When you're 5 years old and your mouth has trouble making sounds like l and s, kindergarten can be a pretty formidable place.

After awhile, because the other children can't understand what you're saying and the teacher is too busy to understand why you're acting up, you might even be labeled a "behavior problem." And the label may stick for the rest of your life.That's the kind of worse-case scenario that school administrators like Debbie Evans hope to circumvent with programs like the Murray Community Preschool.

The preschool, and a dozen others like it throughout the Salt Lake Valley, provide free early intervention for handicapped 3- to 5-year-olds. The handicaps range from severe retardation and cerebral palsy to less-recognizable developmental delays.

"Our aim is to make the child's life that much fuller and on a par with his or her peers," explains Evans, director of the Murray Community Preschool program. As much as possible, the valley's special ed preschool programs try to mainstream handicapped children into regular classes.

"They benefit a lot from being around kids who are appropriate role models," says special ed preschoolteacher Joy McMullin.

The state mandated early intervention preschools two years ago, two years in advance of a federal deadline requiring that all school districts provide free services for handicapped children age 3 and up - in the least restrictive setting.

"The earlier we can get them, the earlier they can be placed in appropriate services or the earlier they don't need us at all," says Chris Giacovelli, who supervises the Jordan District's special ed preschool services.

Four-year-old Benjamin White has been going to the Murray Community Preschool for about a year. "It's like day and night," says his father, Lawrence, about the change in Benjamin's language skills. "He talks more clearly and is more socially adapted to the other students."

Benjamin's brother, 7-year-old David, wasn't as lucky. When he was 4, his school district didn't provide early intervention. So David entered kindergarten with speech problems that were so severe he had to repeat kindergarten the next year.

"The advantage of starting in preschool," says McMullin, "is that the child can have a success experience in kindergarten rather than a failure."

Currently about 700 children receive preschool special ed services in Salt Lake and Davis counties. The children, often referred by pediatricians or day-care providers who notice developmental delays, are tested before they are admitted to the programs.

For information about special ed preschools, call 328-7372 (Salt Lake District), 268-8522 (Granite), 565-7588 (Jordan) and 451-5071 (Davis).