Understanding the School Psychologist’s Role, with Aaron Dunham

Good Things In Life Podcast episode 115 thumbnail with Aaron Dunham
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What is the role of the school psychologist, and how can they help your child in their journey toward greater inclusion? Aaron Dunham is an educator-turned-school-psychologist who works with a lot of children with disabilities and he joined me for this episode to talk about his role in the school system and how he thinks school psychologists can help.  Striving for inclusive education is a complex battle that has multiple layers—there are concerns and questions about funding, teacher training and compatibility, resource distribution, and bureaucracy, just to name a few. Complex battles have complex solutions and the school psychologist can help to connect the dots, by merging the quantifiable (e.g. data) with the qualifiable (e.g. getting to know the student and their family).  Aaron Dunham started his career as a music teacher and has taught at various schools throughout Washington State. He transitioned toward working as a school psychologist two years ago.  We had a great chat about how he perceives his role, and about the confluence between data, cooperation, and even humility in striving for systemic change. We also talked about psychoeducational assessments and how parents can decide whether they’re really worth it. Listen now for more insight into how school psychologists can help support your child.

Speaker 1 (00:04):

Welcome to The Good Things In Life podcast, committed to bringing world-class ideas, conversations, voices, and thought leaders to parents and educators. So kids with intellectual disabilities will have the support they need to build positive inclusive lives at the heart of community. Here’s your host, sister, mom, researcher, writer, speaker, and perpetually curious, Genia Stephen.

Genia  (00:35):

Aaron Dunham, thank you so much for joining me on The Good Things In Life podcast. I’m excited to have you here to talk about your role as school psychologist and also our, um, learning journey together. Thanks so much.

Aaron  (00:49):

Thanks Genia. It’s it’s really an honor to be here.

Genia  (00:53):

Thank you. I wonder Aaron , if you could start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about, uh, yourself and your role within the school system.

Aaron  (01:03):

Yeah. Um, so I am a former teacher, um, I’ve, I’ve been in education throughout my career, but I’m only in this role for a few years. Um, I live in wa uh, Central Washington State, um, and, uh, have kind of bounced around the state, um, teaching on the west side, going to school on the east side. And so now I’m kind of in the middle of doing the school psych thing. Um, and, uh, yeah, I’ve been here, uh, at my current role for two years and, um, and I’ve really enjoyed, um, the, the role of being a school psychologist.

Genia  (01:41):

So within Washington State, we’re just recognizing that that school psychologist role I’m sure is different depending on your jurisdiction. What, what does, what do you do?

Aaron  (01:53):

Yeah. Um, so, uh, what’s really nice about my role and my education is that it’s, it’s really, um, at least some of the expectations are uniform across the states like the United States. Um, uh, so our, um, our association, um, uh, lays out a bunch of things that school psychologists are and what they do. Um, and, uh, two of the things that really stand out, um, when describing my job to other people are, um, database decision-making. So using using information and good information to make decisions and then, um, consultation and collaboration. So, um, working with others, working with families, working with students, working with, um, other educators, um, often, uh, like there’s a shortage of school sites, um, all over. And so often what, uh, the role comes down to is kind of those legal requirements of what they have to do, which is a lot of that special education evaluation, placement recommendations for the IEP team.

Aaron  (03:05):

Um, uh, but I’ve been fortunate kind of in my region. They, we, we don’t have as much of the shortage. And so I’m able to do a lot more of that collaborating with, um, with other teachers. Um, we’re building relationships with families, which I’ve really enjoyed, um, working on systems level change within the school, um, kind of moving towards some more best practices. Um, there’s an, oh gosh, there’s a lot, there’s, there’s a lot that we can do, which is, which is a really awesome part of my job. So, uh, even like delivering, um, social, emotional services, um, not really therapy, but like quasi kind of like support kind of like that, um, with students, um, academic interventions, things like that. So there’s, there’s a whole lot that we can do and that we’re trained to do.

Genia  (03:57):

So when you say data level change, or I can’t remember the exact words you use, but, you know, taking good quality data and using it to make change within schools and within systems. What does that mean? Can you tell me more about that?

