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Is Your Child On Target? Part II

Part II—Three to Five Years

In Part I of this article, I presented a simplified procedure for observing your child in order to look for clues about whether he or she is 'on target.' Those observations could all be made at home while the child was engaged in daily routines around familiar people. I pointed out that parents should seek professional help if there is any indication of a genuine need for formal testing. My informal, observational approach, however, can provide valuable reassurance to concerned parents or else indicate that further evaluation might be needed. This 'front line' assessment is based on the conviction that the most valuable indicators of developmental level are those made right where the child lives—at home.

Let me repeat briefly the four areas of development in which I suggest you observe:

Motor Development. Development of coordination and skill in the use of both large and small muscles and coordination of hand and eye movements.
Language Development. The appearance of speech sounds and evidence of understanding what is said. Social and Emotional Development. Attentiveness to and interest in special people and strangers; nature of emotional expression (crying, smiling, fearfulness, etc.); ease of being comforted when upset.
Activities. What does the child actually do? How is wakeful time spent? How long does an object or event interest him or her?

You may note that I have not included specific categories like problem-solving or broad ones like intellectual development, both of which you may have expected to find there. That is because I consider them to be built in to the areas I have identified and regard them as cutting across all the others. For example, a baby does not struggle to coordinate eye movements with those of the hand unless there is a problem to be solved (for instance, two pop beads he wants to connect). Likewise, the development of the intellect remains merely an abstract concept until we tie it into concrete behaviors we can observe (like seeing puzzle pieces fitted into the correct places). My four areas require no sort of 'test' of your child, merely your own careful observation of what transpires during daily routines.

As you put your own child or children into the chart, perhaps underlining the behavior that best reflects current functioning, remember that no two children follow exactly the same timetable in their patterns of development. Just because most children do the following things somewhere near the times indicated in the table, a particular child may not do some of them at the designated time and still be perfectly normal. There is always a great deal of variability in the ages at which individual children achieve these developmental milestones. Having offered that reminder, let me describe some of the behaviors you can observe at home and in the neighborhood that indicate whether your preschool child is roughly 'on target.'

Four YearsFive Years
Motor DevelopmentCan hop, pump self on swing
Can throw & catch a ball
Rides tricycle using pedals
Builds with blocks
Draws or copies a circle
Works puzzles with 8-10 pieces
Rides a bicycle with training wheels
Draws, paints, colors
Can cut a pattern with scissors
Draws a person with head, body, arms/hands, legs/feet
Can operate a tape, TV
Language DevelopmentTalks intelligibly, can generally be understood by others
Can tell what you do with eyes, ears, hands, etc.
Can carry out a series of instructions
Tells age, birthday correctly
Knows full name, some of address
Uses time words, like 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow'
Relates events (what happened in school, on playground)
Has memorized a few rhymes or songs
Retells little stories (Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood, etc.)
Social and Emotional DevelopmentRarely has a tantrum
Doesn't cry unduly if hurt
Can discuss moral issues ('That's not fair;' 'you cheated')
Accepts criticism
Shows sympathy and concern for others
Sibling jealousy notwithstanding, freely gives & receives love
Gets along well with other child-ren, likes to be with them
'Helps' younger children
Discusses feelings with parents
Controls own aggression and does not over-react if receives it
Suggests ways to solve problems
Smiles a lot, is happy and not unduly fearful
ActivitiesGoes to toilet without help
Puts away toys with gentle prods
Shows evidence of planning of daily activities
Plays with toys without constant supervision
Looks at books by self
Handles almost all of bathing and dressing
Feeds self completely with no help
Wants to 'keep' activities (like block towers, pictures, etc.)
Uses toys in imaginative ways
Makes plans

Many 3- and 4-year-old children spend part of their time in a preschool or child care setting. If you make these observations on your child at home, you might also run through some of them when you have an opportunity for an interview with your child's teacher. Most children are reasonably consistent in their behavior from one setting to another, but this is not always the case. A different pattern of reaction in different settings can provide useful information about exactly what it is that stimulates desirable or sets off undesirable behavior.

When we try to determine whether our children are on target, we often do so with the intent of working hard to fill in any gaps we find, to shore up weak areas. But the opposite reaction is equally valuable. For example, if we note that a child can quickly solve every puzzle on the shelf but can't tell you the name of the animal she has put together, we tend to say, 'Oh, I've got to do more with her to develop her speech.' That's a good idea—or at least half of a good idea. For the other half of the idea is equally good. It should lead us to say, 'I've got a kid here who's a whiz at perceiving space relationships. I need to think of some things to help her develop that skill even further.' So your observations should be just as helpful at identifying potential strengths as weaknesses. We all have both, and both need the attention and concern of those who guide our development.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education