A Parent’s Guide to Psychoeducational Assessments

Discovering and evaluating strengths and weaknesses in learning can help a child succeed.


Editor’s Note: Given that FS families move every few years, they are regularly looking at new school options and figuring out how to meet the learning needs of their children. Many parents find that at some point their child could benefit from psychoeducational testing to help determine the individual learning styles or accommodations needed to help the child succeed. A decade ago, we commissioned an article from Dr. Chad Nelson on what Foreign Service families need to know about psychoeducational evaluations.

That article, published in The Foreign Service Journal December 2013 Education Supplement, turned out to be an excellent resource for families, both inside and outside the Foreign Service. It has been read online more than 50,000 times and remains one of the most-read FSJ articles every month. At the 10-year mark, we asked Dr. Nelson to revisit the article and offer an update on what’s changed, and what hasn’t, during the past decade. Here’s his response.

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In 2013 I wrote an article for The Foreign Service Journal to inform parents about the process and benefits of psychoeducational evaluations. While the process of psychoeducational assesments remains similar 10 years later, there have been some changes. This article will once again discuss the psychoeducational evaluation, as well as the changes that have occurred and what is anticipated in the years ahead.

Academic struggle can occur throughout a child’s education. For younger children, struggle may occur in acquiring early concepts of reading and mathematics; they may have difficulty with attending to and understanding directions, or difficulty with social interaction. For older students, difficulty may occur in the areas of reading retention and comprehension, retaining larger quantities of information, attending for prolonged periods of time, organizing tasks and materials, beginning or completing tasks, or completing tasks in the allotted time period.

While intervention may be helpful to students who are struggling, some may continue to experience difficulty, which may lead to frustration for both students and their parents. When struggle is initially noted or persisting, psychoeducational evaluation may provide a greater understanding of your child’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as information to help the child achieve academic success.

For Foreign Service families, in particular, such evaluations may help identify academic intervention and accommodations that may be necessary for children entering or continuing on in American and international schools, as well as transitioning from one school to the other or progressing on in their education to pursue a college degree.

Technology has played an important role in the administration of testing measures.

What Is a Psychoeducational Assessment?

Psychoeducational assessment, or evaluation, is a process by which a trained professional works with those involved in your child’s learning or development to identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses. The goal of evaluation is to assist everyone in understanding how to help your child be as successful as possible.

While much of the psychoeducational evaluation remains the same over time, some changes have occurred in the past 10 years. As with any kind of evaluation, measures are routinely being updated to reflect current abilities, educational experiences, and diversity of the populations that the measures assess.

Technology has played an important role in the administration of testing measures. Many measures, including questionnaires, are now administered electronically. Many measures are also now scored electronically. While the increased reliance on technology for the administration and scoring of evaluation materials is beneficial in providing faster results to students and their parents, some argue that with the increased reliance on technology for scoring and reporting results comes increased neglect of assessing how those scores were attained.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many people live their lives, it has also changed the way in which psychological services are provided. As remote therapy increased as a result of the act of distancing to reduce the spread of COVID, some evaluators also began evaluating children remotely. The benefit of remote evaluations is that they allow students who may not live near evaluators to have the ability to work with evaluators. The drawback of remote evaluations, as argued by some professionals, is that the environment is less controlled when a child completes the evaluation at home instead of in the office setting. For example, internet connection issues may impact test administration, and increased distractors at home may impact a child’s attention to the testing situation.

How Can a Psychoeducational Evaluation Be Helpful?

Consistent with 10 years ago, psychoeducational evaluation can help to answer many questions regarding your child, their learning, and their overall functioning. These questions include:

  • What kind of learner is my child?
  • Why is my child struggling in one subject but not others?
  • Why does my child cry at the thought of school or doing homework?
  • Why have my child’s grades declined?
  • Why do I have to repeat myself over and over to get my child to do something?
  • Why is my child struggling to make friends?
  • Why is my child misbehaving in class?
  • Why is my child so nervous?
  • Why does my child seem to be more emotional than their peers?
  • Why does my child appear lazy and disinterested when I know they are not?
  • What does my child need to help them become a happier and more successful student?
  • Why is my college student struggling with the demands that are placed on them?

In an effort to normalize the testing experience, it is helpful to let your child know that many children undergo testing to see how they learn best.

While evaluators may differ in what they include in an evaluation, psychoeducational evaluations often continue to involve six areas of questioning/evaluation.