Aaron  (04:12):

Well, it’s, uh, yeah, it’s, it’s pretty broad. So, um, I would, I would say just making sure that, uh, that the decisions that are being made at the school and sometimes district level are base in like facts or based in, um, solid data that shows like, whoa, this is, this is working or it’s not working, you know, and so what are we going to do about it? Um, so I’m trying to think of a great example. I mean, I can think of it as a, uh, kind of breaking it down to a single student. Um, often our role is like often our role is thought of as a special ed role. Um, but we can just as easily, uh, support general ed students. Um, and so like if they’re making progress, um, or, or let’s say they’re not making progress, then my role could be to come in and, um, look at what’s going on. Uh, why are they not making progress? Then we try something else to make sure we’re keeping data that is, um, that it’s valid and related to, um, to what the concern is, and then making decisions based on that. So that’s kind of like a small, small, like example of a single student. Um, there are like a group you can, you can kind of take that up to class levels, uh, or, um, or even building level.

Genia  (05:44):

[inaudible] and is part of the focus on data level change, um, really thinking broadly about sort of cause and effect? Like, I can imagine that in the role of a psychologist, you would be looking at environment and psychosocial, um, concerns and, um, pedagogy as a, you know, all kinds of like. So as opposed to saying, well, this student is not doing well because the student can’t do well or this student, you know, something that’s, is that part of it is taking sort of that broad perspective on supporting student success?

Aaron  (06:28):

Yeah, absolutely. Um, it’s definitely not it’s, it’s actually usually not the student’s fault that they’re not doing well. And sometimes it’s my job to kind of let the team know that. Um, so yeah, we look at the curriculum, like what they’re being given sometimes it’s not culturally appropriate or, uh, like they haven’t had access to some of these base level, um, knowledge themes to access the curriculum. Um, sometimes it’s the teacher and not necessarily, I don’t mean like it’s a bad teacher, it’s just like the way that they’re doing it or, um, uh, the way that they’re approaching, uh, teaching or, or sometimes it could be like a personality thing. Um, uh, and, um, yeah, there are, so there are, there are other like systems in place. Uh, I think schools, um, and school climate, uh, can really, uh, impact students as well. And so looking at that too, um, I’m, I’m kind of going all over the place, but, um, thinking about like behaviors.

Genia  (07:35):

Yeah. And then your, tell me a little bit about your role in placement decisions.

Aaron  (07:44):

Yeah. So, um, so if there’s a student that has a suspected or a, a documented disability, um, they can be referred for a special education evaluation. And that’s kind of where I come in, where I kind of meet with the team, meet with the parents, uh, meet with everyone, uh, together and we kind of discuss the concerns. And, um, and if, if it seems like this is looking like it could be a, a disability that impacts their agitation, then um, then I’ll do an evaluation. And that involves a lot of tests depending on where the concerns are or, um, then gathering data, um, observations, interviews, stuff like that. Um, and then we all come back together and I just, uh, my role is, uh, it’s just recommendations based on the data that I’ve gathered and based on the assessment that I’ve conducted. Um, it’s, uh, it’s honestly the IEP team, which is a separate meeting. Um, it’s their decision whether to place a student in a certain area or, um, uh, w the education decisions it’s, it’s kind of their role, but my, my role is to provide recommendations based off the assessment. Um, and, uh, yeah. Does that, sorry. Does that trying to answer the question?

Genia  (09:08):

Yeah. So I’m just, I’m thinking about, I mean, maybe I’m going to be pushing into some sensitive areas here, so we can edit this out. Aaron, if you’re not comfortable with that, but I know Washington State has been under quite a lot of pressure to, um, to change the way they’re providing education services, because the American requirement for placing students in the least restrictive environment.Which means as close to a hundred percent of their time in general education as possible, um, that I I’ve messed up the grammar of the sentence now, but, or the flow of the sentence. But Washington State is, you know, really working on increasing least restrictive environments or LREs, which means essentially there has been a generalized flow of students who are identified in really any way into special education, like self-contained special education programming. Um, and there’s an attempt to reverse that flow. So when teams are working together, um, you know, you’re one person on a, on a education team when the history in that area, in that school area is that kids go into self-contained special education programming. How, like, how could you recommend anything other than the programming that’s designed for special education students? Um, especially if general education classrooms are not being designed to include all students, right.

