By the time my older daughter, Penny, was 3, she conversed like a miniature adult and colored inside the lines almost as well as I did. At the same age, our younger daughter, Gwen, adorably still mangled her r’s and needed help holding a crayon. The contrast worried me, so I talked to Gwen’s teacher, who reassured me that my daughter was developmentally in the middle of the classroom pack. Our family’s pediatrician wasn’t worried, either, but she said to call if Gwen’s grasp didn’t start improving.
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“However, children develop differently, and there is a whole universe of possibilities for what’s causing any one behavior,” says Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families.
A delay in fine motor skills could be a typical blip in development, or it might indicate something more serious. But one thing’s certain: The earlier that parents and teachers can identify delays and start early interventions, the better kids will perform socially and academically down the road.
To help determine whether your toddler or preschooler’s development is on track, consider the nine questions below.
Most 3-year-olds can rattle off the words for body parts, everyday objects, and basic pronouns such as “you” or “me.” They’ll also start asking “why?” and begin using plurals. Speech and language problems are often one of the first signs of a learning disability such as an auditory- or language processing disorder in which a child’s brain has difficulty interpreting or using sound or language.
Undiagnosed hearing loss—or even chronic ear infections—can also delay speech, says Mark Griffin, Ph.D., a longtime special-education expert who consults for Understood, a nonprofit advocacy group for parents and kids with learning and attention issues. A child’s hearing is checked at birth and again at around age 5, but you can ask your pediatrician for an assessment before then if you’re concerned.
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By 36 months, preschoolers should understand the concept of “how many” and be able to hold up fingers for how old they are. They should be able to “count,” in that they can recite several numbers in order (though they often skip some). At age 4, kids can usually count up to 20. A persistent delay in this area might be an early sign of dyscalculia, a learning disability that interferes with understanding numbers and telling time, Dr. Griffin says.
Between 3 and 4 years old, children should be able to recognize ten or more letters when they see them. Some can spot their own first name or even a few words they see frequently. If your child is falling behind most of his peers in this area, it could point to a language-processing disorder or dyslexia, a learning disability that causes difficulty in reading, writing, and spelling.
Kids with ADHD could be as much as three years behind other children their age in certain aspects of brain development, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health. “Social and emotional skills are really important when transitioning to kindergarten,” says Parlakian. Kids need to be able to cooperate with peers and manage their own frustration without hitting or throwing tantrums. “Even adults freak out once in a while, but by age 5, a child should be able to regulate her emotions in an ageappropriate way, such as persisting through an obstacle or challenge instead of giving up in frustration the way a younger child might,” says Parlakian. If your child isn’t quite there yet, it doesn’t mean she definitely has ADHD or will develop a learning disability. “Still, you should keep an eye on the situation,” says Dr. Griffin.
Preschoolers can answer questions about what they see in books and may pretend to read by turning pages and making up stories based on the illustrations. At age 4, most can also recite some of the lines from a favorite book by heart. (Or will catch you when you try to skip over things. Gah!) This means they are learning that pictures help tell the story, and they understand that the symbols (letters) on the page have meaning—an important early literacy skill, Parlakian says.
Between ages 3 and 4, most children will be able to hold a fork and a spoon with their fingers instead of in their fists. Similarly, preschoolers should also be able to grip a thick crayon or marker with their fingers. A child who isn’t doing these things could be experiencing a delay in fine motor skills—sometimes an early sign of dysgraphia, a learning disability that makes writing difficult.
This might hint at an auditory- or visual-processing deficit that hinders his ability to understand and use information that he hears or sees. These deficits can affect speech, memory, and knowing where objects are in space.
Between ages 3 and 4, your child should play with other kids rather than just alongside them and gravitate toward imaginative, pretend play. If he doesn’t, talk to your pediatrician about whether he might have a delay in social skills.