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Use of Holistic Early Childhood Screen Sets Young Learners on Path to Positive Growth
Megan Bard, Associate Director of Communications

The Gesell Developmental Observation – Revised is a vital tool in an educator’s toolbox to observe a child’s academic and development growth and identify areas that require additional consideration. 


Identifying and understanding a child’s chronological versus developmental age when they are young allows the adults in his or her life to understand their holistic development and create a plan to support children’s growth in cognitive, fine-motor, gross-motor, and social development. 

In Rectory School’s elementary and early childhood programs, using the Gesell Developmental Observation – Revised (GDO-R) screen is one method teachers and administrators use to identify children’s developmental profile, including areas of strength, and how to support them. The data collected from this tool informs conversations with teachers and parents and makes adjustments in the classroom experience to meet students’ needs.

“The GDO-R is a wholistic screen grounded in child development that connects well to our school philosophy,” said Director of Elementary Maria Carpenter, the only GDO-R certified educator at Rectory trained to screen children from 2.9 to 5 and 6 to 9 years old. “We love putting the pieces together in the development of our children, and normal child development has a range. We might have a child that is very strong in one area and is struggling in another area, and this screen gives us the data that we need to understand what to do next to support their growth.”

According to Gesell at Yale’s Program in Early Childhood, the screening uses “direct observation to evaluate a child’s cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional responses to five strands (domains): Developmental, Letters/Numbers, Language/Comprehension, Visual/Spatial and Social-Emotional/Adaptive.” The GDO-R is not an assessment; it’s a screening tool that educators can use to help ascertain a greater understanding of a child’s behavior compared with typical developmental age growth patterns. (Gesell at Yale defines developmental age as “an identification in years and half-years that best describes a child’s behavior and performance on a developmental scale compared to most children.”) The screening is also not a diagnostic tool. Instead, it provides information on letting teachers and parents know that additional screenings or assessments might be necessary. 

“Almost every child has some sort of learning difference. If we think it’s something that could be outside of typical development, we want to identify whether it is something that might hold them back from learning what they need to learn and be capable and ready to move on here,” said Erin Hayden, director of the Children At Rectory (CARe) program. 

Red square blocks, an workbook, black shapes and a pencil are displayed on a small table.

The screen takes about an hour to administer and another hour to assess the data collected. The children consider the activities such as —building block towers with cubes, playing catch with a colorful beanbag, naming as many animals as they can, or finishing the picture of a partially drawn stick figure (known as Incomplete Man) —as fun games. The screen will include more advanced challenges for older elementary-aged students, such as digit repetition, looking at pictures for a few seconds before drawing them from memory, or spatial orientation, such as touching their left ring finger with their right thumb. 

Children won’t be at the same developmental age at every milestone; the GDO-R takes a developmental-age range into account (for example, if a child is 5 years and 6 months old but 6 years old in terms of academic milestones and 5 years old when it comes to fine motor skills, this still falls within normal developmental expectations.) It’s the outliers, the possible behavioral or cognitive struggles, that the screen can help provide additional information for what steps to take next.

At Rectory’s Elementary, parents are asked for permission before their child is screened, and they take part in the process. Parents and teachers receive a questionnaire to record their home and classroom observations from their perspectives, which is part of the social behavior, emotional development, and adaptive skills screen.

At CARe, the Gesell screening tool helps educators confirm or contradict a suspicion that a child is somehow being hindered in his or her ability to learn. “Sometimes, they’re just outside the typically developing child. We notice them withdrawing from the classroom environment or peers their age, tending to play more solitary and not as much imaginary play. Almost every child has some kind of learning difference. We just want to make sure they’re making progress and still learning,” said CARe Directory Erin Hayden. 

A recent example is of two CARe students who were difficult to assess using the Connecticut early childhood standards. The children are bright and on the verge of moving into a Kindergarten program, but CARe staff members were concerned about their social-emotional development. Using the GDO-R screen, Mrs. Carpenter was able to discern there is no need to be concerned academically and that they aren’t far enough behind with their social development to keep them from succeeding in Kindergarten. “They’re so young. It’s hard to pinpoint what is happening or why it’s happening. Sometimes it’s outlying temperaments or something to do with personality and not an academic skill. The GDO-R screen is just a jumping-off point,” Mrs. Hayden said.

In addition, the CARe and ES teams can create classroom opportunities for the children to strengthen those areas of focus and highlight their areas of strengths, which are also shown in the screening. “It’s a relief to know the direction that we need to take to help our children be their very best. Children can make so much progress, and learn the foundations that will carry with them through life, in the early years of a child’s development. The GDO-R, which is based on the research of Arnold Gesell (the founder of Child Development), is a wonderful tool to look deeply into how a child learns and thinks about the world. We gain so much knowledge about our children and how they learn best, and it’s a fun tool to use!” Mrs. Carpenter said. 

More information about the Gesell at Yale Program in Early Childhood can be found at

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