A Parent's Guide to Psychoeducational Evaluations
The goal of a psychoeducational evaluation is to enhance a child’s ability to be as successful as possible.
BY CHAD C. NELSON
As parents, we strive to help our children as much as possible. Despite our best efforts, however, we may see them struggling in some areas.
These struggles may occur early in a child’s development, manifested as difficulty understanding directions, learning to read or managing social interactions. For others, the challenge may arise as a child progresses in age, whether it involves reading comprehension, completing tests in the allotted time period, attending to tasks or organizing tasks and materials.
Despite assistance, these struggles may persist, leaving parents, children and teachers feeling frustrated or helpless. Under those circumstances, a psychoeducational evaluation may open the door to greater understanding of the child by everyone involved and help point the way toward solutions.
For Foreign Service families, in particular, such evaluations may help identify academic intervention and accommodations that may be necessary for children entering or continuing on in American and international schools around the world, as well as transitioning from one school to the other.
For FS children who are beginning to make the transition to college, evaluation can help identify accommodations that may be necessary in college. It can also help students prepare for higher education by identifying the ways in which they learn most efficiently.
What Is It?
Psychoeducational evaluation is a process by which a trained professional works with those involved in a child’s learning or development to identify the child’s strengths and weaknesses. Its goal is to enhance everyone’s ability to help the child be as successful as possible.
People involved in the process often include you, your child, your child’s teachers and, possibly, even your child’s pediatrician.
Evaluation can also help students prepare for higher education by identifying the ways in which they learn most efficiently.
Such an evaluation can answer many questions. For instance:
- What kind of learner is my child?
- Why is my child struggling in one subject, but not others?
- Why does my child cry at the thought of school or doing homework?
- Why have my child’s grades declined?
- Why do I have to repeat myself over and over to get my child to do something?
- Why is my child struggling to make friends?
- Why is my child misbehaving in class?
- Why is my child so nervous?
- Why does my child seem so disorganized and lazy?
- Why is my college student struggling with the demands that are placed on him or her?
While every evaluator is different, psychoeducational evaluations typically involve five areas of questioning and evaluation.
The amount of time an evaluator spends with a child can vary from several hours on a single occasion to shorter periods of time on multiple occasions.
- Background information and developmental history. To gain a comprehensive picture of your child, it will be important for the evaluator to have a full understanding of your child’s development leading up to the evaluation.
Often evaluators will inquire about your child’s birth history, developmental history, medical history, academic history, social/emotional history and family history. Areas of concern—and when they first became areas of concern—will also be assessed, as well as your impressions of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
Some parents believe that only a “clean slate” approach to testing will lead to an unbiased assessment of their child. Evaluators, however, don’t let this information guide their evaluation; rather, they utilize it to help in a diagnostic formulation and in planning an appropriate intervention for your child.
- Assessment of abilities (cognitive functioning). When assessing a child’s abilities, the examiner administers a series of measures to determine how your child learns, as well as their ability to process information and formulate responses. These measures often include verbal and visual tests to examine verbal reasoning, nonverbal reasoning and certain types of memory, as well as the speed at which your child processes information and formulates responses.
In addition to the scores that these measures generate, examiners also gain a great deal of information from how children approach and solve problems. Do they talk out loud when attempting to solve complex tasks? Do they work at their own pace, completing a task to the best of their ability?
Are they impulsive in their responses (answering without weighing all possible options)? Do they experience difficulty with complex directions and instructions? Do they become anxious when they know they are being timed? Do they become overwhelmed when they perceive the task to be too great for them to accomplish?
These are just a few of the questions that will be answered to gain an assessment of the child’s abilities.
- Assessment of processing. While cognitive assessment is a thorough process that helps determine the strengths and weaknesses a child possesses, there are other measures that also help in filling out your child’s learning profile. These include speech and language processing, auditory processing and other forms of memory, attention, organization and visual-motor processing.
- Assessment of academic functioning. Achievement, or academic, assessment is carried out to assist in understanding your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Tasks involving reading, writing, spelling and mathematics are assessed for general academic skill; in many instances, academic fluency and efficiency are also measured.
Evaluators often supplement general academic measures if they see that a child is experiencing difficulty in a specific area. For example, if a child has trouble reading single words, tests of phonological processing and reading efficiency may also be administered to determine the cause.
- Social/emotional functioning. In the process of understanding strengths and weaknesses in a child, it is important to examine not only their cognitive and academic functioning, but also their social and emotional functioning. This may be done in a variety of ways, depending on the age of the child and the examiner’s approach.
For younger children, social/emotional and behavioral functioning is often assessed through parent questionnaires. Teachers may also be asked to complete questionnaires regarding your child’s learning and behavior. As children get older, they may complete questionnaires assessing how they feel; and tests may be administered to measure how they cope with and view social relationships.
Examiners also gain a great deal of information from how children approach and solve problems.
Screening the Evaluator
When interviewing a potential evaluator for your child, ask the following questions to help find the “best fit” for you and your child:
- What is your experience assessing students this age?
- What is the cost of the evaluation?
- Do you participate in insurance? Some evaluators participate fully in insurance; some are out-of-network providers and will complete paperwork to assist you in trying to obtain reimbursement; and others will have nothing to do with insurance.
- How much time will be spent on the evaluation of my child, and what is your rationale for spending that amount of time? Some evaluators spend several hours, while others spend several days.
- What is included in the evaluation?
- How long will it take to have completed results and a completed report?
- Will I receive a copy of the report? Some evaluators charge an additional fee for a complete evaluation report.
