Evaluation and Intervention: Mending The Broken Link

As long as teachers only teach and psychologists/learning specialists only assess, the gap between the process of understanding students’ deficits and translating those understandings into constructive learning strategies will continue to exist. I have written previously about the effects of child study teams testing primarily for eligibility in terms of the more limited kinds of evaluations performed. Yet, if academic subjects are conceptualized as byproducts of basic neuropsychological processes, assessing these processes not only informs us about students’ eligibility for special education services, but also provides a direct pathway to transforming test findings into targeted instructional strategies. For example, I recently spoke with a teacher about a student who is performing inconsistently, and, at times, poorly in math. When I asked what the nature of the problem was, the teacher said that the student did not know his basic math facts, and maybe he did not study enough. Putting myself in the role of the teacher, I asked myself how I would try to remediate the student’s difficulties if I did not really know/understand the basis for the difficulties. Perhaps the student did not study enough. Nevertheless, if deficits in basic math facts exist, are these due to memory?  If so, what kind(s) of memory (i.e. long term, working memory, visual memory) are at fault? Could non-intellectual factors (i.e. math anxiety) or executive function deficits be contributing? In the absence of these kinds of understandings, the teacher may be misattributing the student’s performance to variables associated with character (i.e. effort; motivation).

What is frightening to me is that these kinds of judgments happen every day in classrooms. The consequence is that students are not receiving the kinds of help that are targeted to the underlying processes in a subject area that have gone awry. Moreover, they are then doomed to either keep repeating the problem or are put on a path that may have little effect on the deficit in question. This is commonly the case when the problem includes a lack of motivation/effort, a behavior that frustrates teachers and often angers them, causing them to feel that they should not have to be working harder than they observe students to be doing. Here, too, however, there are multiple reasons for a lack of effort or interest. Lack of mastery is just one of the reasons. While there is no magic wand for instilling motivation in unmotivated, disaffected students, the difficulty in addressing these seeming intractable problems does not mean that teachers should not continue to try. Motivation and effort are executive functions and when they are not available to an adequate degree, it is important to try to start to join with these students around something that is of interest to them. Everyone is interested in something (or someone). Evaluation of executive function is paramount because these processes mediate/direct students’ access to their actual abilities. That is, students often have the ability to perform work in some academic areas, but if their executive functions are deficient, they will not be able to access these skills.

All of the above is in the way of arguing for comprehensive assessments that, when combined with functional performance data, help to develop an individualized instructional strategy. Without it, we can be shooting from the hip.