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Feature Article

Obtaining a Psychological Evaluation
 for your Child

  • Is your son or daughter showing signs of emotional, behavioral, or learning problems at home or school?

  • Do you want to find out detailed and pertinent information about your child?

  • Are you thinking about therapeutic help?

If so, you may want to consider having your child evaluated by a competent Psychologist. Here are some questions you might ask, as well as some helpful thoughts and suggestions:

  1. What are some reasons for referring my child for a psychological evaluation?   When you take your child in for an evaluation, you are looking for information about problems that might exist and about the best possible ways to solve them. You may want to find out your child’s cognitive or achievement ability, identify a learning disability, determine a psychiatric diagnosis, or find out whether your child requires therapeutic help. In any event, taking your child to a psychologist for an evaluation merely means that you are seeking information from a mental health professional. It does not imply that there is anything “bad” or “defective” about your child. It also does not mean that you have ”failed” or been unsuccessful as a parent. 
  • Note: Sometimes your child’s teacher makes a referral. A Special Education Team, including a School Psychologist, is requested and a psychoeducational assessment may be recommended. Before testing can begin, you must receive an explanation of reasons for testing, skill areas to be assessed, and the types and names of tests to be given. You must also give your written permission. After the evaluation is completed, you will be invited to the school for a summary conference to discuss test results, to decide possible placement in a Special Education program, to consider the best educational placement, and to determine goals and objectives for instruction or other services that may be required.
  1. What kinds of things will my child be doing during testing? Parents sometimes worry that their child will react negatively or fearfully toward testing. If you are comfortable with the testing plan, you will be able to convey comfort and support to your child. Most children actually enjoy the individual attention they receive during testing and many find the tasks to be fun and challenging. Children who tend to be wary of new situations will perform better if they have a chance to meet the psychologist prior to formal testing and if they have a chance to discuss expectations for their performance. Children need to understand that you only expect them to "do their best " and that they cannot "fail" these tests. 

    During testing, children typically perform paper-and-pencil tasks, answer specific questions, complete puzzle-like tasks, solve math problems, read passages, write sentences or paragraphs, draw pictures, tell stories about pictures, or answer specific questions about themselves or their family situations. Testing sessions usually last two hours or less, with breaks taken as needed.
  1. How can I best prepare my child for testing? Parents can best prepare their children by reassuring them that they will be asked questions and given tasks to find out how they perform at school, how they feel about themselves and their family, how they solve problems, and how they are coping with problems or situations in their life. Some of the tasks will be in the form of a “test,” some will be in the form of questions, some will be in a game or puzzle format, some will be in the form of open-ended or unstructured play with various toys, and others will consist of conversation with the examiner. As you could expect, a normal night’s sleep, a typical breakfast, and brief reassurance are helpful in making sure your child will perform at his/her best. Also, you could request that the evaluation take place to match the time of day when you child is at her/his best. Finally, talk honestly with your child (at his/her developmental level, of course) about the testing and how it will be useful in improving your child’s personal situation.
  1. What kinds of tests will be given to my child?  A good psychological evaluation employs several different methods to obtain information about your child. Observation, interviews, psychological tests, and behavioral ratings are used as multiple data sources to gather needed information. The exact methods to be used depends upon the nature of the referral problem, the information requested, the expertise of the examiner, and your child’s age. Assessment procedures can be categorized as follows:
    Clinical interviews: Clinical interviews are useful for gathering pertinent information about a child, as well as his/her family or school situation. They may be highly structured (with predetermined questions) or very informal (with open-ended questions). Background information, including birth and early developmental history, medical records, and educational progress, is essential for identifying the context or situation in which the child lives. Also, other factors influencing the child can be identified. This is particularly useful for identifying causes and ages when symptoms or problems began.  

    Intelligence tests: Intelligence, or “IQ” tests are standardized, norm-referenced tests that measure specific skills presumed to relate to a person’s intelligence, or thinking ability. A Verbal IQ, measuring a child’s thinking with language-based concepts and information, a Performance IQ, measuring a child’s thinking with visual-perceptual concepts and information, and a Full Scale IQ, a composite score incorporating both the Verbal and Performance IQ’s, are obtained. A profile of factor scores (combinations of individual subtest scores) and a profile of individual subtest scores is also obtained to depict your child’s relative strengths or weaknesses, as well as in portraying his/her learning and thinking style. Your psychologist should also inform you of the strengths and weaknesses associated with IQ testing. Common tests include the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (Third Edition), Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (Third Edition), and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test (Fourth Edition). 

