Free developmental screenings make sure kids are on the right track

FARGO - Heidi Dresser's big black bag is full of tricks. Wooden blocks for little fingers to stack tumble out of a plastic bag. A box of crayons lets kids copy her circles and lines.

Heidi Dresser talks with Roman and Sherry Salcedo
Heidi Dresser, a Right Track child development screener, right, talks with Roman and Sherry Salcedo and their 2-year-old daughter, Adriana, on Friday at their West Fargo home. (Carrie Snyder / The Forum)

FARGO - Heidi Dresser's big black bag is full of tricks.

Wooden blocks for little fingers to stack tumble out of a plastic bag. A box of crayons lets kids copy her circles and lines. A flip book contains pictures of people and objects to name.

Dresser is a child development screener for Right Track, a statewide program through which parents can have a consultant like her evaluate their infant or toddler's development for free, at home or in a day care setting, up to six times a year.

If the screener notices a developmental delay, the family is given information and referred to early intervention services.

"A lot of times these are kids who can very much catch up," says Deb Pullen, coordinator of the Right Track program in southeast North Dakota. "Sometimes we give parents suggestions, come back the next month, and everything is fine."


The screenings help children age 0 to 3 develop to their full potential, Pullen says. Identifying delays early on may reduce the need for intervention once the child starts school.

"We know that the brain grows tremendously during the first three years, and especially during the first year," Pullen says. "Everything they do is really readiness for school. If they develop any habits or patterns that maybe aren't conducive to learning and helping the brain develop, then it's harder to change that later."

For example, children with feeding problems early on may not get the oral motor development that's needed for speech later, Pullen says. Encouraging tummy time as an infant can make a big difference in motor skills as baby grows.

Watch and play

Many of the Right Track screening activities may feel like play but give the screener a sense of the child's gross and fine motor skills, speech and language, and self-help skills.

At a West Fargo apartment last week, Dresser quizzed 2-year-old Adriana Salcedo about her body parts. "Where's your head?" Dresser asks, and Adriana plops both hands on top of her dark hair.

Dresser prompts Adriana to walk backward and to jump. They scribble on the same sheet of paper. Adriana prefers Dresser's pen to the crayons.

"She's got a really good, mature grip," Dresser tells Adriana's parents, Roman and Sherry Salcedo.


The Salcedos were referred to the Right Track program after Adriana's birth. She had her first screening at 2 months, and has had follow-up screenings every two months.

"It's nice to know she's on track," Sherry says. "There's no concerns. It's reassuring."

Dresser encourages her parents to use action words with Adriana, and to have a consistent bedtime routine. At the next screening, Dresser says she'll look for Adriana to say her name and age.

Sherry says she's appreciated Dresser's handouts on age-appropriate toys and how to handle tantrums.

"I love watching her do all the tests," Roman says. "It shows that she's accomplishing a lot. And it helps us have more knowledge of what we can do to help her at home."

Services across the states

Right Track is part of the North Dakota Department of Human Services, which is allocated about $1.8 million in federal funding for the program every biennium, says Tina Bay, director of the department's developmental disabilities division.

From October 2010 to September 2011, Right Track consultants completed 8,367 visits statewide, Bay says, including 1,347 in the Fargo region.


Each state that accepts certain funds from the federal Office of Special Education must work to identify children with developmental delays or disabilities, Bay says.

Minnesota's early intervention services for birth to kindergarten are grouped together in a system called Help Me Grow, a collaboration of its health, education and human services departments.

Minnesota parents receive child development questionnaires periodically through the state's Follow Along program. A public health nurse will follow up on any concerns expressed on the survey.

The Help Me Grow website ( ) contains information on child development, including videos, webinars and podcasts, says Debbykay Peterson, an early childhood education specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education.

Parents can also call their school district's early intervention services office, says Jill Skarvold, director of learning support services for Moorhead Schools.

Skarvold notes that in Minnesota, a child needs to have only one condition or disorder that has a high probability of resulting in a delay to access the early intervention and special education systems. She also points out that many of the services, such as physical or occupational therapy, are usually provided in the home for kids

"Truly the evidence shows that by getting services and support to kids as early as possible helps get good developmental outcomes for kids," Skarvold says.

For more information:


Any North Dakota child up to age 3 is eligible for a free Right Track screening. Residents of Cass, Ransom, Richland, Sargent, Steele and Traill counties can call (701) 793-3722 or email . For more information, and to find contact for other regions, visit .

Minnesota's early intervention system is called Help Me Grow. Parents can talk to their health care provider or school district, call (866) 693-4769 or visit

Heidi Dresser talks with Roman and Sherry Salcedo
Adriana stacks blocks while working with Heidi Dresser. (Carrie Snyder / The Forum)

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