosable mental disorder, yet only 21 percent of American children who could benefit from mental health evaluations ever get them.

The studies conducted at the UNC facilities found ABLE to be reliable for use in preschool screening of children at risk of problems of attention behavior, language and emotions that might interfere with their adjustment at school. It detected problems at a frequency rate consistent with other research.

“These problems have a significant impact on these very critical years of development,” says Anderson."Early identification, assessment and appropriate treatment, if necessary, is the best intervention.”

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