1. Background information and developmental history. To gain a comprehensive picture of your child, it will be important for the evaluator to have a full understanding of your child’s development prior to the evaluation. Areas of inquiry may include your child’s birth history, developmental history, medical history, academic history, social/emotional history, and family history.

While some parents believe that a “clean slate” approach to testing will lead to an unbiased assessment of their child, this is often not beneficial to the evaluator or to your child. Rather, your child’s developmental history is valuable to the evaluator in determining a diagnostic formulation and planning appropriate intervention for your child.

2. Assessment of abilities (cognitive functioning). When assessing a child’s abilities, the examiner administers a series of measures to determine how your child learns, as well as their ability to process information and formulate responses. These measures often include both verbal and visual tests to examine verbal reasoning, nonverbal reasoning, certain types of memory, and the speed at which your child processes information and formulates responses.

In addition to the scores that these measures provide, examiners also gain a great deal of information from how your child approaches and solves problems. Do they work “at their own pace,” completing a task to the best of their ability? Are they impulsive in their responses (answering without weighing all possible options)? Do they experience difficulty with complex directions and instructions? Do they become anxious when they know they are being timed? Do they become overwhelmed when they perceive the task to be too great for them to accomplish? These are just a few of the questions that assessment of abilities will help to answer.

3. Assessment of processing. While cognitive assessment is often a thorough process and helps determine strengths and weaknesses that your child possesses, there are other measures that also help provide answers to your child’s learning profile. These other measures include speech and language processing, auditory processing, other types of memory not measured in the cognitive evaluation, and visual-motor processing.

4. Assessment of academic functioning. Achievement, or academic, assessment is completed to assist in understanding your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Measures often include tasks of reading, writing, spelling, and mathematics. They assess general academic skill and, in many instances, assess concepts such as academic fluency and efficiency.

Prior to the evaluation, begin recording any concerns or thoughts that you have to share with the evaluator.

5. Assessment of attention/executive functioning. In the past 10 years, there has been an increase in examining the impact of attention and executive functioning on a child’s functioning. Executive functioning includes a set of mental abilities that include working memory, flexible thinking, organization, and self-control. To assess attention and executive functioning, your child may complete several measures, and you may be asked to complete several questionnaires.

6. Assessment of social/emotional functioning. In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the impact of emotional functioning on the learning process. While positive emotions have been associated with optimal academic performance, negative emotions can contribute to increased inattention, frustration, and demoralization in the classroom.

Therefore, while a traditional psychoeducational evaluation may only examine a child’s cognitive and academic functioning, an assessment of emotional functioning is often crucial in determining factors that are affecting performance.

For younger children, social/emotional functioning is often assessed through parent questionnaires and some basic questionnaires. As children get older, they may also complete questionnaires assessing how they feel, and may also be administered measures to see how they cope and view social relationships.

Questions for a Potential Evaluator

When speaking with a professional, ask the following questions:

  • What is your experience assessing students this age?
  • What is the cost of the evaluation?
  • Will you be conducting the evaluation? (While many professionals still carry out their own evaluations, others rely on a psychological technician, assistant, or student to complete the evaluation. If someone other than the professional completes the evaluation, it will be important for parents to assess how much interaction the professional will have with their child and who will interpret the findings and write the report.)
  • How will the evaluation be conducted? (Will the evaluation be conducted in person or remotely? Are the measures administered by the evaluator or by a computer?)
  • Do you participate in insurance? (Some evaluators fully participate in insurance, some are out-of-network providers and will complete paperwork to help you try to obtain reimbursement, and others do nothing with insurance.)
  • How much time will be spent on the evaluation of my child, and what is your rationale for spending that amount of time? (Some evaluators spend several hours, while others spend several days.)
  • What is included in the evaluation?
  • What will I be doing during the evaluation? (Most often, parents will wait in the waiting room while their child and the evaluator are working.)
  • How long will it take to have completed results and a completed report?
  • Will I receive a copy of the report? (Some evaluators have an additional charge for a completed evaluation report.)
  • What will be included in the report? (Some reports will be a simple review of evaluation results, while others will be a review of results and include recommendations based on those results.)

Prior to the evaluation, begin recording any concerns or thoughts that you have to share with the evaluator.

What to Expect on Evaluation Day

The amount of time that an evaluator spends with a child varies from one occasion for several hours to multiple occasions for shorter periods of time. During the evaluation process, parents are often not present in the testing room as the evaluator and child work together. If you are planning on staying during the evaluation time, bring something to keep you occupied, as you will likely be waiting for several hours.

