By: Ann Helmus, Ph.D.
NESCA Founder/Director; Clinical Neuropsychologist
Many parents have met with me concerned that, “We had a full evaluation and got a lot of scores and a diagnosis but we still don’t understand why our child has this problem and what we can do about it.” This outcome can be avoided if parents and the evaluator are both clear on why the child is being evaluated, have laid out specific questions to be answered and what kinds of recommendations are being sought. Determining the referral question(s) should be a key goal of the intake session.
During the intake meeting, the evaluator can help the parent to shape their concerns into a specific referral question that can be addressed effectively through the process of neuropsychological evaluation. The evaluator can manage parental expectations in this process so there is not disappointment with evaluation results that don’t answer the parents’ questions. For example, I’ve had parents request an evaluation because they want to know if their fifth grader will get into Harvard or their child with high-functioning ASD (autism spectrum disorder) will get married. These questions can’t be addressed through a neuropsychological evaluation, but they can be re-worked into answerable questions. A neuropsychological evaluation can tell us if a child’s cognitive and academic skills are in the range of students who attend the most competitive colleges. However, there are many other factors that influence the college acceptance process. In this case, the referral question might be revised into “assess the child’s potential for academic success in a rigorous academic setting.” Similarly, it is beyond the scope of a neuropsychologist to determine if anyone will get married, but through the evaluation process we can assess the child’s current social and emotional functioning and offer some predictions about their likely developmental trajectory in the social domain.
While the previous examples of referral questions are too broad or abstract, I am also often confronted with referral questions that are too narrow, such as, “Does this child have ADHD?”. In this case, I would work with the parents to reframe the referral question to, “Why does this child appear to have difficulty paying attention in school?” This referral question recognizes the fact that there are many reasons that a child may have difficulty concentrating or appear distractible – ADHD being only one of the possibilities.
When I train neuropsychologists, I emphasize the importance of understanding “Why now?”. What is it that motivated the parent or school team to seek evaluation at this point in time as they work to frame the referral question with parents? Common reasons include: concern about how the child will manage an upcoming transition (e.g., to middle school), sudden appearance of a problem, obvious widening of the gap between a child and peers, inability to meet increased developmental demands, lack of response to interventions, change in emotional status, or deterioration in academic performance.
It is extremely helpful when parents and/or school teams prepare for the intake meeting by brainstorming what they are seeking from the evaluation, questions they hope will be answered, issues to be assessed, and specific guidance that is being requested. The evaluator can then work with the parents or school team to fashion these into a referral question that is specific and relevant to the child so that all parties are “on the same page” as they undertake the evaluation process.
About the Author
NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.
Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.
To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, 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 and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email email@example.com or call 617-658-9800.