Developmental Red Flags for Children Ages 3-5

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Social–Emotional Development, Which Includes

  • Relationships 
  • Separations
  • Involvement
  • Focusing
  • Affect (mood)
  • Self-image
  • Anxiety level
  • Impulse control
  • Transitions

Red Flags

Be alert to a child who, compared with other children the same age or 6 months older or younger, exhibits these behaviors:

  • Does not seem to recognize self as a separate person, or does not refer to self as “I”
  • Has great difficulty separating from parent or separates too easily
  • Is anxious, tense, restless, compulsive, cannot get dirty or messy, has many fears, engages in excessive self-stimulation
  • Seems preoccupied with own inner world; conversations do not make sense
  • Shows little or no impulse control; hits or bites as first response; cannot follow a classroom routine
  • Expresses emotions inappropriately (laughs when sad, denies feelings); facial expressions do not match emotions
  • Cannot focus on activities (short attention span, cannot complete anything, flits from toy to toy)
  • Relates only to adults; cannot share adult attention, consistently sets up power struggle, or is physically abusive to adults
  • Consistently withdraws from people, prefers to be alone; no depth to relationships; does not seek or accept affection or touching
  • Treats people as objects; has no empathy for other children; cannot play on another child’s terms
  • Is consistently aggressive, frequently hurts others deliberately; shows no remorse or is deceitful in hurting others

How to Screen

  1. Observe child.
    • Note overall behavior. What does the child do all day? With whom? With what does child play?
    • Note when, where, how frequently, and with whom problem behaviors occur.
    • Describe behavior through clear observations. Do not diagnose.
  2. Note family history.
    • Make-up of family: Who cares for the child?
    • Has there been a recent move, death, new sibling, or long or traumatic separation?
    • What support does the family have—extended family, friends?
  3. Note developmental history and child’s temperament since infancy.
    • Activity level
    • Regularity of child’s routine—sleeping, eating
    • Distractibility
    • Intensity of child’s responses
    • Persistence/attention span
    • Positive or negative mood
    • Adaptability to changes in routine
    • Level of sensitivity to noise, light, touch

Motor Development—Fine Motor, Gross Motor, and Perceptual—Which Includes

  • Quality of movement
  • Level of development
  • Sensory integration

Red Flags

Pay extra attention to children with these behaviors:

  • The child who is particularly uncoordinated and who
    • Has lots of accidents
    • Trips, bumps into things
    • Is awkward getting down/up, climbing, jumping, getting around toys and people
    • Stands out from the group in structured motor tasks—walking, climbing stairs, jumping, standing on one foot
    • Avoids the more physical games
  • The child who relies heavily on watching own or other peoples’ movements in order to do them and who
    • May frequently misjudge distances
    • May become particularly uncoordinated or off balance with eyes closed
  • The child who, compared to peers, uses much more of her or his body to do the task than the task requires and who
    • Dives into the ball (as though to cover the fact that she or he cannot co-  ordinate a response)
    • Uses tongue, feet, or other body parts excessively to help in coloring,  cutting, tracing, or with other high-concentration tasks
    • Produces extremely heavy coloring
    • Leans over the table when concentrating on a fine motor project
    • When doing wheelbarrows, keeps pulling the knees and feet under the  body, or thrusts rump up in the air
  • The child with extraneous and involuntary movements, who
    • While painting with one hand, holds the other hand in the air or waves
    • Does chronic toe walking
    • Shows twirling or rocking movements
    • Shakes hands or taps fingers
  • The child who involuntarily finds touching uncomfortable and who
    • Flinches or tenses when touched or hugged
    • Avoids activities that require touching or close contact
    • May be uncomfortable lying down, particularly on the back
    • Reacts as if attacked when unexpectedly bumped
    • Blinks, protects self from a ball even when trying to catch it
  • The child who compulsively craves being touched or hugged, or the older child who almost involuntarily has to feel things to understand them, who both may
    • Cling to, or lightly brush, the teacher a lot
    • Always sit close to or touch children in a circle
    • Be strongly attracted to sensory experiences such as blankets, soft  toys, water, dirt, sand, paste, hands in food
  • The child who has a reasonable amount of experience with fine motor tools but whose skill does not improve proportionately, such as
    • An older child who can still only snip with scissors or whose cutting  is extremely choppy
    • An older child who still cannot color within the lines on a simple  project
    • An older child who frequently switches hands with crayon, scissors, paintbrush
    • An experienced child who tries but still gets paste, paint, sand, water everywhere
    • A child who is very awkward with, or chronically avoids, small manipulative materials
  • The child who has exceptional difficulty with new but simple puzzles, coloring, structured art projects, and drawing a person, and who, for example, may
    • Take much longer to do the task, even when trying hard, and produce a final result that is still not as sophisticated compared to those of  peers
    • Show a lot of trial-and-error behavior when trying to do a puzzle
    • Mix up top/bottom, left/right, front/back, on simple projects where a model is to be copied
    • Use blocks or small cubes to repeatedly build and crash tower structures and seem fascinated and genuinely delighted with the novelty of the crash (older child)
    • Still does a lot of scribbling (older child)
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