Developmental Delays in Adopted and Foster Children

"Development" encompasses several developmental skills including:

  • Gross motor skills: rolling, sitting, crawling, walking, running and jumping.
  • Fine motor skills: holding toys, manipulating toys in hands, holding a pencil, operating scissors, etc.
  • Visual motor skills: what kids do with items when they are in their hands, such as color, cut, put together Legos, copy from a board in school, type, etc.
  • Speech-language skills represent communication skills: early social smiling, recognizing name, babbling, talking, and awareness of non-verbal expressions such as emotions.
  • Feeding skills: drinking from a bottle or cup, eating a wide variety of age-appropriate foods with good chewing and swallowing, and simple meal prep, such as a preschooler helping spread jelly on bread.
  • Adaptive play skills: learning how to play with toys, learning and using imaginative play, and learning how to play with others.
  • Self-care skills: dressing, feeding, bathing and toileting.

Developmental delays in children living in institutions or foster care

Children living in institutions spend very little time being stimulated both by caregivers and with objects, such as toys. They have little opportunity as infants to be held, rocked and moved around so they don't learn how to move well. They have little opportunity to play with toys, so they don't learn what toys do or how to play with them. If they have toys, they generally have to share them. They  are not given loving structure to learn how to share and engage with other children when playing. They are generally not spoken to often, and do not get early social and verbal play opportunities with adults, which help children develop communication skills.

This lack of experiences can cause mild to significant delays in motor skills. Many times, with therapy services supporting the families and children, these skills can develop. Typically upon adoption, children at first advance more quickly in gross motor skills. Next are visual motor skills, followed by feeding and then communication skills.

Children living in foster care may have more experiences and experience less developmental delays. However, these children also deal with transition from caregivers they may have become attached to. In this instance, separation and transition challenges can impact the skills a child will show you or will learn early in adoption. In addition, cultural differences in child-raising strategies may be reflected in the developmental skills of the child. For instance, a child from Guatemala may have very good head control from being held in a papoose all day; however, they may have delayed gross motor skills because they have little opportunity to be on the floor, learning to sit and move.