Q: How can you tell if a preschool child has learning disabilities? My 4 1/2 -year-old can't recognize letters of the alphabet. When he writes his name, the letters are either backward or unrecognizable. What, if anything, should I do about this?
B.R., Wichita, Kan.
A: Reversing letters is completely normal at this age. Lots of kids won't outgrow it until at least age 7. The overwhelming odds are there's nothing wrong with your child, but to satisfy yourself that everything's on track, you should get some information on learning disabilities.
"One of the best things you can do is talk with a teacher who teaches third- or fourth-graders who have been diagnosed," says Ann Kornblet of St. Louis, Mo., president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
Once you begin to understand the terrain, several clues can help distinguish whether a child's difficulty with letters is serious.
Take note if a child has severe trouble with language in general, says William Ellis, director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York.
Kathy Thompson, who teaches learning-disabled children in Minneapolis, Minn., says to watch how a child looks at a book.
"If they look at it upside down or back to front, that may indicate a problem," Ms. Thompson says.
Pay attention, too, if a child is hyperactive or has extreme difficulty learning the basics of social behavior -- such as how to wait for a turn.
Another tip-off is what Ms. Kornblet calls the "unexpected deficit."
"If the child excels in a lot of things but has an awful lot of trouble with something very basic, that would be a concern," she says.
Next, look at abilities like jumping, balancing and other gross motor skills, as well as fine motor skills, such as cutting with scissors.
4 Then, compare the child to others the same age.
"If you see a number of substantial lags, the child needs to be examined thoroughly," Mr. Ellis says.
Lots of parents who called Child Life had their children evaluated through the public school system.
"Contact your school system for a free consultation," says M. Egan of Big Pine Key, Fla. "School systems are mandated to provide diagnostic testing to deter any problems. Early intervention is the key."
Even with a screening, it's very difficult to diagnose learning disabilities in a preschooler, Mr. Ellis says. Many children end up failing in school before their problem comes to light. That's why it's important for parents to look for patterns in areas that cause ,, concern. Keep a written record.
"Parents should avoid jumping to conclusions," Mr. Ellis says. "They should gather the facts and bring them to the professional who's trying to make the diagnosis."
Readers may write for free information on learning disabilities from the associations mentioned in this column. Here are the addresses:
* Learning Disabilities Association of America, 4156 Library Road, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15234. The association has parent support groups in all 50 states and also publishes a newsletter.
* National Center for Learning Disabilities, 99 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 5. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 3-year-old daughter.
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* Loud cycle: "I don't believe in spanking my children, but I do find that I yell at them a lot when I get frustrated," says T.L. of Phoenix, Ariz. "The result is that now my children yell, too -- at me, at each other, at the dog. I don't like this pattern, but I don't know how to stop it. Any suggestions?"