What the Heck is Neuropsychology and Psychoed Testing?
Last week, Tim and I had the pleasure of joining two incredible neuropsychologists for lunch: Dr. Dana Chidekel and Dr. Deborah (Deb) Budding. We met at one of my favorite lunch spots, Le Petit Café, and got to talking about all sorts of things pertaining to brain development, learning differences, and horse therapy (I’ll explain later.). In between bouts of eating baguette, nicoise salad, and poached salmon, Deb and Dana fed our minds with their latest insights in the field of neuropsychology.
After chatting with Deb and Dana, it became clear
to me that the sorts of assessments conducted by neuropsychologists are often conflated with the ‘psychoeducational testing’ administered by other professionals (e.g. psychologists, educational therapists, and school district administrators). Consequently, the power of neuropsychological tests and their implications for educating students are lost.
(For a much more detailed description of neuropsychology and its assessments, please check out this document written by Dr. Chidekel. Her writing is what informed this post, and the ‘Reading Disorder’ example cited below is directly taken from her description of neuropsych evaluations.)
I know this post already sounds a little ‘highfalutin’, so let me see if I can break it down in a way that makes it relatable.
Let’s say that your child has difficulty with reading comprehension and focusing his attention in-class. You decide that it’s helpful to have a formal ‘psychoeducational assessment’ through the school district in order to locate possible learning differences – perhaps attention deficit disorder (ADD) or a visual processing issue (i.e. a disconnect between the visual input of the outside world [viewing the text of a book] and making sense of and storing that information in memory [comprehending text and remembering it later]).
When your child goes in for his assessment, it will typically involve the following: a clinical interview, an I.Q. test, a figure drawing test, a review of academic performance (report cards!), parent/teacher/child/checklists, and a personality test. Based on the logic of the person analyzing the results (typically a psychologist or educational therapist) these measures are quantified into a numerical or qualitative scale. For the sake of being simplistic, your student’s ‘score’ on these different measures will suggest that he is either proficient or has a learning difference in any number of areas.
Ultimately, the assessment gives you really fancy and scientific-sounding labels for your child’s performance on the aforementioned measures: ‘poor executive functioning and self-organization, poor visual processing, poor attentional skills, etc.’ These labels form the language of ‘learning differences’ or LDs.
On one hand, these labels can point you to a thousand different strategies for ‘coping’ with a specific LDs. There are specific techniques to help students with LDs approach education, learn more efficiently, approach things like SAT test prep and overcome other important achievement obstacles. However, the exact origins of these LDs, and consequently, the best strategies for remediating them, are not easily identified.
For example, if your child is diagnosed with a ‘reading disorder’, there is not a singular cause for all reading disorders. In fact, there could be a number of reasons why your child had difficulty with reading on his testing. Perhaps he had issues retaining focus, initiating the reading activity, recalling sight words and letter sounds…or maybe the whole testing situation just made him INCREDIBLY anxious, and thus, he performed terribly.
“…the neuropsychologist can see the brain’s contributions to this poor performance.”
With a neuropsychological assessment, the neuropsychologist can administer tests that directly link behavior (i.e. poor performance on a reading test) with underlying brain functioning and activity. So in addition to seeing the problematic reading performance, the neuropsychologist can see the brain’s contributions to this poor performance.
It turns out that your child has extremely high levels of activity in the ventral prefrontal cortex, which point to OCD and anxiety. The anxiety was responsible for your child’s inability to properly read, focus, and remember key information during the assessment. You now recall that your child described a mental ‘haze’ during the testing that you initially attributed to laziness.
With the assistance of the neuropsychologist, you work with your child to devise strategies for managing anxiety and feelings of security. You also investigate medication that will help regulate hyperactivity in the prefrontal cortex.
As you can see, doing a million reading drills and/or tutoring sessions wasn’t what your student needed (although he may have been prescribed this after a typical psychoeducational assessment). Without the assistance of the neuropsychologist, you may have fruitlessly attempted a number of unnecessary reading activities, memory-building interventions, or visual tracking drills that had little to do with the underlying problem of anxiety.
Mark my words, the impact of neuropsychology on the fields of teaching, assessment, and educational therapy are going to be HUGE. I only hope that I can continue to keep up with the times and ensure that Launch’s team is well-informed!
P.S. No, I never got back to the bit about ‘horse therapy.’ Just send me an email and I can tell you more about it. Really interesting stuff!