Your child may take breaks, so ask if they are allowed to bring a snack or if snacks will be offered to them. If snacks are provided, be sure to inform the evaluator if your child has any food allergies.

To help your child perform to their true potential, here are several suggestions.

1. Prepare your child for the testing experience. In an effort to normalize the testing experience, it is helpful to let your child know that many children undergo testing to see how they learn best. For younger children, avoid telling the child that they will be playing games, because this expectation can lead to disappointment when discovering that they will not be playing the kinds of games that they are accustomed to. Also, the title “doctor” often brings about thoughts of needles in younger children; telling your child that they will be working with their own teacher or tutor for the day may be more settling.

With high school and college students, inform them of the process and encourage them to be involved. The more involved they are in the process, the more older students “buy into” the evaluation process.

2. Prepare yourself for the testing experience. Prior to the evaluation, begin collecting documents that may be helpful to the evaluator. Items such as report cards, progress reports, and previous standardized testing results will be helpful. Also, the evaluator may ask you to complete some forms and questionnaires prior to the evaluation. Given that some of these forms take a considerable amount of time, plan ahead and attempt to have the forms completed before the examination.

In addition to collecting documents, collect your thoughts. Prior to the evaluation, begin recording any concerns or thoughts that you have to share with the evaluator. This will help avoid forgetting important information when you meet with the evaluator.

3. Know everyone’s schedule when making the appointment. While it may be convenient, refrain from scheduling evaluation appointments during “special days” at school. For example, while your child may not miss academic content if the evaluation is scheduled on a school day, if the evaluation is scheduled when the class has an all-day field trip, the child may be more resistant to the evaluation. Also, if one parent is out of town or has a medical procedure planned on the same day, these kinds of events can also be disruptive to the child.

Feedback is one of the most important aspects of the evaluation.

4. Have your child well rested for the evaluation. Parents should refrain from allowing their children to participate in activities such as sleepovers prior to the evaluation, and evaluations shouldn’t be scheduled on the day your family or your child returns from an out-of-town experience. For example, the day after returning from summer camp may not be the best day to complete an evaluation. Instead, have your child wait a day and rest prior to the evaluation.

5. Have your child well fed and hydrated. A good breakfast and plenty to drink prior to the evaluation is beneficial. Ask the evaluator if your child can bring a snack and beverage on the day of the evaluation, as well. Some children do well when they get to have a snack at break time.

After the Evaluation

Feedback is one of the most important aspects of the evaluation. It provides an opportunity to not only hear the results of the evaluation but to ask questions. Ask any and every question that you may have, and bring something to record notes. If it makes you more comfortable, ask another family member to be present at the feedback session to make sure you understand all of the information that is given to you.

Depending on the age of your child, there may be a child feedback session, as well. By the time children are in middle school, they are often curious regarding their performance. In addition, they may benefit from hearing that they are capable students but that they may require accommodations, different study strategies, or certain interventions to help them be as successful as possible.

When you receive the written report, read through the report several times before sharing it with the school or with other professionals. This allows you to know exactly what information the school is seeing, as well as allowing you to contact the evaluator if there is any misinformation included in the report.

While some parents are concerned with the “labels” that sharing the evaluation may evoke, the information and diagnoses provided in reports are often useful for guiding services and accommodations in the school and with other professionals, such as tutors. This information can also assist in providing the diagnoses necessary to receive school interventions or accommodations.

Given the trend toward reliance on technology for the administration and scoring of evaluation measures, it is likely that technology will continue to play a large role in the evaluation process. In addition, as research continues to examine academic specifics, it is likely that evaluation of specific reading and mathematics concepts will be further assessed to better understand a child’s areas of academic strength and weakness.

In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the impact of emotional functioning on the learning process.

If a psychoeducational evaluation may be of interest to you, begin acting now, as many evaluators are booked in advance. Begin asking around for evaluators. Friends, teachers, and pediatricians may all be able to share their experiences with certain professionals. Begin calling those professionals with any questions, and to see if you are comfortable with that person, as well as whether or not your child would be comfortable with the evaluator.

While the psychoeducational evaluation journey may initially seem overwhelming, the information that you gain can be invaluable. I wish you luck in your journey!

Chad C. Nelson, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Baltimore County, Maryland. He specializes in the evaluation of learning, attention, and emotional disorders in children, adolescents, and young adults. He can be reached at chad@drchadnelson.com.


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