Aaron  (10:50):

Yeah. That’s a great question. Yeah. Um, so I mean, part, I feel, I feel like part of my role is kind of the brain and outside perspective. And sometimes, um, I don’t know if there’s, I don’t know how to say this exactly, but, um, it’s kind of, I view my job is to be up to date on like best practices and knowing, um, if there is something that’s, uh, like a system or like a habit of the school, like kind of challenging that. If, if needed, you know, and so, um, yeah, we all know inclusion is important and it’s, what’s best for students with disabilities. And so, um, as part of the team, yeah, I, um, I see it as my role to provide recommendations about, um, what might be best for the student and also like how to get there. And some ideas about kind of supporting the team along the way, like how can this student be in, um, elective classes and to honestly thrive in that, or, you know, in gen ed reading and math. Um, so, um, I kind of view it as my role to kind of push the team a little bit. And provide recommendations and provide a little bit of the, how to sometimes, um, as you say, like there are habits that we get into, um, that really aren’t best for students. And so, um, so yeah, I kind of just try and push us a little bit, uh, to break some of those habits.

Genia  (12:25):

[inaudible]. Yeah, it’s interesting, because I think that families often think that the schools have this nailed down. You know, that, that our schools are data driven and based on best practice. And, and I think that educators often think the same thing. And sometimes that’s true, but often really we just continue doing what we’ve always done, which in the case of kids with disabilities often means marginalizing them in self-contained classrooms. And so it, you know, I guess it, one of the things that I know your district has been trying to to think about is where’s the wedge there when you’ve got teams of educators that are used to doing things one way, and parents who have only seen one, one example or one way of going about special education. And so our, um, there’s, there are some times people who are advocating for inclusion, either parents or educators that are advocating for inclusion, but often everybody is continuing to just kind of do the same thing and are not familiar with best practice. It’s a, um, it’s not an easy, it’s not easy to shift whole systems like their systems. Regardless of people, systems themselves are hard to they’re resistant to change, you know?

Aaron  (14:03):

Yeah. I, I think it takes some humility, uh, for everyone to understand, like we, we can maybe do this differently. Um, and I think it’s, I mean, I can speak from the district perspective, like, uh, districts want to portray confidence with parents and families because they want, you know, they, they, I, I believe that districts really do care about students. They want them to be supported. Um, but they, they also want to show families like, Hey, we got this, you know, we were confident we got this. Unfortunately often I feel like that, um, that kind of leads back to what they’re comfortable in doing. Um, even if that’s not always, what’s, what’s best for kids.

Genia  (14:54):

So in your experience as an educator and as a school psychologist, what are some of the movers and shakers, or, you know, what are some of the prerequisites for change towards best practice?

Aaron  (15:10):

Uh, oh, that’s, that’s a good question. Um, I think, uh, I mean the first thing that comes to my mind is like parents. Um, I like, I think it’s great what you do. Genia uh, because I, um, really, I really want to see parents well-informed and, um, and, and unfortunately it’s not, I realized it’s not really the parent’s job to push the district. You know, it shouldn’t be their job, the district should. Um, but oftentimes that’s like what it takes, you know, it’s like, uh, someone that, um, just kind of doesn’t put up with with how, how things are, um, you know, um, I think within the district, um, uh, just having new ideas, new perspectives. Um, and continuing to, uh, I mean, we, we like to say that we’re lifelong learners and I think a lot of us are, um, but, uh, just making sure that, uh, you know, we, we follow through with that and that we continue to learn. Um, just, there seems even like 20 years ago that we, we didn’t know back then, that we know today about, um, about students with disabilities and, and things like that. So, um, yeah. I don’t know. That’s a tough question. Yeah.

