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Assessment 101: Choosing the Right Evaluator
by Aida Khan, Ph.D.

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Assessment 101 is a series of three articles about developmental assessments by Dr. Aida Khan, clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist and Lecturer in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Choosing the Right Evaluator

A comprehensive assessment will help you understand your child and plan your child’s education. Armed with the findings of a well-done evaluation, you will be in a position to help your child manage learning, emotional, and behavior challenges. Information from an assessment will help you make good decisions that support your child’s development and growth.

Types of Evaluators

Neuropsychologists look at the big picture of your child’s overall functioning in all developmental areas. The neuropsychologist integrates multiple sources of information and all aspects of functioning into one big picture understanding of who your child is.

Neuropsychologists answer these questions:

  • Does my child have a learning disability or other developmental disorder? How severe is it?
  • What resources does my child use to compensate for his disability?
  • What can I anticipate about the future years of school? How will my child be able to manage school and life?
  • Where do we go from here?

Other evaluators, including speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, and educational evaluators, look at specific functional areas. They make recommendations to address problems within these targeted areas.

Some assessment professionals look only at one area like language or academic skills. Others look at the big picture of who your child is as a learner and a person. The breadth of the skills the evaluator assesses will depend on the evaluator’s profession, education, training, and areas of expertise. It will also depend on the concerns about your child.

Evaluators talk to parents and some talk to teachers to learn the history of the problem.

In addition to obtaining test scores, evaluators observe how your child processes information and solves problems. The behavior they observe is often as important as test scores.

Good evaluators have an internal database, based on their experience and training. They know what is typical at different ages and what isn’t. They also know how to think about and understand variations that differ from typical development.

Questions to Ask a Potential Evaluator

At minimum, evaluators should have the appropriate level of education, clinical training, and licensure (if required) to practice in the field.

There are also additional questions you should ask:

  • Where did they get their clinical or practical training during or after their graduate degree(s)?
  • How many children have they evaluated?>
  • How many evaluations of children with your child’s issues have they done?
  • Do they specialize in seeing certain types of children or certain ages?
  • How long do they take to write reports? This question is more important than you might expect.
  • Are their reports understandable to a lay audience? Are their reports written in plain English?
  • In their reports, do they offer practical recommendations for interventions at home and school?
  • Do they attend school meetings?
  • Do they administer the tests themselves, or does a technician do that? How much time do they spend with the child?

>You want an evaluator who is skilled at interpreting test results and can integrate test scores with his/her observations of your child’s work style. The most important thing is you want a professional who can put together—who can integrate—information from multiple sources to arrive at an understanding of your child that is accurate and true.

In the case of neuropsychological and psycho-educational evaluations, you want a report that offers a rich and complex understanding of your child and acknowledges her as an emotional, academic, and social being.

The report should describe your child’s information processing style. It should include recommendation about how to address gaps in that learning style. It also should be useful in anticipating how the next years of school and life are likely to interact with your child’s learning style. The transition to middle school and to high school tends to be major stress points for all students, especially for students with learning weaknesses. How does the evaluator suggest managing these future transitions?

Finding a Good Evaluator

The best way to find a skilled evaluator is to ask people who regularly refer parents and children for these services. Referral sources include your child’s primary care physician, mental health providers who work with children with developmental or learning issues, lawyers who specialize in special education law, and educational advocates and consultants.

Some local special education parent groups maintain websites with lists of recommended evaluators.

Call the admissions department at a private school in your town or state that serves students with disabilities to ask for a referral.

The Parent Feedback Meeting

After the assessment is completed, you should have a parent feedback meeting with the evaluator. When you leave that meeting, you should be able to explain your child’s problems, in plain English, to another person in one paragraph or less. If you cannot do this, you need to talk to the evaluator again. Ask the evaluator to explain your child’s learning style in words you can understand and remember. Take notes to hold on to your understanding. If the evaluator is agreeable, consider tape recording the feedback meeting.

I have had countless experiences where I obtained the same findings as past evaluators. I know this because I read their reports. When I explain my findings to the parents, they often exclaim that this is the first time they understood their child’s learning style and what is going on with their child.

To avoid this situation, you must advocate for yourself and your child. Insist that your evaluator explain your child’s profile to your satisfaction.

Final Points

Finally, you need to understand that your child’s IQ score is not an accurate predictor of success. Success in adult life is based more on emotional intelligence, social skills, drive, determination, and hard work—not on IQ scores.

I have known children with severe learning disabilities who hated school, but did well in life. These children had drive, an incredible work ethic, curiosity, creativity, and committed loving parents who believed in them.

As a parent, you need to know that family resources (financial and emotional), opportunity, growing up in a politically stable country, and plain old luck also make huge differences in adult outcomes.

About the Author

A clinical psychologist and pediatric neuropsychologist, Aida Khan, Ph.D. trained at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Harvard Medical School.  She has held academic appointments at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Khan is currently in private practice in Massachusetts and is a Lecturer in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

Dr. Khan welcomes comments and can be reached at: aidakhan<at>msn<dot>com

Copyright © 2013 Aida Khan, Ph. D.

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Revised: 03/20/13


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