- What will be included in the report? Some reports will be a simple review of evaluation results, while others will also contain recommendations based on those results.
What to Expect on Evaluation Day
The amount of time an evaluator spends with a child can vary from several hours on a single occasion to shorter periods of time on multiple occasions. During the evaluation process, parents are often not present in the testing room as the evaluator and child work together.
If you are planning on staying during the evaluation period, bring something to keep you occupied, as you will likely be waiting for several hours. Also, your child may take breaks, so ask if they are allowed to bring a snack or if refreshments will be offered. This is especially important for children who have food allergies.
The feedback session provides you an opportunity not only to hear the results, but ask questions.
Here are several suggestions to help prepare for the evaluation, so that your child will be able to perform to his or her true potential.
Prior to the evaluation, begin recording any concerns or thoughts that you want to share with the evaluator.
- Prepare your child for the testing experience. In an effort to normalize the testing experience, it is helpful to let your child know that many children undergo testing to see how best they learn.
With younger children, avoid telling them that they will be playing a bunch of games, as this expectation can lead to disappointment when they discover that they won’t be playing the kinds of games they are accustomed to.
Also, the title “doctor” often conjures up thoughts of needles in younger children, so you may wish to tell your child that they will be working with their own teacher or tutor.
With high school and college students, inform them of the process and encourage them to be involved. The more involved they are in the process, the more fully older students “buy into” the evaluation.
- Prepare yourself for the testing experience. Prior to the evaluation, begin collecting documents that may be helpful to the evaluator. These may include items such as report cards, progress reports and previous standardized testing results.
The evaluator may also ask you to complete some forms and questionnaires prior to the evaluation. Given that some of these forms take a considerable amount of time, try to complete them well before the appointment.
In addition to collecting documents, collect your thoughts. Prior to the evaluation, begin recording any concerns or thoughts that you want to share with the evaluator. This ensures that you won’t forget important information during your meeting.
- Know everyone’s schedule when making the appointment. While it may be less convenient, refrain from scheduling evaluation appointments during “special days” at school. For example, while your child may not miss academic content if the evaluation is scheduled for when the class has an all-day field trip, he or she may resent missing the outing.
It can also be disruptive if one parent is out of town or has a medical procedure planned on the same day.
- Ensure your child is well rested. Parents should refrain from allowing their children to participate in activities such as sleepovers prior to the evaluation, and evaluations shouldn’t be scheduled on the day your family or your child returns from an out-of-town experience.
For example, the day after returning from summer camp may not be the best day to schedule an evaluation. Instead, have your child wait a day and rest prior to the evaluation.
- Make sure your child is well-fed and hydrated. A good breakfast and plenty to drink prior to the evaluation are important. Ask the evaluator if your child can bring along a snack and beverage, as well. Some children benefit greatly from having a break time to get a snack.
If it makes you more comfortable, ask another family member to be present to make sure you understand all of the information that is given to you.
After the Evaluation
The feedback session is one of the most important aspects of the evaluation. It provides you an opportunity not only to hear the results, but ask questions. Ask any question that you may have, and bring something to take notes.
If it makes you more comfortable, ask another family member to be present to make sure you understand all of the information that is given to you.
Depending on his or her age, there may be a feedback session for your child, as well. By the time children are in middle school, they are often curious regarding their performance.
They may also benefit from hearing that they are capable students, but simply require accommodations, different study strategies or certain interventions to help them be as successful as possible.
You will also receive a written report, and should read through it several times before sharing it with the school or with other professionals. You will then know exactly what information the school is seeing, and also be in a position to contact the evaluator before it is shared should there be any misinformation included in the report.
In most cases, parents are correct in perceiving that their child has difficulty in one or more areas. As part of the evaluation process, diagnoses are made to assist in identifying these areas of weakness more precisely.
Typical findings as a result of psychoeducational evaluation are learning disorders (e.g., reading disorder, mathematics disorder and/or writing disorder), language disorders (e.g., weakness in expressive language, receptive language and/or auditory processing) and attention disorders (with or without executive dysfunction).
The exercise can help ease the frustration that both you and your child may be experiencing.
Additional factors that may contribute to your child’s struggle may include problems with retention, processing speed or anxiety.
In some instances, parents have no concerns regarding their child’s learning. They simply want their child to understand how he or she learns, and how best to study. In these cases, the evaluation may lead not to a diagnosis, but to strategies for learning most efficiently and effectively.
How to Use a Psychoeducational Evaluation
Once you have had your child evaluated and received the report, what do you do with the information? While some parents are concerned with the “labels” that an evaluation may evoke, the information and diagnoses provided in reports are often useful for guiding services and accommodations in the school and with other professionals, such as tutors.
In many cases, the information and diagnoses are necessary to qualify for special education services, as well as accommodations on standardized testing. This is especially true when applying for accommodations in college and for college entrance examinations.
In many cases, the information and diagnoses are necessary to qualify for special education services, as well as accommodations on standardized testing.
Sharing the information with others working with your child may also help to clear up misconceptions. For example, certain educators may be viewing your child as “lazy,” when in fact a language, learning or attention disorder is the problem.
If a psychoeducational evaluation is of interest to you, act now, as many evaluators are booked far in advance. Ask friends, teachers and pediatricians about their experiences with certain professionals. Call them to see if you are comfortable with that person, and whether or not your child would be comfortable with them.
While it can seem somewhat daunting to a parent who has never had experience with such an evaluation, the psychoeducational evaluation process can be very enlightening for all those working with your child. Whatever its findings, the exercise can help ease the frustration that both you and your child may be experiencing.