What is a psycho-educational assessment? When is it an appropriate time to consider a psycho-educational assessment?

A psycho-educational assessment entails the administration of various standard tests that provide detailed information regarding a child’s overall cognitive and educational skills.

As a parent, you might decide to initiate a psycho-educational assessment when there is clear evidence that your child is lagging behind in important academic areas (reading, writing, Math). You might notice that your child’s written sample shows evidence of letter reversals (i.e. b & d, p & q, m & w), or bizarre spelling patterns that are hardly legible. Moreover, when your child is asked to read out loud, you may observe that she is emotionally and cognitively overwhelmed, unable to read accurately and fluently. She may have a hard time sounding out letters and words, or she has trouble recognizing or reading simple, familiar words. You might be puzzled that, despite her advanced vocabulary and great facility in spoken language, your child struggles to read and write. You might also notice that your child has trouble grasping basic Math concepts and perform age appropriate calculation operations.

These learning issues do not necessarily indicate an underlying learning disability. Some of these problems might be due to maturational or developmental factors (For example, your child might be chronologically younger than her peer group), lack of proper instruction, or school dislocation/disruption. If despite adequate instruction, these problems persist over time, then a psycho-educational assessment is warranted to identify the root cause of these concerns.

Typically, the following factors may be the core deficit contributing to a learning disability:

Phonological Skills:

A child might experience challenges in reading and writing due to an inherent weakness in phonological skills. This simply means that she may struggle connecting the letters of the alphabet with their corresponding sounds. Phonological awareness is an ability that helps the child learn the “letter-sound association rules” easily. When a child has trouble sounding out words effortlessly, she cannot read words embedded in a passage fluently, hence her ability to understand the meaning of the passage is greatly compromised.

Visual/spatial processing Skills

A subgroup of children with learning disability seems to have difficulties with visual demands of reading and writing. They seem to perceive and process visual information very slowly. For example, proper reading requires rapid scanning and visual processing of graphic and symbolic signs (letters). In order to read and write accurately, a child needs to retain a visual record of letters/words in memory and have easy and efficient access to that stored information. If a child has a weakness in rapid processing of visual symbols, then her ability to read and write fluently is undermined.

You might notice the following signs when a child has a deficit in visual/spatial processing skills:

  • Difficulties in automatic visual recognition of letters/numbers

  • Problems in differentiating similar looking letters and words

  • Difficulty in recognizing words “by sight”

  • Slow “word by word” oral reading

  • Problems in remembering “how words look” during spelling

Executive Functioning

Certain weakness in executive functions can also contribute to a child’s learning problems. Executive functions refer to a set of cognitive skills that help regulate our thoughts, feelings and behavior in order to achieve a goal. These skills govern and guide learning of all new information. For example, in order to learn or master a new skill, we need to concentrate, strategize and devise a plan, learn and remember steps involved in completing the task, assign appropriate time and take action to execute the plan.

As a parent you might notice that your child has trouble remembering and following through daily routines, constantly loses her belongings, or forgets to hand in assignments. She might often be distracted, unable to focus, rushes through assignments and fails to review her homework to catch mistakes. You may also notice that she cannot regulate her feelings and actions properly; she is prone to emotional outbursts and her reaction is disproportionate to the situation at hand. As a parent you might understandably feel frustrated and emotionally exhausted by having to organize all the minute details of your child’s daily activities. Ideally, you would want your child to internalize and regulate most of these functions so that she becomes a competent, efficient and self-motivated learner.

Neuroscience research on executive functioning indicates that pre-frontal cortex is the region of the brain that coordinates executive functions such as planning, problem solving, self control and goal directed activity. This area of the brain continues to evolve and develop throughout adolescence. As such, executive functions are among the last functions to fully mature throughout development. It is important to keep in mind that it is common for children are to struggle with such complex developmental tasks such as self control, emotional self regulation and organizational skills since their brain has not developed fully to allow for proper consolidation of such skills. Parents can help children gradually consolidate these skills through modeling, repetition and consistency (consistent application of rules/routines).

Following are some examples of executive functions:

  • Task Initiation: The ability to take initiative and apply discipline to start working on a new task

  • Focus/Attention: The ability to minimize distractions and direct and sustain attention while working on a task.

  • Time management: Assign appropriate time to complete multiple steps involved in a task

  • Working Memory: The ability to hold information in mind long enough to process, retain and store it in long term memory

  • Mental Flexibility: Flexibility to shift ideas/plans and adopt new problem solving strategies

  • Self Regulation: Capacity to reflect on and manage one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors and make required changes to achieve personal goals

  • Task Completion: Apply mental/emotional perseverance to see a task to the end

A psycho-educational assessment can provide valuable information regarding your child’s capacity and performance in all these key areas of cognitive and academic functioning. It can help determine if your child has an underlying weakness in phonological skills, visual/spatial processing of information or some aspect of executive functioning. The first step in helping your child is to figure out where the problem lies and subsequently provide the instructional support she needs in order to flourish.

Dr. M. Gholamain,

Ph.D. C. Psych

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