The kids are back in school, and if you're a parent, you may be thinking about the need for educational software.

This is a topic that never seems to grow old, so for those parents who use the home computer as a learning tool, I would like to offer my hints for separating the worthwhile from the lackluster.

Watch out for badly designed software that performs poorly or fails to do the job intended; such software may forever turn your kids off on the idea of personal computers. The best way to see what is good and what isn't is by trying the software at a computer or software store. Admittedly, this is time-consuming. Two alternatives are checking with your child's teacher or the software ratings in computer magazines. Some magazines, like Family Computing, regularly review educational software and the reviews can be more revealing than an in-store demonstration.

Some things to look for:

What's the basic design of the program, and what does it aim to accomplish? Is it a game, a tutorial of some type, or a drill and practice program with color and sound to keep the child's attention level high?

Is the program flexible? An educational program should offer various options and skill levels. A flaw of many educational programs is that they lock users into a limited set of choices. Children tire of such programs after a few uses, and it is then likely to sit on a shelf.

Is the program easy to use? If it takes an adult or a teenager 10 minutes to figure out how to load the program, or wade through a poorly designed manual, younger children are likely to have a difficult or impossible time with the program.

Are the children heavily involved, or is it just a game of watching a showy display of colors on the computer's screen? If the software makes the child play a passive role, he or she is likely to decide that it would be more fun to watch television.

Is the program relatively kid-proof? An occasional press of the wrong keys shouldn't cause the machine to lock up; nor should the program stop operating entirely, or display less-than-friendly error messages.

The great home computer shakeout of the 1985-86 era actually helped the educational software market in an important respect. A number of not-so-well established companies have left the field, and the remaining firms for the most part create good products.endqua