At some point, most parents of preschoolers will wonder, “Is my child developing normally?" and "How can I tell?” Parents who haven't spent much time around other young children may not know whether or not their preschooler is doing what she should be for her age. Others compare their child to a friend’s or neighbor’s child of the same age and worry if their child is not potty-trained or speaking in five-word sentences.

What’s Normal

First of all, it's important to realize that every child develops differently. Just as children begin to talk or walk at different ages, they also move through developmental stages at various rates. Some learn things earlier; others take more time. Many factors are at play in your child's developmental progress, including your child’s personality, so don’t be alarmed if your child’s skills don’t match those of her friend’s in every area.

On the other hand, be aware of normal milestones. “Parents should carefully observe how their child acts, speaks and plays, particularly in the following areas: motor skills, speech and language development, cognitive skills, and social and emotional skills,” says Christina Bertok, a school psychologist from Pennsylvania. If your child seems to be lagging behind in certain areas, it might be wise to consult a professional who can determine if your child is experiencing a developmental delay. The sooner these difficulties are detected, the easier it will be for your child to catch up.

What to Look For

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as Joyce Powell and Charles A. Smith, Ph.D., of the National Network for Child Care (NNCC), the following are tasks most children can complete at each age.

Age 30-36 Months:

Young preschoolers are learning words rapidly. Their balance improves and so do their fine motor skills. At this age your child should:

  • Climb steps with alternating feet
  • Hold a pencil or crayon
  • Turn pages one at a time
  • Put together a three- or four-piece puzzle
  • Say her name, age, and gender
  • Use about 1,000 words
  • Name several body parts

Age Three:

Three-year-olds can jump, run, and play. Most can now use the toilet and speak in longer sentences. By the end of the third year, your preschooler should be able to:

  • Jump with both feet off floor
  • Kick a ball forward
  • Pedals a tricycle
  • Dress self with some help
  • Use toilet with some help
  • Count two or three items
  • Use three- or five-word sentences

Age Four:

  • Four-year-olds can do many things on their own. They feed and dress themselves. Most are learn numbers, shapes, and sorting. By the end of the fourth year, most preschoolers can:
  • Use the toilet alone
  • Catch a bounced ball
  • Stand on one foot for five seconds
  • Cut with scissors
  • Sort shapes and colors
  • Name some colors
  • Count five objects
  • Play with other children and understands taking turns

What to Do

If you have concerns about your child’s development, discuss them with an expert. Bertok recommends speaking with your child care provider or pediatrician, as they observe many same-aged children and can be a helpful resource if you feel your child is lagging in any of these areas.

Your child’s preschool teacher can also be a great resource in letting you know if your child is on track for her age group. It's also a good idea to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician at your child’s check-up. In addition to assessing overall health, pediatricians watch for development delays by asking questions about your child’s social, motor, and language skills.

If your child’s developmental delay appears significant, make an appointment immediately rather than waiting for the next annual check-up. Your pediatrician may assure you that your child is normal, or she may suggest testing. “Early detection and intervention is critical if there are true delays in a child's development,” Bertok warns. Intervention helps many children increase their skills or competence. If your child is diagnosed with a developmental delay, the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY) can provide information on government programs, special services, and disability organizations to support you and your child.