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Psycho-Educational Assessments

Published: 01/16/2012 by N. Giesbrecht, Ph.d, Registered Psychologist Insight Psychological Services

» Health & Wellness

Homeschooling parents demonstrate a unique and special commitment to their child’s education, and can provide their children with one-on-one learning support and individualized academic programs that are typically not available in a public school system. When a child experiences unique learning challenges, a psycho-educational assessment can help parents understand the specific information processing difficulties involved and implement strategies to help their child succeed in academics and life.


What is a learning disability?

Learning research has shown that we all think and learn differently. However, some children, teens or adults experience unique difficulties with spoken language (listening and speaking), written language (reading, writing, or spelling), arithmetic, memory, or planning and organization.

 

Children with such learning disabilities often have average or above average intelligence, but their performance falls considerably below their ability. Although researchers have not identified all the factors that play a role, there is general agreement that learning disabilities are related to neurological differences in brain structure or functioning.


How is a learning disability identified?

The most commonly-accepted diagnostic criteria for a learning disability is a significant discrepancy between a child’s ability and achievement. Typically, the starting point is administration of:


(a) a standardized test of overall intellectual functioning, which may focus on areas such as verbal comprehension, non-verbal problem solving, understanding of social situations, general knowledge, visual and spatial skills, memory, and speed of processing information or problem-solving.


(b) a standardized test of academic ability, which will often focus on specific academic areas such as reading comprehension, written expression, oral communication, numerical operations and math reasoning


The resulting scores indicate areas of relative strength or weakness, and identify the child’s performance in comparison to peers of the same age. When there is a significant difference between a child’s overall ability versus their actual performance in specific academic area(s), the criteria for a learning disability is met.


There are some limitations in this approach of comparing ability versus achievement approach, primarily that:

 

(a) a child may need to reach a critical point of academic difficulty before they are formally identified as needing learning assistance,

 

and (b) when a child’s ability and achievement are both low, the child may be misdiagnosed as a slow learner rather than as struggling with a learning disability.


As a result, some have argued for an early warning approach whereby a child receives learning intervention as soon as they exhibit difficulties. The child’s progress is then monitored over time, and children who do not respond to these interventions are then targeted for more in-depth assessment and specialized intervention.

 

What should I look for in a psycho-educational assessment report?

From a practical standpoint, the most useful information in a psycho-educational assessment report is not just a diagnosis of the specific learning disability or attention problem, but also identification of the following:

  • strengths that a child can use to compensate for their areas of weakness
  •  specific areas where information-processing difficulties occur (e.g., knowing only that reading comprehension is a problem is not as useful as knowing that difficulties in basic decoding of words, recall of vocabulary or word meanings, or limited memory space for storing verbal ideas is a primary contributing problem)
  •  social or emotional difficulties that may occur along with the learning disability
  •  specific strategies and academic accommodations to help the child succeed


My child also displays emotional or behavioral difficulties– what about these?

Children with a learning disability often have problems that go beyond their struggles with reading, writing, math, memory, or organization. The experience of repeated academic failure, constant promptings to “try harder” but limited positive feedback, and social difficulties making and keeping friends, can impact their self-worth. Many experience strong feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or shame that can lead to psychological difficulties (such as anxiety or depression), interpersonal social challenges, and increased risk for behavioral problems (such as substance abuse or juvenile delinquency).

 

These problems can be more devastating for a child than the academic difficulties, and it is important that these emotional and/or behavioral problems are identified and appropriate intervention strategies are identified.


My child seems advanced beyond grade level in some areas but behind in others.

It is important that an assessment identify these areas of strength, and also provide specific recommendations for how these strengths can be used to compensate for areas of weakness. For example, a child may have strong abilities in processing visual information but struggle with communicating these orally or in writing.

 

Strategies such as visual graphic organizers can help a child draw upon their visual strengths to organize ideas, and alternate communication mediums (such as Powerpoint presentations, posters using photographic images combined with descriptive text, or computer web pages) can allow the child to communicate using their areas of strength. A child may be intellectually gifted (i.e., high scores in general intellectual functioning) and at the same time struggle with a learning disability or attention problem.


What tests and other information are used in a psycho-educational assessment?

Typically, an assessment will involve several standardized psychological or educational tests, including a measure of intellectual functioning (such as the WISC-IV, WAIS-III, Woodcock Johnson III, or Stanford-Binet), a measure of academic performance (such as the WIAT-II or Woodcock Johnson III), and other tests of specific areas of difficulty (such as phonological processing, attention, memory).

 

A psychologist will also review a child’s past academic performance, interview a child and their parents, and review other relevant professional reports (such as doctor’s reports, occupational therapy assessment and intervention, etc).

 

In regard to emotional and behavioral difficulties, an assessment may include observational data from adults who have seen the child in different settings, and a review of interview and observational data in terms of the qualifying criteria identified for various conditions identified in the DSM-IV reference manual (i.e., the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 4th edition).


How much does a psycho-educational assessment cost?

Typically, the cost of a psycho-educational assessment is based on the numbers of hours involved in review of records (academic history, professional reports), interviews the parents and child, standardized test administration and scoring, diagnosis and interpretation of results, and development of recommendations for specific learning strategies and academic accommodations.

 

Most psychologists follow the standard hourly rate recommended by the Psychologist’s Association of Alberta, so the total cost will vary depending on the amount of testing time (and the complexity of the child’s learning, emotional, and behavioral difficulties).

 

Most extended health care plans provide coverage for a specific number of hours of psychological services, and it is worthwhile to think through what services are most relevant in your situation. For example, some parents are interested primarily in a diagnosis or meeting eligibility criteria for a special program (e.g., giftededness), and others are looking for detailed recommendations on learning strategies and academic accommodations that they can implement in the homeschooling environment.


What other learning support can psychologists provide homeschooling families?

In my previous work with homeschooling families, I have observed that many families benefit most from one-on-one training in the use of specific learning strategies that will help their child. Some families also want follow-up support across the school year, whereby an experienced educational aide meets with them to discuss any concerns that have arisen, teaches additional learning strategies to build upon emerging strengths, and assists the family in implementing an ongoing informal assessment strategy to monitor their child’s response to intervention.


Since each homeschooling family is special and unique, it is important that a psychologist begins with a clear understanding of the unique needs of that family, and works collaboratively to develop an assessment plan that meets the family’s goals and matches their financial resources. Homeschooling parents can also arrange for group training workshops on topics such as specific learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia), informal assessment tools, behavior management strategies, and other areas of interest.

 

When homeschooled children with learning disabilities complete high school, they benefit from a clearly structured transition plan, assistance in post-secondary education and career planning, and implementation of academic strategist support and classroom / assignment accommodations in their college or university program.

 

**This article was reprinted with permission from Canada's Homeschool Guide www.canadashomeschool.ca