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What to Consider When Seeking an Evaluation for Struggling Readers

Part one of a two-part Q&A with Dr. Michael Hart

Obtaining accurate, up-to-date information on a child’s learning profile is an essential step in supporting the needs of struggling readers. In many cases, school teams will conduct their own evaluations, but there are often obstacles that can create significant delays in this process. Parents may opt to pursue an outside evaluation to help speed up the process, or perhaps because they disagree with the findings of a school-based evaluation. We spoke about evaluations with Dr. Michael Hart, a child psychologist with 25 years of experience in the diagnostic assessment and treatment of students with learning differences, including dyslexia and ADHD. Here is part one of our conversation:

Q: What are some key considerations when pursuing an evaluation for a child who is suspected of having a reading disability?

Dr. Hart: In cases where a reading disability is suspected, schools will often want to conduct their own evaluation of the student. But if the school team does not have qualified professionals to conduct the evaluation, or will not initiate this process due to any number of factors, parents can formally request an independent evaluation (IEE) conducted outside of school.

In cases where parents don’t have the resources to pay for an outside evaluation, which can cost several thousand dollars, they can request that the district cover the expense. But before taking this step, they should be sure to familiarize themselves with the laws and regulations governing special education and IEEs using a resource such as Wrightslaw. Parents can also seek out the support of an education advocate who can advise them on this process and accompany them to meetings with the school team.

The summer can be a good time for parents to pursue an outside evaluation of their child. The goal is to have a report that they can provide to the child’s teacher and other members of the school team prior to the first day of school. This report can help parents frame in a positive way their child’s strengths and weaknesses. Importantly, If parents see their child struggling, it’s imperative to take steps to get early intervention. It’s better to have the evaluation done sooner rather than later, even if the result is that the child’s skills are on track and that no additional support is needed.

Q: Should parents try to have their child evaluated privately, outside of school? What are a couple of advantages and/or disadvantages of doing so?

Dr. Hart: School psychologists are often overwhelmed and can find it hard to carve out time for a proper evaluation. The key advantage of seeking an outside evaluation is that parents are likely to find highly qualified professionals who know how to conduct a really good evaluation. In addition, outside evaluators can also serve as advocates for the parents and accompany them to school meetings to explain their findings. However, bringing in an outside evaluator to a meeting can have an impact on parents’ relationship with the school, depending on the personalities involved and the tenor of recent meetings. Regardless, the child’s emotional and educational well-being is paramount.

Q: What qualifications should parents look for when selecting an outside evaluator?

Dr. Hart: When seeking an outside evaluation, parents need to make sure they find evaluators with the appropriate training, skill set, and experience. Parents should look for a psychologist that have completed specific coursework in conducting evaluations during their postgraduate training. Equally important, the clinician should have had intensive training beyond their formal education. Specifically, parents should also ask whether they have had training on the science of reading and specific issues such as dyslexia.

Since dyslexia is a language-based learning issue, a comprehensive evaluation would typically involve not only a psychologist, but also a speech and language specialist. Parents are often better served when seeking out practices that offer more of a team approach to evaluations rather than just working with an individual evaluator.

Q: If a parent decides to have an outside evaluation for their child, what do they need to do to prepare for the evaluation?

Dr. Hart: Before proceeding with an evaluation, parents should get a feel for the evaluators’ personalities and consider whether he or she will connect well with their child. I also recommend parents do some research ahead of time about the components of a comprehensive evaluation so they are comfortable asking the clinician why certain tests will be administered.

It is usually essential to also tap into a support network. Parents can often connect with their local Decoding Dyslexia chapter (in the US) as a resource to find evaluators with an appropriate background in testing students for dyslexia and other learning issues and get a sense of how well they interact with school teams.

Parents should be sure to prepare their child for an upcoming evaluation. Children will take their cues from their parents, so approaching the evaluation in a relaxed manner and without anxiety is essential. Framing the upcoming evaluation is also very important — parents can explain that this person is going to meet with their child to find out what they’re good at and areas where they need help, and that after a few meetings they will have the information they need to make sure the child is supported both at home and at school.

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