UWindsor Blog Post by: S. Scott, M.A.
When your child is having difficulties in school, whether in the area of academics, social relationships with others in the class, or one or more other areas, the first instinct as a parent or teacher is to intervene to help make the situation better and meet the child’s needs.
This motivation to act is critical, as is gathering information about what exactly the child is having trouble with and why. Such information is key in providing direction in deciding what supports would best help the child. The process of identifying the necessary supports can be achieved in several ways, one of which is by completing a psychoeducational or a neuropsychological assessment. These types of assessments evaluate skills and abilities in areas relevant to school performance in a standardized way. That is, the child’s performance is compared to other children who are the same age, and this provides information about areas of strength and weakness compared to their age-mates. This method can help to speed up the process through which a child is formally identified and accommodated at school.
Clinical psychologists who specialize in assessing children have a variety of tools in their toolbox to help pinpoint the difficulty and potentially determine the reasons why it exists. The assessment process overall can take several weeks or more and requires a fair amount of information to be collected, including the child’s performance on standardized tests; a clinical interview with parents to gather background information; observations of the child’s behavior during testing; and other informal assessment procedures, such as reviewing samples of the child’s classroom work or direct observation of the child in the classroom (Sattler, 2008). Teachers and parents may also fill out questionnaires to help the psychologist better understand some aspects of the child’s everyday behavior.
Although it is a time consuming process, at its conclusion, recommendations are given that are tailored to the child’s unique combination of strengths and needs to ensure the most appropriate interventions and learning strategies are put in place. Additional resources often become available after a child has been diagnosed and formally identified, such as access to assistive technology (if warranted), and other accommodations in the classroom that will support the child’s learning, such as preferential seating in the front of the classroom or additional time to complete tests.
Another benefit of completing an assessment is ruling out diagnoses that do not fit with the difficulties that the child is experiencing. That is, accurate diagnosis enables steps to be taken to initiate appropriate intervention, significantly reducing the chances of starting down a path that will not prove to be helpful and potentially losing valuable time treating the real problem. It is well established that different developmental disorders often require different interventions. For example, Nonverbal Learning Disorder is best managed with classroom accommodations that draw on a child’s strengths in language based academic and learning tasks (e.g., developing step-by-step written instructions that can be memorized to solve mathematical problems or to find a classroom when entering a new school), while minimizing reliance on weaker visual spatial skills. In contrast, Autism Spectrum Disorders are treated most effectively with Intensive Behavioral Intervention (Perry et al., 2008) and techniques that incorporate Applied Behaviour Analysis (Dawson et al., 2010). The methods used to reach an accurate diagnosis are continually refined by the findings of new research. Currently, additional research focusing on the way decisions are made by clinical psychologists and other health professionals to arrive at the correct diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder or Nonverbal Learning Disorder is needed to further reduce the chances of misdiagnosis.
If you have noticed that your child is struggling in school, an assessment from a clinical psychologist would almost certainly be helpful, and there are a number of options available. If educators have identified your child as having difficulties in school based on their academic performance, then children may be assessed by clinical psychologists who are employed by the school board. As a parent, it is within the scope of your rights to have discussions with your child’s teacher about concerns you have and to ask if your child would be eligible for an assessment through the school board. Another option is to obtain an assessment privately. There are a variety of clinical psychologists in Windsor and the surrounding area who specialize in assessing children. Often, the child’s teacher or other parents who have been consumers of psychological services can make recommendations regarding who to contact. A complete list of registered psychologists and their specializations can be obtained from the website of the College of Psychologists of Ontario.
It is not uncommon for children and their families to face financial or other barriers to accessing diagnostic psychological assessments. For those facing such barriers, several alternatives are available. Psychological assessments are completed on the University of Windsor campus by licensed psychologists and clinical psychology graduate students based on a sliding fee scale for qualified individuals and families (for further information, please contact the Psychological Services and Research Centre directly at 519-973-7012 or access through their website.
Another option available from time to time is to involve your child in a research study that includes a comprehensive psychoeducational or neuropsychological assessment, usually free of charge. Such research studies are often available through the Department of Psychology at the University of Windsor. Each study has its own particular criteria that a child must meet in order to participate. Browsing the websites of Psychology Department faculty will give some idea of what is available. For example, there is currently a study that is investigating the similarities and differences between Autism Spectrum Disorder and Nonverbal Learning Disorder in order to better understand the characteristics of each and to ensure that a correct diagnosis is reached. In this case, participants receive a neuropsychological assessment free of charge. To participate, however, children must be between the ages of 9 and 16 (inclusive), be able to speak in sentences, and have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder or meet study criteria for Nonverbal Learning Disorder.To find out if your child is eligible to participate in this study, please call 519-551-8997 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regardless of the route you take to have your child assessed, it is a helpful process that offers numerous benefits to your child, and potentially to children who have yet to be diagnosed and are having difficulties in school. Through research, there is an ongoing refinement of methods used to reach an appropriate diagnosis and to identify the most effective interventions.
Dawson, G., Rogers, S., Munson, J., Milani, S., Winter, J., Greenson, J., . . . Varley, J. (2010). Randomized controlled trial of an intervention for toddlers with autism: The Early Start Denver Model. Pediatrics, 125, e17-e23. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-0958
Perry, A., Cummings, A., Geier, J. D., Freeman, N. L., Hughes, S., LaRose, L., . . . Williams, J. (2008). Effectiveness of Intensive Behavioral Intervention in a large, community-based program. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2(4), 621-642. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2008.01.002
Sattler, J. M. (2008). Assessment of children: Cognitive foundations (5th ed.). San Diego, CA: Jerome M. Sattler.
S. Scott, M.A.
Child Neuropsychology Research Group
University of Windsor