Learning Assessment: Who is Qualified to Diagnose my Child’s Learning Challenge and Where do I begin?
This article provides helpful information regarding who can conduct a learning assessment or provide an official diagnosis for a child’s learning challenges. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
A happy, social five-year-old boy walks into his kindergarten classroom for the first time (we will call him Jake). It is late August and Jake will be turning six in January. Prior to entering school, Jake seems normal and healthy like other children although as a toddler he had some sleeping issues, frequent ear infections and a slight delay in talking. However, his parents didn’t think too much of it and he seemed ready and eager to learn. This story is similar in nature to many narratives that we gather from parents almost daily. The series of minor problems Jake experienced as a toddler are rarely considered possible precursors to issues that may come up in a classroom setting.
Jake regularly went to his sequential check-ups, and his pediatrician focused on treating his current illnesses and also discussed his developmental delay in speech with his parents. Over time, Jake’s speech improved, but he continues to have trouble sounding out some letters, has difficulty talking in complete sentences and struggles to have conversations with adults (often repeats what they say instead of answering questions). Although Jake is somewhat delayed, his parents feel his teachers and the school can help him make progress.
A few months pass and it’s time for parent teacher conference. Around the middle of November, Jake’s teacher informs his parents that he is struggling with attention and the ability to sit still with the rest of the class. His reading level is a concern and the teacher has apprehension about his fine motor skills for writing and his ability to hold a crayon or pencil correctly. This may seem premature for a young kindergartener, but in today’s school system, kids are now expected to be knowledgeable in reading and writing before kindergarten.
When we look back at Jake’s experience, his sleeping issues, frequent ear infections and speech delays, they seem unrelated to his reading and writing, but are in fact early warning signs that typically go unnoticed by most parents. It usually takes a learning assessment, caregiver, physician or other professional to recognize the delays and help parents understand the connection between development milestones and learning in the classroom. These warnings signs were most likely documented by Jake’s pediatrician and he or she may have even provided exercises or recommendations on how to help Jake’s speech at home. Many times these red flags or warning signs simply become buried in the system when the responsibility for your child’s development transitions from the doctor to the educational system.
Do Schools and Teachers Recognize the Signs?
The problems Jake’s teacher addresses with his parents not only applies to his academics, but also to his behavior and attention. The teacher views his lack of attention as a behavior issue, which she believes can be helped by a little more discipline and behavior management at home. However, these obstacles are more than behavior concerns with a developmentally delayed child and cannot always be “cured” with more behavior management at home with parents.
Social skills and compliance are sometimes symptomatic of physical immaturity and typically go untreated unless the child receives a full learning assessment. Developmental delays are often manifested in the student when they experience poor posture, fidgeting, inability to control impulsive reactions, they do not understand social cues, and struggle to read, write and comprehend. Usually at this stage in the game, the schools will provide an outside volunteer, resource specialist or even an occupational therapist to support your child’s needs at school. However, schools are often limited in the help they can provide and are not always qualified to administer a full learning assessment.
Even if your school offers an occupational therapist, chances are, he or she can only work with your child on fine motor development and not the gross motor development needed for improving connections in the brain for higher learning concepts. In addition, your child may also spend time in a small group setting for speech therapy or reading, but will not always work one-on-one with a professional educator.
Even if your child’s teacher is trained to recognize the symptoms of developmental delays that relate to your child’s learning challenges, they often struggle to identify the cause or how best to help. Oftentimes teachers don’t have the tools and resources to correct developmental delays for higher learning and they have so many students to care for, your child’s individual needs can get lost in the shuffle. In most cases, a student’s physical development in the classroom is not a major part of teacher training. Early education specialists have more training in this area and tend to have a good understanding of the importance of sensory motor development and how it supports higher cognitive skills.
Can Physicians Administer a Learning Assessment or an Official Diagnosis?
