Should I have my child’s learning evaluated? And by whom?
New Year, New Start
We feel inspired and ready to tackle problems in January. Fresh starts are great. I love January for this. (Sure, it’s random. We can fresh start ANYTIME, but January is sort of a symbolic and traditional time to do so. Jump on the bandwagon).
January is a key time for parents to consider an evaluation. We are about halfway through the school year, so if any problems are going to emerge, they usually have by now. (or you knew about the problems in August and they are still there). You might be hearing:
- She is not keeping pace in reading even though she seems to be really trying.
- He is still having trouble following the routine and completing tasks.
- Handwriting is not improving. He needs to try harder.
- She cries a lot, sometimes over the littlest things.
- Peer relations are a concern. He does not have any friends.
- He hit someone, he bit someone, he threw his book at someone.
The teacher may have already put some strategies in place without the desired improvement. The school’s occupational therapist or speech therapist or social worker or learning specialist may be have been called in to consult, but still . . . the expected (desired) gains are not there. There may even be a 504 Plan or Individual Education Plan in place, but your child does not seem to be progressing. What do you do?
Should you have your child evaluated?
- If the problem or concern has been noticeable for more than a few months, an evaluation of some type will likely be helpful. If the problem emerged recently, particularly in response to a life change (a family move, different school, divorce or other loss), your child just may need more support during this transition time. Some time with the school counselor (or a private counselor) may help. A little tutoring to help a child adapt to a new type of instruction may do the trick.
- If there is a family history of reading disability, attention problems, speech or language delays or academic problems in general, your child might be growing just as the family tree grows. An evaluation may be enlightening for several generations.
- If your child has had bumpy development for years, a good, thorough evaluation will be helpful. Some children were slow to walk, then slow to talk, then slow to learn colors, then slow to learn to read, then slow with writing. And maybe with each milestone, a little extra helped seemed to boost them enough to move forward. So you keep hoping things are ok. Then the teacher calls again. A thorough evaluation may shed some light on the patterns and everyone can build a more comprehensive plan.
- If your child has a history of chronic illness or significant injury, a developmental evaluation can augment a medical evaluation. Everyone may be attributing the academic problem to missed school, fatigue or even frustration, but some illnesses or injuries do cause changes in the brain (even an illness or injury that does not seem in any way close to the brain). A good evaluation of development and learning can support overall recovery, as well as learning.
- If you, as a parent, just have a persistent nagging feeling that all is not right. Trust your gut.
What type of evaluation?
- Your school district can evaluate your child. Your child is legally entitled to a free and appropriate public education. An evaluation is often needed to determine what exactly is appropriate for a particular child. However, school districts around the country (and even schools within a district) can vary wildly as to the depth of the evaluation. In addition, school evaluations are often not diagnostic evaluations. The evaluation will try to identify the problem, but not the source of the problem. The evaluation will not typically come with a diagnosis, simply a conclusion of whether your child meets criteria for extra services. But, hey, it is free and is essential for triggering special education services (and a great team can do a great evaluation).
- If the school evaluation did not shed enough light on things or if you want to explore issues in more depth, parents will need to look into resources outside of the school. Now there are more options to consider. First off, do you go big or do you go small?
- If your child is delayed in a single area (language impairment, delayed reading, terrible handwriting, or math confusion), but there are no other concerns, then a small specific evaluation may do the trick. If the teachers (or coaches or you) see that your child has friends, pays attention in class, follows routines, stays with tasks fairly well, and otherwise manages that day, then a focused evaluation of the core issue by a learning specialist, reading specialist, language specialist or occupational therapist (for writing) will likely suffice.
- If there are concerns in more than one area or if a more focused evaluation (and intervention) has not helped your child make progress, then a more comprehensive developmental evaluation maybe needed. This would be an evaluation that carefully reviews the history and assesses your child in multiple areas. This would include a cognitive profile, an academic profile, assessment of attention control, language skills, memory, and problem solving, as well as screening of emotional style and sensory motor processing. This should provide enough information to understand your child’s needs, make a diagnosis if warranted, and lay out a course of action.
There is one clear benefit of an evaluation independent of the school district. A private evaluation can make recommendations for both private and school-based treatments. A school district cannot recommend educational or developmental resources outside of the district without being held financially responsible for them. A private evaluator can help parents explore a wider range of resources (even if they are not free).
How do you find a good evaluator?
Within the school district, you do not have much choice. Your child will be evaluated by the team of specialists (learning specialist, psychologist, occupational therapist, speech/language specialist) assigned to the school. However, you do have some choices. If your child has unique needs (e.g., non-verbal or English is not their first language or history of head injury), you can ask for a specialist within the district (there often is one) to participate in the evaluation. If there is no specialist in the district, you can ask that the district pay for someone who has the expertise to evaluate your child.
Outside of the school district, the sky is the limit. It’s very intimidating. There are a lot of specialists out there and they are all proud of their work. Quite frankly, child psychologists are your most likely source for comprehensive testing, but even so, not all of us specialize in evaluations. Here are a few strategies to narrow down your options:
- Talk to your pediatrician. They often have a list of people that their patients have had good experiences with.
- Call the local medical school or university to inquire if there is a child development clinic and what types of assessments are done.
- Call the local learning disability association (or check their website) and see if they have a list of preferred evaluators for children with needs like your child’s.
- Look for private child development clinics (I practice in one) that can provide both comprehensive and domain specific evaluations.
- You can check with tutoring centers, but the evaluation there is typically geared to laying out a plan of treatment within that program. While the program may be helpful, the evaluation is likely not a diagnostic evaluation. In addition, the evaluator within that program may not have a broad range of experiences (she may only know that program).
Here are a few questions to ask when considering an evaluator:
- MOST IMPORTANT-Describe your child and then ask, “Do you have experience with children similar to mine?”
- “Will you be able to make a formal diagnosis if needed?”
- “What are the costs of the evaluation? Will that include a written report?”
- “Do you take insurance?” “Does insurance cover this type of evaluation?”
- “What if I have additional questions after the evaluation is concluded?
And find an experienced, but humble, evaluator because:
“Not everything that can be measured is important, and not everything that is important can be measured” ~a quote coughed up by the internet, attributed to Albert Einstein, and based on something said by William Bruce Cameron (but it really fit here)
Evaluation is my life! There is so much more information than can be included in a simple blog post. I would love to hear what questions you have and how I can help. We also included a lot more information in our book, Child Decoded. Check it out for in-depth information about evaluations, as well as a wealth of information on learning, behavioral or attention challenges (and their treatments).