Assessing Your Preschooler's Development

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Few parents make it through their child's early years without occasionally thinking they should consult a counselor about the way things are going. It can be difficult to judge development-- there is no simple equivalent to a fever to indicate that something is wrong with a child and that help is needed.

An Observation Period

To determine if a preschooler needs special help, it's important to get an idea of how he or she functions over a month-long period. This allows you to take into account the occasional exceptionally stressful or hectic days that can affect young children temporarily.

Use the following guidelines to help you gauge whether your child's development is going well. A three- or four-year-old child should:

Usually fall asleep easily and wake up refreshed. Occasional restless nights or grumpy mornings are all right, of course, but a typical pattern of deep sleep and morning eagerness to get on with life are good signs.

Eat with appetite most of the time. Skipping a meal or refusing food occasionally is normal. Obsessive or compulsive eating may require intervention.

Typically have bowel and bladder control, especially during the day. some accidents are still likely at this age, and bed-wetting is not an indication of a serious problem.

Exhibit a range of emotions. Help may be needed if a child's mood rarely changes or if his emotions are low in intensity.

Accept adult authority more often than not. Some resistance to adult authority is healthy. However, both constant resistance or unfailing compliance may signal excessive insecurity.

Sometimes show spontaneous affection to at least one significant person in her life. A child who is developing well is likely to let someone nearby know that life is wonderful. Excessive demonstrations of affection may indicate a child's doubts about the strength of attachment with others.

Show that he can initiate, maintain, and enjoy a relationship with at least one other child. a child who plays alone is not in trouble as long as he is not doing so because of excessive fear or lack of confidence in relating to other children. A child whose interactions with others are marked by hostility, tension, bullying, or submissiveness may need help.

Vary her play over a period of a few weeks. New elements should be added into the play, even if the same materials are being used. Excessive repetitive, unremitting, or ritualistic play patterns can indicate the need for professional counseling.

Exhibit a sense of curiosity, adventure, and even mischief on occasion. If the child never pokes into the unknown or snoops where he is forbidden, he may be experiencing excessive fear of punishment or high anxiety.

Demonstrate his capacity for sustained involvement and interest in something besides himself. A preschooler's capacity for interest should increase to longer and longer intervals of involvement with activities, games, and play. Professional help may be needed if a child cannot immerse himself in an activity or stay with simple ones to completion.

Show readiness to enjoy the good things in life. If a child is so afraid of something that she would rather miss out on interesting activities, then counseling might be needed.

Most children experience rough spots in development, but as long as the problem does not prevent a child from enjoying things, it is reasonably safe to assume it will pass.

When Help Is Needed

If after a long period of observation, you are still in doubt about your child's development, consult your doctor or your local mental-health agency. The value of counseling depends greatly on the confidence you have in the counselor, so it is good idea to get recommendations from someone you can trust. In some communities, the state, country, or city social agencies and hospitals provide information about counseling and psychological services.

Credits: Lilian G. Katz

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