Examination of the child—the psychologist's role

Approach to testing

After collecting information from you, the psychologist will want to spend time with your child, getting to know him in an unstructured setting. He or she will then want to administer some standardized tests. These are known as ‘psychometric tests’, and they measure the child’s abilities and compare them to those of other children of the same age.

It is very important to watch your child being tested. This demystifies the process, and helps you to understand how the psychologist comes to his or her conclusions. It also enables you to inform the psychologist if your child’s performance was not up to his usual standard.

In order to observe testing, it is best if you watch through a one-way screen so that your presence does not distract the child. Children can be shown the screen and told what it is before testing starts; they usually become used to it and ignore it once they become absorbed in testing. If a one-way screen is unavailable, you will need to discuss with the psychologist whether you should remain in the room. If you do, sit some way behind your child and be careful not to become involved in the testing; smile at your child in an encouraging way if he turns to look at you, but do not say anything. When the test is finished, the psychologist will give you time to comment on your child’s performance, out of your child’s hearing.

Tests of ability, particularly intelligence tests, have come in for criticism over the last few years; however, they still form an important part of establishing a child’s abilities and needs. They must be performed by an experienced psychologist, and interpreted with care. The results of the test should be regarded as only part of the child’s assessment and need to be interpreted in the light of reports of his abilities at other times and the results of any previous tests.

The tests that are generally used have been administered to many hundreds of children to obtain standards for different ages. Tasks are presented in a specific order, with the easier ones first. They then become progressively more advanced, to establish at what level they become too difficult for the child. Every child who does the test would be presented with tasks that are easy, as well as tasks that are too difficult for him. This is necessary in order to find out the exact level at which he is functioning.

During the course of the test, a picture of the child’s developmental progress can be formed, both for specific areas of development and for development as a whole. Sometimes, a great deal of information can be gained from the way in which the child tackles tasks, even if he is unable to succeed. For example, the psychologist will observe his ability to persist with tasks, his ability to attend for long periods, and his ability to sit still.

One of the frustrating things for parents watching their child being tested, is that the way in which the tester asks questions, and presents puzzles and other materials, cannot be varied. As standards for children of different ages were developed by administering the tests in a particular way, the test must be carried out in the same way if these standards are to remain valid. Parents often feel that their child would have been able to succeed at a task, had the tester worded the questions differently or given some extra assistance. While the psychologist should be interested in these observations by the parent, only responses to the standard way of testing can be scored. Many of the skills needed in the classroom require the ability to perform tasks in very specific ways; testing may demonstrate that the child lacks the ability to adapt to such circumstances.

Sometimes, testing in a one-to-one situation does not give the psychologist enough information about the child’s difficulties. He or she may then need to visit the school and observe the child in the classroom. Permission to visit must be sought from the school principal. It is usually best if the visit is arranged in such a way that the other children regard the psychologist as visiting the class as a whole, rather than having one child singled out.

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