Genia  (16:45):

Yeah. Well, it’s, it is a tough question. And I think because change is tough, you know, um, I certainly agree that humility. I think the two things that you said around having humility and having, and seeing oneself as a lifelong learner probably come together or, you know, are probably two parts of the same whole. And so far as, you know, you need to have within any team at some sort of critical mass of people who are open to thinking differently and not invested in defending and sticking, by the way, they’ve always done things. Um, because it makes them feel bad to consider that maybe things could be done differently or better.

Aaron  (17:38):

Right. Yeah. And we, we like to think that we are the experts in our field and sometimes we are, and sometimes, I mean, there’s always, there’s always more experts out there, you know, or, or greater experts. Um, so I, I think I really have a lot of respect for educators and the education system, and I just think, um, continuing to pursue, um, more new best practices and, and new thoughts and stuff, um, would, would just even be better. So,

Genia  (18:18):

And what, in the pursuit of best practice and quality data driven decision-making, what helps that succeed in your experience?

Aaron  (18:35):

Um, it’s, well, it starts at the top, like administrators, um, need to be, uh, needs to be on board. And, um, I know like there’s, I can bring all the information to the table, um, but I can’t make it happen, you know? Um, so administrators really need to be a part of that, uh, uh, part of that and onboard and on your side. Um, and so that’s, that’s one really huge thing I would say. Um, and then, um, from there it really like, it really just kind of trickles down to like, this is important and this is why it’s important. And then, um, trying to those other staff members, um, can try to come along.

Genia  (19:21):

Yeah. I it’s been my observation that, um, you can’t, administrators can’t do can’t make change happen within, without the buy-in of their team. And the team can’t make significant change without the buy-in of the administration or the leadership. Yeah. Um, w w we recently wrapped up thought why and how of inclusive education, our foundations course in inclusion with, with your districts, well, members of your district school team, not the whole district of course. And one of the things that really impressed me about your team was that there really was multidisciplinary participation and buy-in. Um, and a sincere openness on the part really of, of almost everybody to, to, to really think about best practice, to really reflect on people’s own practice, um, and to, to think about doing things differently. Um, and it’s not, again, we’ve, we’ve acknowledged change is not easy. So it was one of the things that was really impressive about the people that we were working with.

Aaron  (20:35):

Yeah. Um, there was a lot of, um, I mean, it was, it was all agitators, but within that, it was a lot of diverse opinions and personalities and things. And, um, and we didn’t, like, we didn’t always agree with you, you know, like there was a lot of good discussion back and forth. Uh, and, um, I, I, it was a great experience for me. Like, um, in terms of like, we were really honest and open and I feel like we’ve learned, um, uh, a lot from it. And, and we’re still having conversations about it in the school. So it’s, it’s really, it’s been a great experience

Genia  (21:19):

If you’re unsure how effective your child’s school is at offering an implementing inclusive education, you can download a free PDF. It’s called How Inclusive Is This School? 14 questions Every Parent Should Ask. You can access it at goodthingsinlife.org/14questions. That’s numeral 14 questions. And if you feel like you need to build your strong foundation in inclusive education, then keep your eyes and ears open because we’ll be opening up the foundations course. The what, why and how of inclusive education on July 22nd, you can’t register yet, but it’s coming.

Genia  (22:06):

What do you think was most helpful about coming together to talk about inclusion and increasing (inaudible)?

Aaron  (22:14):

I, I think the, um, uh, the, the most helpful thing was, uh, the awareness and then not, you know, hand in hand with w you know, the why, why is this important? So it’s, so it’s those first two pieces. The what and the why? Um, I think without that foundation, like personally, I think that’s like 80% of the work is just understanding what it is and why it’s so important. Um, and I, and I really feel like, um, we were effective in getting that jetting that with the team of understanding, like this is important, you know, and then from there, there’s a lot of like ideas of what the next steps can be, and there’s a lot of options too. Um, but that first, that first step, I feel like it’s really important.

