How do I know when to request a psychoeducational evaluation?

The evaluation and assessment process is how school psychologists and other members of a child’s support team know both that they need specialized support – and exactly what kind of support they’ll benefit from. 

But if you’re on the fence about whether your child needs an evaluation, or special education services in general, requesting one can be a confusing decision to reach. In this blog, we’ll discuss some of the most common circumstances where psychoeducational evaluations are performed to help illuminate your options as a parent or caregiver.

What is a psychoeducational evaluation?

In the first place, psychoeducational evaluations are tests and interviews done to get the best picture of a child’s strengths, challenge areas, and academic profile. We may test for things like cognitive ability, otherwise known as the “I.Q.,” social-emotional development, behavior, communication, and adaptive or “self-help” skills, all of which can be used to identify their psychological and learning needs.

Don’t worry so much about “clear” signs.

Maybe you’re in a situation where you notice things that worry you, but you’re still not sure whether to formally request that your child be assessed. 

This analogy might help you. Most of the time, if you’re on the fence about whether a body ache or an injury is serious, you’ll at least call your doctor or nurse practitioner to talk things through. They’ll be happy to do that with you, because they understand that plenty of things about health and our bodies can be ambiguous. You know your own self, which is something they’ll respect, but you’re not an expert on medicine.

It’s a bit of the same thing with your child or teen and special education services. If you’re concerned about something, it’s perfectly alright to talk with the school psychologist or other trained professional about it, and even have an assessment done to see if they might benefit from extra support. That answer may be “no” – but if it’s “yes”, you’re a step closer to getting them the support they’ll benefit from. You know your child or teen, so it’s important to trust your gut. 

We’re often asked: “What should I be looking for?”

There are some clearer cut situations when it comes to requesting an evaluation.

  • Persistent struggles in academic or social concepts, despite appropriate exposure to them
  • A medical diagnosis from your pediatrician or specialist, such as ADHD, childhood epilepsy, blindness, or deafness
  • A history of developmental delays. The CDC has a few respected resources for this. You may notice language or speech delays, social delays like poor eye contact or trouble interacting with peers appropriately, or cognitive delays
  • Previous participation in a Birth to Three program
  • A recent injury that may impact a child’s cognitive functioning, such as traumatic brain injury
  • Concerns with a child’s adaptive functioning. A child might have trouble getting dressed, cannot seem to avoid danger, has difficulty following basic rules, or cannot easily emotionally regulate. Adaptive functioning is about positive behaviors like communication or daily living skills, and socialization. 

Remember, this list isn’t exhaustive, and there may be a number of other situations where it’s appropriate to request an assessment. 

What should I do if I think a psychoeducational evaluation is necessary?

Most schools will have some form of a Student Study Team (SST) that is in place to discuss student needs and come up with action plans. In your child’s district, it might be run by the school principal, a guidance counselor, or an intervention specialist or teacher specialist.

In addition, most school districts have shifted to a Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework. These frameworks are a preventative approach to providing students who are struggling with academics or behavior with support and interventions, prior to special education evaluations. The hope is that students will respond to the additional or more intensive instruction without modifying the standards and curriculum.

MTSS and RTI frameworks are utilized by the school’s SST, a group of educators who work together to identify students who are struggling behaviorally and academically. These educators are a part of the pre-referral process. Essentially, students who are performing lower than their peers are recommended to the team. 

What does a Student Study Team do?

The team devises data collection methods as well as an intervention to support this student. Over the course of the intervention, the teacher tracks the student’s progress, and after 6-8 weeks, the SST meets again to see if the student has responded to the intervention. It is best practice for a child to be referred to the SST before seeking an evaluation. If your child received the extra support or interventions for 6-8 weeks and is still struggling, it may be appropriate to request a special education evaluation with your child’s school.

A school psychologist can speak with you about the particulars of your child’s situation, and then set up an assessment process. The evaluations can be quite involved and take a few hours to complete, but rest assured that whoever is providing the assessment will do their best to make your child feel as comfortable as possible in age-appropriate and situationally appropriate ways.

What kinds of assessments exist? 

Some of the most common test names you’ll hear are WISC, or the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children that considers their cognitive abilities, the Woodcock-Johnson tests, including the cognitive assessment and academic achievement test, or others done to consider emotional and personality functioning, or visual-motor integration tests. The nomenclature can sound wonky or even a bit intimidating, but combined with interviews and observations with the child and parents or caregivers, these provide a very full and rounded picture of a child’s educational needs. 

Keep in mind, though, that jumping to an assessment may not be the best answer for many reasons. It can take as long as 90 days to complete, so you want to be sure that some kind of support system is available for a child in the meantime. And special education isn’t always the answer, with intensive support that isn’t necessary often doing more harm than good.

Are special education services the only option?

Remember that the goal of special education is to provide modified or adapted instruction to students who present with a clear need for this level of support. If your child does not have significant persistent deficits or delays, then special education may not be appropriate in helping them. Generally, the possible negative outcomes for students misidentified as eligible for special education include more time spent away from peers, or modifications to curriculum that may lower the expectations or increase reliance on support. 

But even in this case, if you still have concerns, you can speak with your child’s teacher about extra possible support. Sometimes after an assessment, students are found to not meet the eligibility standards for special education. Therefore, another plan of support needs to be put in place, either continuing with general education support or sometimes with a 504 plan

The first step, of course, is a discussion with the school. But if you need additional help navigating the system or or understanding the next best step for your child, schedule a call with us

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