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What's "normal" when it comes to my child's development?

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Rachel Frishberg’s daughter, Erica, seemed to be taking a long time to learn to read. At 4 ½ years old, she wasn’t learning her letters like the other kids in her class. Frishberg had her evaluated by the school system in New York where they lived at the time.

“They said she’s normal. A lot of kids don’t learn their letters at this age,” Frishberg says.

After the family moved to Palm Beach County, though, Erica’s second-grade teacher told Frishberg that her daughter’s struggles with spelling and reading could be caused by dyslexia.

“Now she’s in third grade, and the school is giving her a program for dyslexia for half an hour a day. It has helped some,” Frishberg says. “She now has the tools to sound out longer words, but it’s hard.”

All children develop at their own pace. But how do you know if your child might have a learning disability? First, it helps to know what your child should be doing at each stage of life.

At ages 3, 4, 5...

For example, at 3 years old, most children can speak more clearly, name colors and pictures, name seven body parts, use words to describe emotions (like happy or sad), and tell you the names of their friends.

At 4, children begin to use past tense and plurals, can follow unrelated directions, sing familiar songs and play with others. And by 5, children can copy patterns, print some letters, cut with safety scissors, recall parts of a story, want to please their friends, and sing and dance around.

If you notice your child isn’t doing things other children his or her age are doing, trust your judgement and alert your child’s doctor as soon as possible.

You can also take action on your own. Observe your child. If you notice over time that you’re child is consistently not keeping up with their friends, you can reach out for help in the community.

“People often think it’s bad behavior or bad parenting,” says Sharon Alexander of Unicorn Children’s Foundation in Boca Raton. “There are programs for children from birth, with no costs to the family. I’m always telling families to err on the side of caution.”

Local organizations can help

If there is a delay, early intervention can often help a child catch up to his or her peers.

For example, you can call the free 211 HelpLine and ask for Help Me Grow or the Special Needs Hotline. The 211 specialist will ask you questions and usually can find you help within 24 hours. The 211 specialist also will call you back in a few weeks to check on you.

“We don’t just give them a phone number and say, ‘Have a nice life,’ ” says Randee Gabriel, children and family services manager of 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast. “We call them up. One of the main reasons parents don’t come to an appointment is that they don’t know why it’s important. They may be thinking, ‘I make $7.50 an hour and if I miss five hours of work, I don’t get to buy groceries this week.’ So we tell them why it’s important to go. They know they have a support person.”

Families often have several problems to solve, in fact. The 211 specialists start by helping them keep a roof over their heads, find food pantries and secure help paying the electric bill, if needed. They also ask every caller if they have young children and if they are having any problems at school or home.

“I say to them, we’re free, we’re confidential, and there may be resources out there that we can help them tap into,” says Jennifer Harris, a special needs advocate for 211.

Children under age 6 also can be assessed for free by child developmental specialists through Home Safe, which is funded by Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County. Young children who are identified at risk for a delay may be referred to programs such as Early Steps, a program of Easter Seals Florida, or First Step to Success, run by The Arc Palm Beach County.

The Palm Beach County School District also offers help for young children. Its Child Find program evaluates children ages 3 to 5. If your child needs special education in pre-kindergarten, he or she can be placed in a program within 60 days, says school district’s Kevin McCormick, director of exceptional student education. For more information, call 561-434-7337.

Whatever your concern as a parent, don’t panic. Palm Beach County has resources that can help.

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