Many physicians also recognize and discuss developmental milestones and delays with parents, but only have a responsibility to alleviate illness, broken bones and other immediate physical needs, as opposed to your child’s cognitive needs. In severe cases, a medical professional will refer parents to specialist who can diagnose a child with Autism, ADHD or Dyslexia. However, a substantial number of children who need a learning assessment are often overlooked because their symptoms aren’t considered “bad enough” for a diagnosis or the child’s symptoms are considered a learning challenge rather than a disability.
Many times, a child’s pediatrician cannot conduct a learning assessment or diagnose a child with a specific disorder or disability so these kids slip through the cracks and often go untreated for long periods of time as parents try to find experts who can diagnose their child, all the while showing delays in all aspects of neurological development.
In Sally Goddard’s book Attention, Balance and Coordination, she says, “A child’s learning throughout education is rooted in its own physical development from conception. Mastery of balance, posture, coordination, and adequate vision and hearing are crucial to learning success but do not form a part of statutory assessments when a child starts school. In my view, this constitutes a major deficit in the current education system.”
Path to Intervention
Parents often have a steep learning curve when it comes to learning the ins and outs and dos and don’ts of finding reliable information that directs them to a specialist who can work with their child and their unique needs. While there are several professionals and specialists available to diagnose and treat your child, the process can be lengthy and sometimes grueling. There are many medical doctors, education specialists and private therapists that may suspect certain learning disorders, but oftentimes they do not have the licensure or expertise to provide an official diagnosis for your child.
In addition, some professionals may lean away or gravitate to a specific treatment based on their current expertise. For example, a doctor may diagnose attention issues as an Attention Deficit Disorder with medication to help, while an occupational therapist may lean to more holistic methods of movement and sensory integration for attention and focus. For this reason, parents should consult with different specialists and even work with a diagnostic team for greater understanding of your child’s issues.
In Goddard’s book, she sums up this topic by saying, “…each individual profession becomes so specialized and focused on the minutiae of its own disciplines that it loses the ability to see the bigger picture. Children’s difficulties do not exist in specialist departments; they exist within the context of the whole child.”
Roles of the Diagnostic Team
To better understand who can diagnose your child and what each professional specializes in for your child’s specific learning challenges, here is a helpful chart to get you started.
|Professional||Role||Can they Diagnose Learning Disabilities/Prescribe Medication|
|Pediatrician / Family Practice Physician||Medical doctor. If Pediatrician specializes in childhood physical development, illnesses and conditions.||No; Can prescribe medication|
|Psychiatrist||Medical doctor who specializes in the functioning of the mind. Does therapy for behavioral and emotional problems and disorders.||No; Can prescribe medication|
|Occupational Therapist||Specialists who work with motor problems, visual-motor issues and developmental delays. These barriers can be a component of a learning disability. OT’s are part of the diagnostic team.||No; Cannot prescribe medication|
|Speech and Language Specialist||These specialists can diagnose and treat speech and language problems. Issues with speech and language can be a component of a learning disability. These specialists are part of the diagnostic team.||No; Cannot prescribe medication|
|School Counselor||Counsels students with school, education and some behavior problems.||No; Cannot prescribe medication|
|Neuropsychologist||Ph.D level psychologist who can assess brain functioning and problems with processing in children. Not always skilled in administering educational and learning assessments.||Yes; Cannot prescribe medication|
|School Psychologist||Ph.D level psychologist who is trained to do both educational and intellectual testing. Also assesses emotional functioning in students. Provides therapy related to educational and emotional issues in school.||Yes; Cannot prescribe medication|
|Educational Specialist||Usually works in the school setting and completes the assessments for learning and emotional skills of a child.||No; Cannot prescribe medication|
|Clinical Psychologist||Ph.D level psychologist who provides an assessment of intellectual, behavioral and emotional functioning. Provides therapy relating to the child’s conditions. Does not generally perform learning assessments.||Yes; Cannot prescribe medication|
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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