Guide for Evaluating Children for Learning Disabilities or Behavioral Issues
When you have a child who needs an evaluation for learning disabilities or behavior issues, the process can be daunting. As a child psychologist, I am often asked the question, “Where do I start?” Although there are many pathways that an evaluation can take, the process does not have to be complex. Below are four simple steps to help guide you through the evaluation process for your child.
Step 1) Consult with the School
Explain your concerns to your child’s teacher or principal.
If it’s an academic issue, such as low reading performance, the school should be reaching out to you at parent-teacher conferences, as well as throughout the year when progress monitoring is done to assess your child’s performance. If your child is falling behind their peers, they may qualify for additional intervention support from a learning specialist at the school or for special accommodations, such as receiving reading instruction in a small group. Typically, schools require a specific amount of documented intervention support over a period of time before they consider a special education evaluation.
If it’s a behavior issue, such as inattention, talk to your child’s teachers about what accommodations they can provide to help your child succeed. This may include informal methods such as movement breaks or a wiggle seat, or it may involve a more detailed behavior plan if needed.
Step 2) Talk with Your Child’s Doctor
Even if your child is struggling with a learning issue, many pediatricians can help rule out related issues, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as identify other language, medical or environmental issues that may be interfering with your child’s success at school. If your child’s doctor suspects that ADHD could be a co-morbid (existing simultaneously with and typically independently of another medical condition) or contributing factor, they can offer screeners for you and your child’s teacher to complete to formally diagnose and treat it through medication or behavior therapy recommendations.
Step 3) Consider an Evaluation
If your child is continuing to struggle after completing steps one and two, consider seeking an evaluation through your child’s school or an outside agency, such as the Learning Evaluation Center at Havern School. Although schools typically have a streamlined referral process for special education, you always have the option to bypass this process by requesting a special education evaluation in writing. Your child’s school must respond to you in a timely manner, outlining whether or not they will conduct an evaluation along with the specific reasonings that lead to their decision. Special education evaluations can help to diagnose and develop academic goals for a range of learning issues, including speech/language delays, fine or gross motor challenges, specific learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. It is important to know that schools cannot diagnose medical issues, which includes ADHD. If you suspect that your child may have ADHD, you will need to seek a formal evaluation through your child’s doctor (step two) or through a child psychologist.
If the school states that they will not conduct an evaluation or if ADHD is a concern, you can have a psychoeducational evaluation completed by a child psychologist. Outside evaluations often include a range of assessments to diagnose learning and attention issues, including cognitive, academic, executive functioning and social/emotional evaluations. These evaluations offer a complete picture of your child’s strengths and challenges as a learner. Comprehensive evaluations should also include diagnostic information, as well as specific accommodation recommendations for the school to incorporate into an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan. Evaluations may also recommend outside therapy support or tutoring support, providing a detailed guideline for therapists or tutors to immediately follow.
Step 4) Follow Up with the School
If you’ve had an outside learning or behavior evaluation or medical diagnosis from your child’s doctor, request a meeting with the school to share the findings and develop a plan to meet your child’s needs. This could include revisiting the special education process for an IEP or the creation of a 504 plan to offer specific accommodations for your child, such as extended time on tests. No matter what route you take, it is best to always keep the school in the loop to ensure that everyone is on the same page, as well as to make sure that you are creating the best possible solution to set your child up for success.
Dr. Courtney Tolinski is a clinical and educational psychologist, working with children and families as a clinical and school psychologist for almost a decade. At Havern School, Dr. Tolinski manages the evaluation process for Havern School’s Learning Evaluation Center, serving the greater Denver area. She is a Licensed Psychologist in the State of Colorado, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and an active member of the National Association for School Psychologists as well as the Colorado Society of School Psychologists.