A good evaluation for a leaning disability is not as simple as “having your child tested”. First, it requires preparation on your part.
You must choose an appropriate professional, provide a clear statement of your (or a teacher’s) concerns, and produce records for review. You should be prepared to give a thorough and accurate prenatal, birth, motor, and medical background as well as details about speech/language development, social development, and family history. Finally, you or one or more of the child’s teachers may be asked to complete checklists that will profile your child’s attentional style.
Supplying this information will determine the nature and scope of the evaluation. The process is methodical, and cannot be rushed!
So plan ahead, allowing time to collect the necessary information and schedule appointments.
Choose a professional evaluator
A good evaluation will gain enough information to get a picture of the “whole” child. Choose a professional, usually a psychologist, with appropriate training and experience to make a skilled clinical judgment. It is essential that the evaluator have up-to-date knowledge of the LD field. This person should be able to explain the range of available services, from a short screening that suggests whether further resting is warranted, to a full educational evaluation that:
- determines your child’s strengths and weaknesses;
- clearly interprets findings to you, and;
- makes specific recommendations that can be communicated to teachers and tutors.
School information is examined to understand the learning context
Because learning occurs in a context, examining school records (report cards, group achievement test results, teacher comments, interventions tried, and work samples) is important.
Knowing which instructional approaches and materials are used in the curriculum can help sort out whether problems are due to lack of instruction or a poor match between your child and the curriculum.
In some cases classroom observations are also recommended.
Referral question is refined and “targeted” tests administered
Based on background and school information, the reasons for the evaluation referral are clarified and refined. With age and grade appropriate test measures chosen, targeted testing begins. (There are a multitude of tests, but remember, more is not necessarily better!) If the question is probably dyslexia, for example, reading skills should be targeted along with frequently associated spelling and written composition skills.
The value of IQ testing in a LD determination has been controversial. However, based on converging research findings, it appears unlikely that federal legislation will continue to support the ability-achievement discrepancy criterion.
If there is a specific question (such as ruling out a significant mental handicap or significant “peaks and valleys” in a child’s intellectual profile) or when a program or school entrance requires it, a complete intellectual assessment is desirable.
Answers the question “Why is the difficulty occurring?”
Unfortunately, the “why” question is not routinely addressed, despite the increased availability of reliable, research-based measures. Knowing “why” sets the stage for appropriate, specific recommendations.
If your child is struggling with reading, for example, assessing skills that support reading acquisition allows the evaluator to determine where the reading process is breaking down. Examples of skills to assess:
- phonological and phonemic awareness (hearing how sounds and sound patterns work in our language system and associating sounds with letters);
- fluency and automaticity (rapidly and easily recognizing letters, words and phrases);
- short term rote memory (remembering sequences of sounds heard) and;
- orthographic skills (representing the language sounds of language by written symbols)
Sometimes neuropsychological measures assessing memory, attention and visual-spatial-motor abilities are also helpful.
Results are synthesized and a clear diagnosis given
A good evaluation synthesizes the findings and gives a clear diagnosis with supporting evidence. It should state the extent of the problem as well as highlight competencies, and give a reasonable estimate of the outcome. Any emotional or social factors (either adverse or positive) also need to be addressed.
Focused, prioritized recommendations made
The best recommendations for interventions are those that are focused, specific, and prioritized. While a child may have a variety of needs, yielding to the temptation to address everything at once results in “laundry lists” of recommendations. Student and teacher alike will experience greater success if two or three critical issues are successfully addressed first.
Recommended interventions should be those that are scientifically based and research validated. Be cautious of “quick-fixes” and trendy solutions.
In contrast to the emphasis on a few priority interventions, more numerous classroom/testing accommodation recommendations can be given.
Intervention options thoroughly discussed
The evaluator should be familiar with local, regional, and national resources, including the names of trained, experienced tutors, and LD organizations, such as IDA.
If school services are an appropriate option, multiple considerations — the class size, type, and composition, curriculum, and services offered, qualifications and experience of teachers — need to be discussed.
Conclusion provides support and hope
This discussion not complete without stressing the emotional component.
Having a child evaluated can be anxiety-provoking and exhausting - but often a relief as well — to both parents and child. A good evaluation should make parents feel “heard” and supported (especially when the diagnosis is more severe than expected), and should make the child feel his or her uniqueness is cherished.
Most of all, a good evaluation should provide hope — hope that there are resources to address the issue, that our knowledge about specific learning disabilities is improving daily, and that there is a community of parents and professionals ready and willing to provide support.
About the author
Marianne S. Meyer, M.A., NCSP, is an instructor in the Section of Neuropsychology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina. A former school psychologist, she conducts clinical evaluations and is involved in the NICHD sponsored research on adult literacy as well as genetic and heritability factors, cross-linguistic comparisons and long-term outcome in dyslexia. She has contributed articles to Annals of Dyslexia and Perspectives and is a frequent speaker at IDA conferences.