    Achievement tests: Achievement tests, both norm-referenced and criterion-referenced, measure basic academic achievement, consisting of skills and content information acquired through schooling. Psychological evaluations involving achievement testing will likely examine whether or not a Learning Disability exists. In so doing, scores from intelligence and achievement testing will be compared to see if they are similar or discrepant. Significant gaps in academic skill can thereby be identified and targeted for remediation. Furthermore, needed skills, learning strategies, and information will be identified in order to guide and focus instruction. Commonly used achievement tests include the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-educational Battery: Tests of Achievement; Kaufman Tests of Educational Achievement; Key Math; and Peabody Individual Achievement Test. 

    Behavior inventories: Behavior inventories, or behavior checklists, are usually rating scales completed by the child to describe his/her own feelings and behavior, or by an adult (parent or teacher) who is familiar with the child's behavior. Most behavior rating scales are standardized and diagnostic in nature, although others are informal and screen for "critical" needs or concerns. Behavior checklists, completed by more than one adult, are also useful at showing how different individuals perceive a child’s behavior in different settings, or how a child’s perceptions differ from, or conform to, others. Commonly used examples include the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist, Behavior Assessment System for Children, Conners’ Parent Rating Scales, and Conners’ Teacher Rating Scales. 

    Personality tests: Some personality “tests” are presumed to measure personality traits and qualities. Others, by comparison, provide subjective descriptions “projections” of a child and her/his idiosyncratic view of the world. With both straightforward questionnaires and more subjective "projective" procedures, an accurate description is sought. Diagnostic tests usually involve a child, and/or a parent, completing behavior checklists to identify those descriptors and items that best describe the child and his/her problems. Projective procedures, on the other hand, involve presenting the child with vague or ambiguous situations, pictures, stories, etc. and using the child’s responses as indicators of underlying feelings, traits, and personality characteristics. Projective drawings are also useful in helping the child to reveal, through her/his pictures, feelings and perceptions about him/herself, about the family situation, and about his/her unique views of the world. Some commonly used personality tests include the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-Adolescent Form (MMPI-A), the Rorschach Inkblot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), the Draw-A-Person Test, and Kinetic Family Drawings.

  1. What do these results mean to me as a parent?  After assessment is completed, the psychologist writes a complete report detailing referral problems, background information, testing behaviors, test scores and other results, interpretations of results, a diagnosis (if applicable), and recommendations. During the summary conference, the report should be presented to you, interpretations should be made, referral concerns should be addressed, and your questions should be answered. If necessary, a treatment plan is usually developed containing goals and objectives for change. 
  1. Recommendations for seeking assessment services. When choosing a Psychologist to perform an evaluation for your child, the following questions are usually appropriate to ask:
  • What kind of training and educational background do you have with diagnostic or developmental testing? 

  • How long have you been licensed to provide services and how long have you been in practice?

  • Do you specialize in working with children and/or adolescents? 

  • How much training and experience do you have with various assessment techniques? 

  • How will we as parents and family members be involved in the assessment? 

  • Which assessments will you perform and how will you share the results with us? 

  • If my child requires additional therapeutic help, will you participate in a treatment plan or will you refer us to someone else who is skilled in doing so? 

  • What are your fees? Will you accept payment from our insurance plan? How may we arrange payment to you? 

  • What is your policy on confidentiality?

As a parent, you need to be an informed consumer. It is always acceptable, and good practice, to voice concerns and apprehensions before services begin. It is also customary to take a day or two to think over the assessment proposal. It is acceptable to seek a second opinion. Hopefully, you will feel comfortable about participating in your child’s evaluation. As a parent, you have valuable information to share with the Psychologist that is helpful for identifying specific problems and/or making an accurate diagnosis. Most Psychologists are competent and caring individuals who have the experience and expertise to assist you and your child. They generally welcome the opportunity to discuss your concerns in a constructive and professional manner.

Copyright © by Edward R. Johnson, Ph.D.  Last modified: September 16, 2002. Send mail to with questions or comments about this website.