Understanding a child or young person’s strengths, difficulties and support mechanisms is an important step in developing a strategy to optimise their development and opportunities and allow them to reach their full potential. Our approach to assessment for school age children includes tests of intellectual skills (usually the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children - WISC4, or the British Ability Scales - BAS3) and assessments of academic achievement in literacy and numeracy. When it is appropriate we will also look at the impact of the child’s health, life history and social environment.
Assessments are often requested when a child is not performing as well as their peers and when there seems to be more significant difficulties with regards to the child’s behaviour or skills. Our approach to assessment focuses on identifying strengths as well as recognising difficulties in order to be able to develop an effective strategy or set of recommendatons to support the child’s development. One particular model which we have found very useful in developing such plans is Vygotsky’s (1962) concept of Zones of Proximal Development, allowing teachers and parents/carers to focus on a series of goals based on the current observed performances (zone of independence) of the child.
The results are analysed and a full formal report is prepared that includes the main findings and recommendations for meeting educational needs. Our report will focus on creating a profiles of strengths and needs ather than simply listing a set of assessment scores and norms. Where appropriate, the report will include an action plan to give parents and teachers guidance on what special arrangements should be included in the child's education program. It is important to note that in the case of those children with possible severe and profound learning disabilities, other assessment methods are both available and are more appropriate.
Formal assessment by a competent professional is important at this stage of a child's education as the evaluation is used by a number of other professionals, including teachers, doctors and the social services, to produce a single, agreed overview of the child's capabilities and developmental progress. It is also referred to in the development of future plans, IEP's, IBP's and interventions, and needs to be in a format clearly understood by all parties.
The model we have found most generally useful in preparing our reports involves on a four-stage process of (a) carrying out the assessment, (b) developing plans from the assessment, (c) acting on those plans, and (d) reviewing progress. The report we prepare will be written to exacting standards and will be focused on providing guidance on how to use the child’s learning profile to improve learning, behaviour and development. The report is likely to include suggestions for strategies to improve behaviour and performance, sources for finding resources and support, and ideas for reasonable adjustments.
Our reports can be helpful for teachers who can adapt some of their classroom activities or the way they teach in order to overcome or find ways around the particular difficulties a child may have. The reports can also be useful to the parents/carers and to the children themselves, helping them to understand why they may be struggling more than their peers and can boost their confidence and self-esteem.
Part of the reason that such assessments can take more time than expected is due to the comprehensive nature of the approaches used in the assessment. As part of the assessment, it is likely that we will collect background information about the child in question. This could involve observing the child in their learning environment,speaking with key adults and asking the child to take part in a series of tests. We will also construct a developmental history for the child, investigating whether anything unusual happened during the pregnancy, whether the child met any of their developmental milestones and looking at any significant events that have taken place within their lives that may impact on their skills now.
Such information supports the other more formal assessments the psychologist will conduct, particularly the tests to evaluate cognitive processing and literacy/numeracy attainments. This will help us to understand where any difficulties lie and what sort of help will be most appropriate.
The earlier a child with any kind of learning difficulties is diagnosed, the more effective educational interventions are likely to be. So, although it may seem to be a tedious and drawn-out process, assessment is likely to be an ongoing process rather than a single snapshot at one point in time, and we usually recommend observations over an agreed minimum period, with regular progress reviews to ensure the interventions have been effective.