What happens when someone flags up a problem and recommends a psychoeducational assessment? Adele Monsef guides parents through the next steps.
Well for starters, take heart. Even if your child is diagnosed with a learning difficulty, this is not the end of the world. Far from it. It might be the beginning of making life easier for them. Teachers today do not assume that a child who isn’t reading at an age appropriate level is lazy or stupid. The sooner we assess the child, the sooner we can teach them better learning strategies. Children are astute and aware when they are ‘behind’ in class, which does affect confidence, self esteem and can make them the subject of teasing.
What is the purpose of psychoeducational assessments?
Approximately 20 per cent of school children require an assessment that highlights their strengths and weaknesses. If they produce a spiky profile, then they are likely be diagnosed as having Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD). The umbrella term covers a range of labels that often overlap with dyslexia, dyspraxia/DCD, dyscalculia, AD/HD, dysgraphia, AS (autistic spectrum), and may affect the way they learn and process information in school.
I don’t like labels. Each child is unique and important subtleties are sometimes lost in grouping children under one umbrella. However, the assessment process and subsequent findings guide professionals on how to help provide a child with the tools to fulfil their potential – particularly in exams.
Why should you have your child assessed?
Children with SpLD are often entitled to what is known as access arrangements and this is one of the principal reasons why you should have your child assessed. If they are labelled and achieve below average scores, they may well be allowed certain compensations in exams like extra time, a laptop or a reader.
These can make all the difference as it would be unfair to expect a child who has slow processing speed to be able to compete on an equal par with those who do not. Sometimes, simply being on a laptop can help a dyslexic or dyspraxic structure their ideas more quickly and better demonstrate what is in their head.
Most learning support departments start the ball rolling at school with computerised assessments, which identify potential difficulties requiring further assessment by a psychologist or specialist assessor, although only the former can administer a full ability and IQ test.
What are psychoeducational assessments?
Psychoeducational assessments include widely used standardised tests of ability, attainment measures of reading, writing, spelling, maths and diagnostic tests, which assess phonological processing, visual motor skills and behaviour ratings specific to the weaknesses we expect to see in the SpLD group. It is best to think of this initial testing as the baseline which directs the next steps. If this report provides evidence of your child having SpLD, from then on their work will be documented to provide supporting evidence, which paints a ‘picture of need’ to be submitted to the exam board when the time comes.
Once your child has been tested, the psychologist should explain the findings. The ability test highlights a child’s strengths and weaknesses but the IQ scoring is an average of ten sub-tests measuring verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory and processing speed. This can mask extreme differences in scores – two children may reach the same averages with very different individual scores. To avoid this, another measure was introduced called the general ability index (GAI), which is an average of the verbal and nonverbal tests, eliminating the processing measures, which do not correlate with intelligence.
Even the GAI score may distort the picture. If a child is dyspraxic and weak in visual processing, you may misinterpret the findings and not appreciate how strong they are verbally.
What do you do after the assessment?
When going through my findings with parents, I isolate sub-tests to explain a child’s strengths. It’s important that parents understand that just because a child has a very low score in working memory, that does not mean they can’t remember things. What it does mean is they will need to develop learning strategies. Once the full assessment, which includes the ability test, is done, it doesn’t have to be repeated if a diagnosis is made. A review from then on will do.
Remember at the beginning I said there is nothing to worry about? There isn’t, but it’s not always easy convincing parents who don’t always understand the reports and often seem to have selective hearing. A mother of an eight-year-old was distraught to discover her son was dyslexic and completely failed to hear me tell her that he was also exceptionally bright. Five years later, she had cottoned on. In a recent email, she wrote, ‘X is flying – exactly as you predicted when you first met him when he was eight!’