Dear Doctors:

My 3 1/2-year-old son is in nursery school. He is now learning his ABCs, 1-2-3s, shapes and many things that appear to be early for his age.

What I would like to know is whether learning these things at this age will be helpful or harmful in later years. I heard a television discussion in which it was stated that it could be harmful. Would you give me your ideas about this? A Reader. Dear Reader:

The problem is not early learning, but early pressure to learn.

Providing an opportunity for learning letters, numbers and shapes is perfectly reasonable for a 3 1/2, as long as the child is not put under undue pressure. In fact, deliberately preventing a child from learning letters, numbers and shapes, at a time when he or she is eager to do so, can frustrate and delay future interest in learning.

There is no time or age that is "right" to begin to learn. In fact, children begin to learn from birth -- if not before. Children learn in ways similar to each other, but at different degrees of speed and style, and in different areas of interest. Some children will learn numbers and shapes before others, for example.

It has been reported that some children younger than 3 years of age have learned to read, without emotional or learning problems developing later. And in general, the "late bloomers" are as intelligent as the early readers and do "catch up."

Our society places great value on intelligence, and many people believe early letter and number learning is an indication of high intelligence. As such, many parents and teachers put too much pressure on very young children to learn "ahead of time."

If a child expresses an interest or an ability, he or she would be permitted to learn at age 2, 3 -- or anytime. If, however, the child is not ready to learn specific academic skills at an early age -- just wait; he or she will be ready soon enough.

Parents and teachers should also remember that most of the activities of children are preparations for learning, including conversations with children, reading to them and their "parroting" the story back, play, games and even some television viewing. Children who grow up in an environment of rich and warm interaction with people, and receive stimulating information, will learn specific skills when they are ready.

By the way, praise for the early learner should be at a level that does not put the child under pressure for greater achievement than he or she is interested in, or able to accomplish. Praise for a child who achieves academic skills at an early age should not make other children believe they are less able, less worthy or less loved. In fact, other children should be told that they will eventually be able to read and write, too. Dear Doctors:

I am white and a fifth grade science teacher in a predominantly white school.

There is a black student in one of my classes who seems to get along with other students, but she is silent in class and appears to be angry with me. She never participates in class, and I was suprised when she did very well on the first test I gave.

What do you think is going on? How would you respond to this student? -- A Reader. Dear Reader:

On a day that I was feeling particularly self-confident (which is not every day), I would ask her to stop by after class, and tell her what you just told me.

I would ask her about her behavior in class, but would be careful that my tone of voice not be defensive, accusatory or fearful. Instead, my tone would suggest a desire to clarfy the misunderstanding, in order to have a better relationship.

Many things can cause students to doubt or distrust teachers. The student in your class is doing well. Yet, studies have shown that many black students do not do well in predominantly white shcools, with white teachers, when they don't know how the teacher feels about them. Your talk with this youngster will be an expression of concern, and will hopefully lead to a better relationship.