It’s not easy having a child who struggles in school. Finding help for your child can be difficult, especially when you aren’t sure what is available in school or exactly what type of help is needed. In Part One of this series, the special education* process was introduced, including who can make a referral (parents, school staff, outside service providers, administrators), what types of difficulties can be assessed (academic, behavioral, social-emotional, adaptive functioning, fine or gross motor, speech and language) legal timelines, and who the members of the IEP Team might be (teachers who work with the child, parents/guardians, administrators, psychologist, counselor, and maybe even related service providers such as occupational or physical therapists, speech-language pathologists).
In part 2, the focus is on what may be the most misunderstood part of the assessment process: the psychological assessment. This is the part where most parents conjure an image of their child lying on a couch, talking about her feelings to a person who is taking notes across from them, psychoanalysis style. The truth is, psychological testing is a series of measures used to determine a child or adolescent’s learning style. It provides information on how your child learns the best, and helps the team make informed decisions about your child’s schooling.
Psychological Testing for Children
Typically, during an initial special education evaluation, a psychological assessment, which may also be called a cognitive assessment, will be conducted by a school psychologist. A school psychologist is a professional that is trained to work with school aged children and adolescents, and has gained specific training in assessing students in order to gain information that guides appropriate educational decision making. These school professionals also receive training on effective teaching strategies, child and adolescent development, behavior, data collection, individual and group counseling and social skills training, providing consultation to school staff, and other school related practices.
Whether a psychological evaluation is administered for your child may be dependent on your state or school district, and on the reason for the assessment. For example, if a student is referred for speech and language concerns, she is not necessarily going to be referred for or receiving a psychological evaluation. A psychological assessment should contain a series of measures. These measures often include a standardized cognitive battery of tests (common tests include the Woodcock Johnson or the Wechsler series of scales), measures of personality, behavior, social and emotional functioning, and/or adaptive functioning. The team typically relies on the assessor to use their professional judgment in selecting measures, but at times, a parent, educator, outside service provider, or other team member may request that a specific concern be evaluated. The selection of tests should be based on the reason that the child was referred. For example, if parents report that their child has difficulty maintaining his attention during academic activities, a rating scale form that measures attention, hyperactivity and other related behaviors may be given to the teacher and parents to complete, along with a classroom observation of the student during academic tasks.
Psychological Testing: Gathering Information
A major component of a psychological assessment is information gained from those who know the student well. Rating scales may be completed by teachers, parents/guardians and the student (dependent upon their age) in order to gain information about the child in various environments and situations. This is an important part of the evaluation process, and allows those who interact with the student to share any concerns that they have about academics, attitudes toward school and home, behaviors (such as inattention, withdrawn behavior, hyperactivity, conduct issues), socialization, etc. Other relevant background information (e.g. health history, development, any home situations such as divorce, illness of family members, languages spoken at home, etc.) may be collected by an interview, a developmental history form, and or/ with a review of school records. Gaining historical information about the child is vital, as it may help the team in its decision making.
For example, a struggling student who was referred for an evaluation by his classroom teacher due to limited progress but has had poor attendance during the last and current school year. The IEP team would have to take into consideration whether the students lack of progress has to do with adequate exposure to high quality education, which, in this case, determining whether they presented with a disability may not be appropriate at that time due to their attendance. Another example may be a referral for a first grade student who is having difficulty learning to read. When school records are reviewed, the home language survey identifies that the primary language spoken at home by the child’s parents is Spanish, while the child is only English speaking. The evaluator would have to take this into consideration when determining whether this child required specially designed instruction due to a disability, or whether his language acquisition is impacting his learning.
The assessor will work directly with your child or adolescent in order to complete a cognitive assessment. A cognitive assessment includes a set of tasks that are given to a student in order to measure brain activities, including areas such as verbal communication, concept formation, problem solving, reasoning, memory, speed of task completion, and Executive Functioning. The importance of these tasks is that they provide a profile of the child’s learning style, and determines strengths and areas of difficulty. Any significant challenges in areas of cognitive functioning may have an impact on the child’s ability to learn, and should be used to inform the next steps for your child and to drive intervention and instruction, whether your child qualifies for special education or not.
For example, a 14-year old adolescent who scores higher on non-verbal tasks than on verbal tasks may have difficulty organizing his thoughts and ideas when speaking in his written expression. He may benefit from such accommodations as having task directions presented in multiple ways (written on the board and verbal), the use of visual organizations of information (graphic organizers) when brainstorming and planning writing assignments, and may require academic supports and specially designed instruction in order to access grade level curriculum.
Another example is a 9 year old child who was evaluated and has weaknesses in his working memory. This means that he may not be able to remember and retrieve information after a short period of time (several seconds), which may interfere with tasks such as reading, spelling and following multistep directions.
Psychological testing is an important part of the process, but should not be the only piece of information considered at the table! The Team should be considerate of classroom progress, health history, or other factors that may impact the student such as significant health history, any interruptions in schooling, development, cultural and linguistic background, and economic disadvantage. In some cases, additional assessment is required in order to best understand the child's learning style or to determine an underlying or primary reason for a delay or a struggle. Schools, with the exception of those that may have psychiatric staff or other medical professionals on staff, are unable to provide a medical diagnosis. For example, if a child is referred for a special education evaluation due to his lack of academic progress, and expresses concern in the role of inattention in his struggles, the school psychologist may, as part of the evaluation, ask the parents and teacher to complete rating scales, perform a classroom observation, and have the student perform tasks that measure their attention. Information gathered during this process would not lead to an ADHD diagnosis, but may be brought to the child’s physician in an effort to help them to make an educated decision based on school and home behaviors.
When Considering Psychological Testing for Your Child:
- Ask questions- before, during and after the referral and assessment periods and the meeting. Don't be afraid to interrupt if you don't understand something!
- Share your own concerns. It is important to consider all areas during the evaluation.
- It may be beneficial to consult with and share reports and concerns with your child's pediatrician.
- Parents are part of the IEP Team - your input and participation is valued and desired!
*According to IDEA 2004, Sec 300.39 Special Education
“Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including--
- Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
- Instruction in physical education.
“Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction--
- To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child's disability; and
- To ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.”
Additional Psychological Evaluation Resources
Is your child struggling to keep organized, focused, and productive? Find out how Executive Function coaching can help students with a variety of learning profiles.
Bree Leggio, Ms.Ed., NCSP, is an Executive Function coach with Beyond BookSmart and a state licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, with a specialization in multicultural school psychology. She received her Master's degree in Education from CUNY Queens College in Queens, NY, and is currently working as a school psychologist. She has experience providing individualized intervention, assessment, and support services for children and adolescents with academic and emotional challenges. Bree believes that a collaborative environment, where families, administrators and other support providers work as a team, is one of the most important parts of building an effective learning environment that allows all children to succeed.