By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
What might this be? A saxophone player? A woman’s face? A bunch of black and white paint? Or is it something else entirely? This classic optical illusion engages the parts of the brain responsible for perception, critical thinking, and problem-solving so that humans can “make sense” of a somewhat ambiguous picture. We know that everyone perceives and experiences the world differently. In order to best support a child’s growth and development, parents, educators, and professionals need to understand a child’s “lens” or “brain habits” that guide how they think, how they feel and how they behave. Projective testing assesses these “brain habits” and sheds light on a child’s problem-solving style.
If you google or look up “projective test” in the dictionary, an array of definitions pop up. The general theme is: a projective test is a test designed with ambiguous stimuli upon which a person presumably “projects” hidden, unconscious emotions and conflicts. Yes, a person’s internal thoughts, feelings, and assumptions sometimes outside of conscious awareness do influence your response to projective tests and your behavior in everyday life. However, projection is only one piece of the puzzle. A broader, more accurate definition is:
A projective test is a “performance-based” test that requires the respondent to perform a task that has little structure, direction or guidance. These tasks might, for example, involve completing a sentence, telling a story, or describing inkblots (i.e. the famous Rorschach Inkblot Test).
So why do we care about assessing a child or teen’s ability to make sense of an unstructured, ambiguous task? In addition to measuring a child’s concrete knowledge and skills (e.g. academics, intellectual functions, memory capacity etc.), it is oftentimes crucial to understand how a child problem-solves a situation “in action” – when they must rely on themselves to formulate a solution. This is particularly true for children who have difficulties managing their emotions, children who have trouble making reasonable decisions, and children who can’t seem to make or keep friends. For youth with these challenges, understanding how “in the moment” problem-solving and critical thinking skills work or don’t work gives parents, educators, and professionals insight into learning style, challenges and strengths, and most importantly, guides individualized therapeutic interventions.
A growing number of business and education leaders have begun to recognize the importance of performance-based assessments to evaluate student learning in the classroom and the workplace. Creativity, ingenuity, “thinking on your feet” and the capacity for critical thinking and analysis are clearly key skills in today’s innovative world. Therefore, to set kids up for success, it is understandably helpful to evaluate a child’s thinking and feeling “brain habits” that affect their choices, behaviors, and aspirations. As assessors, teachers, professionals, and parents, we want to better understand how each child applies knowledge to solve problems they face now and in the future – social problems, work problems, emotional problems and beyond. Projective testing provides not only a current evaluation of a child’s capacity to problem solve “on their feet” but provides a direction for how those “brain habits” might pose a strength or a challenge for that child as they grow.
Are you thinking about referring a child, teen, or young adult for projective testing? Here are 5 “fast facts” to guide you:
- Projective (also known as performance-based) tests are powerful diagnostic tools when administered and interpreted in conjunction with observation and other standardized test results by a skilled, experienced practitioner. It is important to ask a potential evaluator about their training in projective testing and how they utilize the results.
- Projective testing is helpful for children and teens with various complex, social and emotional challenges. Common referrals include questions related to: thinking problems/emerging psychosis, trauma, attachment-related concerns, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, developing personality traits and disorders, high-risk behaviors such as suicidal or homicidal thoughts and actions, substance abuse, poor emotion regulation, and self-injury.
- Projective testing provides information about a child’s thinking patterns, how they experience emotions, self-esteem, and their habits of interacting with others. For example, is a child more likely to “keep everything inside” and avoid or do they dysregulate and “explode” when they experience anxiety? Are a child’s difficulties making and keeping friends because they get “stuck” on the details of a situation, is it because they “miss the big picture”, or are they in a constant state of worrying that others will let them down? Answering these questions results in a more individualized intervention plan for therapy, at home and at school.
- Projective testing is not for everyone. There is little research on the use of projective testing with children and adolescents with low visual acuity, below average verbal and/or non-verbal IQs, impairments in visual-spatial processing, social-communication challenges, or language disorders. Be cautious of practitioners who do not inquire and evaluate these important aspects of a child’s functioning, as they are crucial components to determine the appropriateness of a projective evaluation.
- Projective testing sheds light on not only a child’s areas of difficulty, but can also provide an individualized analysis of a child’s strengths. For example, projective testing can identify capacity for insight into choices and behaviors, ability to engage effectively in a therapeutic relationship, capacity for empathy and perspective-taking, as well as a child’s inclination towards imagination, creativity, and ingenuity.
About the Author:
Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment, and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills, and self-esteem.
Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate, and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.
Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT), and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home, and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.
Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).
Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel, and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence, and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.
To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, MA, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.