Developmental-Behavioral Pediatricians: What You Need to Know

By Kate Kelly
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At a Glance

  • Developmental-behavioral pediatricians treat kids with learning and behavioral issues.

  • These professionals can help diagnose complex issues, including ADHD.

  • You may be able to get a referral from your pediatrician.

If you’re worried that your child is showing signs of a developmental delay or behavior difficulties, who can help you figure out what’s going on? The first person to talk to is your child’s doctor or other health care provider. The doctor may refer you to a type of medical specialist who focuses on these issues. That professional is called a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.

These doctors are trained as pediatricians. But they go on for another three years of training in developmental and behavioral problems. They often work in metropolitan areas, so depending on where you live, you may not have easy access to one.

Here’s what you need to know about developmental-behavioral pediatricians.

What Developmental-Behavioral Pediatricians Do

The main role of developmental-behavioral pediatricians is to evaluate kids who aren’t developing, learning or behaving the way their peers are. Kids may be referred to them through the early intervention program in their state. They’re also referred through their regular doctors.

These specialists can tease apart what you’re seeing and come up with a diagnosis. For example, if your child acts up at school and in other settings, you or the teacher may suspect your child has ADHD. But there are other issues that may look like ADHD, such as anxiety. And many kids will have more than one issue.

Here are some of the things some developmental-behavioral pediatrician might evaluate for:

  • Delayed development in speech, language or motor skills

  • Nonverbal learning disabilities or other social skills issues

  • ADHD

  • Mental health issues like anxiety

  • Autism

  • Performance issues in school

  • Learning differences like dyslexia

The Evaluation Process With a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician

There’s a series of things a developmental-behavioral pediatrician may do as part of the evaluation. These include:

  • Taking a detailed history of your child

  • Doing a medical exam

  • Observing and talking to your child

  • Asking how your child acts in a variety of settings

  • Seeking feedback from teachers at your child’s school or day care

The doctor may also want your child to be evaluated by other specialists. Those might include an occupational therapist, a physical therapist or a neuropsychologist.

After looking at all the information, the doctor may make a diagnosis. There might be cases where she holds off making it right away, however. The diagnosis may not be clear yet, or there might not be a diagnosis that applies. The doctor may see your child periodically to monitor his development and progress with you.

What Happens After a Diagnosis

The developmental-behavioral pediatrician might continue to treat your child. Or she might recommend other professionals who can help with ongoing treatment. Here are some other ways she might help:

  • Prescribe and monitor medication if your child has an issue like ADHD or anxiety

  • Help you better understand what’s behind your child’s behavior and come up with discipline strategies

  • Recommend accommodations and services at school, and therapies outside of school

Getting Answers About Your Child’s Issues

If you think your child might have a developmental delay, learn more about early intervention evaluations. While the earlier the better, it’s never too late to find out if your child has a learning or thinking difference. Talk to your child’s doctor about different specialists who could help. You can also talk to your child’s school about having him evaluated.

Key Takeaways

  • A developmental-behavioral pediatrician pulls together a range of information to make a diagnosis.

  • After making a diagnosis, she can help with strategies to try at home.

  • She may make recommendations to the school about accommodations.

About the Author

About the Author

Kate Kelly 

has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH 

is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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