Effective Assessment: Why, When, How?
A Primer for Parents and Professionals on Integrating Assessment into Treatment
Dearborn STEP provides a comprehensive educational and therapeutic assessment for students in Grades 5-12 for up to 40 school days. The STEP program is lauded for the depth and quality of the assessments that it provides. STEP’s approach integrates assessment into the treatment process. Director Laura Rice explains that a key tenet of the program is collaboration – with each student, their family members/guardians, school district partners, treatment providers, and others who are directly involved. Working in partnership, the STEP team of teachers, clinicians and program leaders gains a better understanding of the student’s strengths and challenges.
Parents play an especially vital role in the assessment process. Laura offers information, insights and advice for parents seeking assessments.
When Laura and her team first meet with parents or guardians about the assessment process, she asks them:
What are you looking from this 40-day process?
What would be the most helpful outcome?
Where is your child getting stuck and what does that look like? For example, if you say your child is dysregulated, give an actual example. In what specific areas have things been bumpy?
When did your child’s behaviors, academics, etc. become problematic? Was there a triggering event, or has the student always been that way?
“That’s what assessment is really about,” explains Laura, “figuring out when a student was most effective and finding out when things began to get bumpy. It’s important to understand clinically in what areas and when the student began to experience difficulty or if this is an ongoing situation.”
Laura shares that sometimes parents may say, “Nothing has gone well, and we have never had an opportunity when it felt like we had a smooth run with our child.” And that’s really important to figure out. Other parents will tell the STEP team what went well in the past and what stopped going well and what that looks like both at school and home.”
According to Laura, parents can also tell you how they intervened, who was supporting them in the intervention, and what interventions went well.
A 360 Degree View
At STEP, part of preparing for the assessment process is learning whether a child is having problems at school only, at home only or in both environments. Laura likens school to a job for students. “The students job is to go to school. We [STEP] see how they are doing at their job,” she explains. “But then, we need to know if things at home are going well.
“There are some kids who do really well in school and don’t explode. Then they go home and they’ve been holding everything during school, just as we might in our job, and they have real problems at home because they’ve been holding it in.”
So the goal for the parent is to figure out and share:
What’s working and where?
What’s not working?
Why do you think it’s not working?
According to Laura, it’s critical to ask parents these questions and make them an integral part of the assessment process. “Oftentimes parents get a raw deal,” she says. “They get people telling them what to do all of the time. Assessment is really understanding what parents think and what they’ve tried. Otherwise, it’s really offensive for a person who doesn’t know your child to come in and say, I know more than you do about your child.” It can be a recipe for problems later.
Laura explains, “When parents come to STEP, one of my biggest goals is to figure out together why things aren’t working. I tell them, “You know more about your child than anybody else.”
According to the STEP director, parents do a really nice job of identifying what the problems are and then stepping back. Otherwise, the process is limited to Laura thinking she knows their child well after just reading a report. “Because I don’t,” she says, “A written report is everybody’s perception of how a student is functioning besides the parent. And if you don’t get the parent’s viewpoint, then you’re missing an important piece.”
When doing an assessment, you are only looking at a part of the situation without the parents or guardians input. An assessment is about the whole. It’s taking all the pieces of the puzzle and creating a complete picture.
Laura shares with parents that assessment is like a recipe for a cake: How much of this goes in, how much of that goes in? “With the assessment, you are building a recipe for success, success for that student,” Laura adds.
STEP looks at all factors “down to the nuts and the bolts” in order to build a clear, solid foundation upon which to begin the student assessment. That means that STEP works closely also with a student’s home school district, asking them what they have seen and learning how they have come to the conclusion that a student can benefit from a 40-day assessment with Dearborn STEP.
Preparing Students for Post-STEP Success
Once you have the foundation for the assessment, you can begin to build the student’s coping skills. And then you can share these skill-building techniques with the parents. STEP provides parents – and districts – with a comprehensive weekly report. That allows for a dialogue to learn how these techniques have been working at home.
According STEP’s philosophy, part of an effective assessment is to avoid judging a student. Instead ask the student about their intentions. What did they hope would happen because of their actions? “Students are so used to being judged with adults saying, ‘Why did you do that?’ At STEP, we believe a student is doing the best they can at that time. We want students to know that we’re going to try to figure out together why they got stuck,” says Laura.
“There is a real difference in approaching a student with, ‘Hey you shouldn’t have done that,’ or, ‘Why did you do that?’ vs. ‘What were you hoping for?’ It changes the flavor of the question and is really a more respectful process.”
In the same spirit, when Laura talks to parents and they’re talking about something that’s going on at home, she asks them, “Did you ask your child what they were hoping would happen when you did that?” And parents say, “Oh, that makes sense.”
“At STEP, we make sure the students know that we are part of their team,” Laura explains. “Being on their team means trying to support them in what they do. We’re going to try to figure out what’s going on together. And that means we’re not judging, we’re not calling them out in front of other students. We’re always trying to figure things out with them.”
For students, parents and districts, this approach makes progress possible and prepares them for the best chance for success in an educational setting after STEP.
Serving the Whole Student
In addition to excellent assessment, a student will receive varied services, clinical services, academic services and access to a psychiatrist, something other programs do not have. Laura shares, “Other assessment programs don’t have a psychiatrist onsite that can go into class and observe a student’s behavior in real time, administer medication or just listen to the student’s struggles and triumphs.
In addition, parents/guardians and districts receive a comprehensive assessment every week to find out what’s working and take the next step. Providing feedback in real time is critical to a successful outcome.
“We have these multiple layers, and this is how we’re going to get to answers. It’s not a quick fix. Most of the students who come into our program have been stymied for a long time. Their parents are stymied; the districts are stymied. STEP’s staff members put in the time and the energy to enable them to help students and parents find out how to get past this situation.
STEP’s promise to students, parents/guardians and districts is to use all that it has to offer to make it better for each student and to keep the lines of communcations open to make sure the student’s needs are always the focus.