What is a Psychological Assessment?

By Dr. Ilana Jurkowitz
October 21, 2021

As a part of LD Awareness Month, we are spotlighting important aspects of the journey for neurodivergent learners and caregivers.  In a previous blog, The Learner Support Ecosystem and Why it’s Important to Have One, we detailed the common roles within the learner’s support ecosystem.  In this blog, we’re digging into psychological assessments. For this, we interviewed Dr. Ilana Jurkowitz, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, who often administers these assessments and can offer insights into the overall goals and importance of this process.

About Dr Ilana Jurkowitz

I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a specialty in pediatric psychodiagnostic assessment.  In my private practice, I focus on providing comprehensive psychodiagnostic evaluations for children and adolescents to better identify their cognitive and academic profiles and create a plan to help them reach their potential.  I am also an adjunct professor at Alliant International University in the Ph.D. Clinical Psychology graduate program where I teach psychodiagnostic assessment to doctoral candidates and train them in specific test instruments and data interpretation.  I completed my postdoctoral training at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center in their Psychoeducational and Diagnostic Testing Program and received extensive training in cognitive, academic, attentional, and psychological testing.  I work closely with families, schools, and other professionals in supporting children and improving their learning experiences.  

What does a Comprehensive Psychodiagnostic Evaluation entail? 

A comprehensive psychodiagnostic evaluation typically includes a parent interview, administration of several tests that measure various areas of cognitive, academic, and psychological functioning, a classroom observation (if possible), and feedback sessions with the family.  The tests administered evaluate various areas of functioning, including cognition, verbal processing, non-verbal processing, memory, processing speed, attention and concentration, executive functioning, academics, and emotional experience.  Tasks include things like puzzles, word games, drawings, and storytelling.  Test administration lasts anywhere from 7-10 hours total, typically divided into shorter 1-3 hours sessions.  Parents walk away from the assessment process with a final report and specific recommendations for how to best support their child. 

Are psycho-educational assessment referrals cause for concern? 

Absolutely not!  A referral for an evaluation just means that a student may not be learning in the way expected.  The information gathered from an assessment will help teachers instruct the child and help the child apply specific strategies to the learning process.  Completing an evaluation should never be about finding out what is “wrong,” but rather about finding out what is “right.”  Evaluations will identify specific strengths, which will empower the child and help them approach tasks and learning in a way that works for their brain.  An assessment could benefit every child!

Can you help our community with some common terminology?

Specific Learning Disability: This is a diagnostic category in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) that describes specific weaknesses in the areas of reading, writing, or mathematics.  Diagnoses are issued if the child is performing below the expected level, as determined by formal testing.  The expected level is determined by IQ testing.

IQ: Intelligence Quotient.  This is a numerical representation of a person’s cognitive ability.  IQ is comprised of several areas of functioning including, verbal ability, visual-spatial ability, fluid reasoning (i.e. problem-solving ability), working memory, and processing speed.  These combined areas make up a person’s IQ.

Comprehensive Testing: Comprehensive Testing means that the tests administered would measure many areas of functioning.  This is different from just a psycho-educational assessment, which would look at basic cognitive abilities (i.e. IQ) and academic performance only.  A comprehensive evaluation takes a deeper look at the way a child thinks and processes information, which helps to formulate specific recommendations and tailor classroom instruction.

Our caregivers would appreciate an understanding of sneaky symptoms of learning differences that may otherwise go unnoticed. What should they look out for in their learners? 

Anytime a child seems to be avoiding a specific academic task, teachers and caregivers should wonder whether the difficulty of the task is what is getting in the way.  A hasty and careless approach to tasks may also indicate difficulty with that subject area.  The length of time it takes to complete homework may also be indicative of a learning difficulty.  Students should not be spending hours completing their homework every night!

How do caregivers learn their child needs an assessment?

Typically, a teacher or school administrator will recommend an assessment based on their in-class observations.  This conversation may begin with an initial conversation about areas of concern or weakness observed in the classroom.  Caregivers may also notice that certain academic tasks are more difficult for their child to complete and wonder whether it is a function of a learning weakness.  Referrals may also come from a child’s individual therapist, should they be in therapy.  There may be questions that the therapist can’t answer and test data can help clarify how a child processes the world.  An evaluation can also help guide therapists in their treatment and provide a type of manual for how the child sees the world.  

What services are typically recommended if a learner qualifies for an official diagnosis? 

Services may include educational therapy, psychotherapy, occupational therapy, speech, and language therapy.  

What are a few key tips for caregivers to keep in mind while their learner undergoes psychological evaluations? 

It is important not to think about the evaluation process as a test, but rather as a journey of understanding how a child’s brain works and their strengths.  Kids shouldn’t feel like they need to “score high” or get the answers right because many of the tasks are intended to be difficult or beyond the child’s capacity.  The goal is to encourage the child to do the best they can and not feel like they are getting a grade.  

Any final thoughts you wish to offer to our shared audience? 

The evaluation process should be empowering for both the child and parents and seen as a positive experience.  Weaknesses can be reframed as areas of growth and the evaluation process can give kids the tools to understand how they learn and know how to approach specific tasks.  Diagnoses can also be discussed in terms of a common language and not as a way to identify what is wrong.  A diagnosis by itself does not tell the child’s story and should only be used as a way to classify some of the areas of difficulty.  It will never answer all the questions, and the same diagnosis could look very different in two different kids.

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