Developmental-Behavioral Pediatricians 101
Developmental-behavioral pediatricians (also known as developmental pediatricians) specialize in evaluating and treating infants, children, and young adults with developmental delays, behavioral challenges, learning disabilities, and more. A developmental pediatrician can play a central role in your child’s overall care, providing guidance, referrals, and support, and helping coordinate care with your child’s other physicians, therapists, and educators.
Unlike a general pediatrician, developmental pediatricians do not provide routine medical care or yearly check-ups. Instead, they focus on assessing, diagnosing, and treating children who experience or are at risk of developmental delays as well as issues with speech, motor, and social skills. According to LA-based developmental-behavioral pediatrician Dr. Josh Mandelberg, M.D., F.A.A.P., the approach will change depending on the child’s age, diagnoses, and individual needs.
“When children are school-aged, we might look at issues of learning or attention,” Mandelberg explains. “We might assess kids for issues of anxiety or other social-emotional issues. We also see kids who have had other challenges — for example, children who were born prematurely or spent time in the NICU, so they may be at risk of having a developmental issue.”
What Conditions Do Developmental Pediatricians Diagnose and Treat?
A developmental pediatrician can diagnose and treat a wide array of developmental and behavioral conditions, including:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Regulatory disorders like sleep disorders, feeding difficulties, and delayed toilet training
- Delayed development in speech, language, motor skills, and cognitive functioning
- Learning disorders
- Tics and Tourette syndrome
- Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, and other genetic conditions that affect child development
- Behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Typically, developmental pediatricians will work to assemble a whole picture of your child’s health and medical history, including assessments done in their office, observations made during appointments with your child, assessments performed by other doctors, reports from parents and teachers, reports from private therapists, school documents including your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), and — if you live in California — your Regional Center's Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). You should receive a list from your developmental pediatrician’s office of which documents you will need to bring to your first appointment.
Developmental pediatricians work with families to develop a plan of care to address developmental concerns, and encourage parents of young children to track their child’s developmental process and make note of any delayed milestones or other related issues. Research shows that early intervention leads to more positive outcomes in children with developmental disabilities — and it’s important to start early. As noted by the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, “intervention is likely to be more effective and less costly when it is provided earlier in life rather than later.”
While there is a focus on early intervention (typically from toddlers to age five), some developmental pediatricians may also work with older children and adolescents. Dr. Mandelberg notes that although he mostly works with toddlers through elementary school-aged children, “different developmental pediatricians might have certain ages or conditions that they work with more prevalently. I see kids from toddlers, occasionally infants, all the way up to some college students.”
What Services Do Developmental Pediatricians Provide?
Some of the services developmental pediatricians provide include the following:
- Evaluations to help diagnose complex issues
- Ongoing assessments
- Consultations with other professionals involved in your child’s care
- An overall plan of care for your child (and monitoring the plan of care)
- Suggested and prioritized treatments
- Recommendations for other professionals who can assist with ongoing treatment
- Medication (prescribing and monitoring)
- Recommendations for accommodations and modifications, as well as therapies within and outside of school
A developmental pediatrician may also refer your child to a different specialist for services outside of their scope, such as genetic testing. They can also function as an advocate in a school setting, with insurance companies, and helping connect families with government-funded services.
Because a developmental pediatrician will likely only see your child for a few hours at a time, it’s important to share your child’s overall plan of care with their therapists, teachers, doctors, and other people involved in their life to better work toward their therapeutic goals outside of the doctor’s office. Dr. Mandelberg notes that this sort of “homework” can make early intervention more effective. Dr. Mandelberg adds that for this reason, it’s important to keep big-picture goals in mind when building a child’s therapy team and find therapists who prioritize collaboration with parents and other therapists and providers. ”It’s important for therapists to try to involve parents and caregivers as much as possible, and to coordinate with teachers,” he says.
To read more about early intervention, check out our article series, Mapping the Journey from Birth to Kindergarten: The 4 Ws of Early Intervention.
We’ll have more to share on what questions to ask your developmental pediatrician and other insights soon, so be sure to check back!