Your third-grade son is not reading the way your nephew who is in the first grade is reading. He seems to be “stuck” and his frustration with learning is starting to result in behavioral issues- such as making excuses to not go to school and acting out when he is there. You talk to his teacher and she recommends that you submit a written letter (or email) to the school administrator to request a meeting to express your concerns. This starts a formal “timeline” of the special education process. Typically the meeting happens and there are fifteen days to develop and submit an assessment plan if one is determined to be needed.
The assessment plan is like a roadmap as to what comes next. First, the concerns are spelled out and what is the reason for the referral? Statements may be as follows:
Jane has been demonstrating challenges with her reading on grade level – the second grade general education curriculum. Her teacher and parent have noticed her struggling and have the most difficulties with letter- sound relationships (phonics) and writing her letters correctly. She also has been interrupting other students during group instruction. Lastly, she seems easily distracted and often needs redirection to stay on task. The SST meeting members recommend that your child have a comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation to gather information about his present abilities in the areas of ____ (fill in the blank) and to see if he/she meets eligibility for services in special education. “
Then there is a whole bunch of “legal stuff” to explain the process and what laws are involved. A case manager is usually assigned to be the parents’ “point person” and will ask for signatures.
A psychoeducational evaluation can take an hour to many hours or days. There are several factors. 1) The age of a child. Younger children take less time. 2) The reason for referral. This drives the number of evaluators and the depth of the evaluation. 3) The cooperation and behavior of the child – some kids are easier to test than others. Some need more breaks or shorter sessions. That is fine. I let the students drive the schedule. 4) Availability – sometimes a school can only release a child from class for short spurts of time or parents are only available for a chunk of time. Psychologist often needs to be flexible. 5) The child’s health and ability to sustain attention 6) Availability of a helper- such a personal assistant if the child is in a wheelchair or an interpreter 7) Schedule of the psychologist… to name just a few.
The testing usually starts with rapport building. A game. A fun discussion about random topics that is relaxed. Drawing. An interview comes next for me (other psychologists may have a different order to their assessments). Then comes the “meat and potatoes” – tests for ability, academics, memory, motor skills, social -emotional functioning – etc. To list the number of tests psychhologists are trained to use for assessment would be a very long list – and boring! Thus, publishing them here would not be wise. However, here is an excellent link to the evaluation process (from referral to feedback) and a list of common psychoeducational measures used.
Another article written just for parents from an association for school psychologists (NASP) NASPonline: Psychoeducational guide for parents to understand
Feedback from the testing can be very emotionally draining for the parent(s)
There is no band-aid big enough to cover the broken heart of parents when they find out that their child has a serious medical or developmental disorder. As a school psychologist, I would rehearse the words that needed to be delivered to the parent waiting for me. “Bad” or unexpected news needs to be carefully and eloquently given versus blurted out like guesses for Jeopardy. You owe them that much. They trusted you with their child.
I gave hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parents “the news”. Usually starting my “spiel” with some glowing remark about their child – “Such a great worker”, “Really motivated and tried so hard”, or “Fabulous ability to stay on task”. Then came the description of what transpired over hours of one-on-one evaluations, observations, interviews, and discussions with staff. Finally, arrives the moment that many await – the results.
“Based on the findings from this comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation your seven-year-old child currently has the developmental level of a child much younger. That means that his cognitive (intellectual) ability to complete tasks, known as adaptive behavior, around the house, in school, on the playground, and in other places is more like a three-year-old than a boy of seven. The results of the physical therapist, speech, and language therapist, etc. are very similar to my results.”
This is where I stop. Look directly at the parent and wait. Some will start to cry. Some will look confused. Regardless, I need to drop the next “official statement” in their lap.
Then I continue… “I need you to know that these results allow for our team to discuss options for special education as I am recommending that your son meets the eligibility qualifications as a child with Intellectual Disabilities. “
This is where the parent usually asks EXACTLY what this means. Some parents have not heard this terminology and then ask if I mean that their child is “retarded”.
I usually respond, “Yes, that is a much older term. However, I need you to know that he is young and we use strategies and programs that have not been introduced to him yet. So, please know that these results may change the next time we re-evaluate him. We will be reviewing your son’s progress on a regular basis.”
Now it becomes tricky. A lot has transpired in so few sentences. Their world is now upside down. It is awkward. Often sad. I continue…
“Are you surprised by what I just said?”, I will ask.
Sometimes the response is “not really”. Other times the parents go through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief at record speed with ANGER being where they stop. “NO WAY, he is just like me and learns just fine!”, announced one very demonstrative father to me. (How do I respond to THAT?)
Or the sobbing begins. This is so hard. I almost rather have the anger. Sobbing means that the dreams they had for their son are now being reformulated as we sit in this too formal setting. News like this should happen on comfy chairs over tea and with boxes of tissues. Not in a room of strangers who just altered your world in a blink.
So begins most parents’ initial journey into special education. (An upcoming blog in this series will cover the special education “emotional roller coaster.”
Psychologists’ “toolbox” of resources:
A List of Frequently Asked Questions that Psychologists Ask Parents New to the Special Education Process during their Initial Meeting
- Birth History (and if the child was adopted or placed in foster care – any known history of the parent and child)
- Medical History
- Developmental Milestones (see addendum)
- History of medical difficulties or learning disorders in the immediate family or with close relatives
- The child’s current sleeping, eating, and toileting behaviors.
- Language acquisition – how does this child communicate with the parents? Has there been a steady growth in language development or any decline?
- Ability to be flexible with changes to food? Environment? Temperature? Sound? Lights?
- Emotional responses from the child daily basis. Overall happy? Responds appropriately or seems to have challenges with emotional regulation?
- For older children, questions will center around play, sharing, and educational skills (reading, math, and written language.)
This is an example of a bell curve with ranges reflected from a student’s evaluation. This chart helps to visually demonstrate the child’s abilities for a range of expected skills. The average is considered within the 85-115 range.