Genia  (23:09):

Yeah. I agree. I think the, um, you know, you really need to start with hearts and minds before you can get into, you know, changing people’s hands and what they do. And one of the things that, I mean, there’s always new and exciting, um, research and ideas coming out around how to best educate kids. Um, but I also think that teachers, in some ways, those things are the easy things. Teachers are generally, education teams are generally really good at what they do. And they’ve got a good, solid, um, foundation in teaching. And so it’s easy to, or easier to get to, um, implementing strategies and tactics much harder to get a team on the same page, as far as values and principles are concerned. And if you don’t have the values and the principles, then the strategies and the tactics really aren’t, aren’t going to come to fruition.

Aaron  (24:14):

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And we all, I mean, we all come to the table with variety of values and principles. And so, yeah. Trying to, trying to get those on the same page as what’s going to be, um, made really what’s going to make teams effective.

Genia  (24:30):

[inaudible] so what do you think has been the most positive outcome for the team of that experience?

Aaron  (24:37):

Yeah, um, I think, um, kinda like what I was stating, like, um, that awareness and then the value of, of inclusion and what it, what it, why it’s really important. Um, and we’ve, uh, we’ve seen bits of that. Like, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t say that we are implementing it really right now, but we have seen like, uh, some students go into classes and really have success. Um, and so there is that that really helps kind of, um, support like, oh yeah, this is, this is valuable. This is important, and this is really good for students as well. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, so I really think that, um, uh, that awareness and just knowing how valuable it is is, um, is the best thing that we took out of it. And it’s not the only thing. I mean, we, there have been it’s, it’s just really sparked discussions about like, okay, how do we, um, how do we move towards inclusion and, um, and that least restrictive environment, um, for, for students, uh, and w uh, we haven’t quite figured it out yet. Like we’re still working on it. Um, but I think, uh, I mean, we, we, weren’t having these discussions at the beginning of the year, so it’s a really positive thing. Yeah.

Genia  (26:11):

I think, um, yeah, it’s, it’s not possible for a district to, um, over a few short months, completely transform the system for sure. Um, and in fact, one of the things that we talked about, um, as we were engaging in this work together was that oftentimes when change happens quickly without contemplation and reflection, actually kids just get dumped. It dumped into general education without appropriate supports, and it’s a disaster for everybody and really harmful. So mindful change, um, with good preparation is really important. One of the things that, um, we also talked about as being a positive possible outcome, which I think, um, happened was becoming clearer on where the bureaucratic and systems barriers are to inclusion. And those things are also really, um, slow to change. Um, but we, you know, one example that we spent quite a bit of time talking about was just the structure of the IEP forms were a barrier to inclusion, um, both at the values and principles level, but also at the strategies and tactics level.

Genia  (27:29):

And so, um, you know, those are changes that take some time to, to, you know, go up the ladder and come back down and, you know, likely will be iterative and requires some collaboration to, to make changes. But I think that’s a really important piece. Like, uh, very often we can’t, very often when I talk to education teams or members of education teams. Um, they feel like even once they’ve got the ideas, they’re fully committed to the ideas, every time they turn around, they’re bumping into a bureaucratic wall. You know, whether it’s the way staffing hours are dispersed or, you know, the, the need to move slowly. But, um, but the systems, um, aren’t flexible and the in-between, you know, or the IEP form is sort of set up to be deficits focused. Which is extremely, I only know of a few jurisdictions that don’t have a deficit focused IEP, so it’s like a near universal. Um, so yeah,

Aaron  (28:42):

I mean, like to kind of piggyback off that, like, um, that’s, that’s a, that’s a huge system level issue. Like the deficits focus IEP because, um, even, even in my training, you know, like we are trained to, um, to kind of identify the deficits and provide interventions that will support the deficits. And, and yeah. Uh, there, you know, that one day of grad school where they’re like, yeah, you know, talking about the strengths of a students. You know, like, um, and they, and they, they say it’s important and it, and it really is. But, um, you know, if you just take it about the time of my education, that was focused on strengths versus the time focus on deficits. So that’s, that’s, it’s a, it’s a, um, it’s a bigger system level issue. I think even then just like the IEP programs necessarily because even how I was trained. And it’s, it’s, uh, it’s, it’s hard for me to kind of get out of that habit as well. Kind of break that up.

Genia  (29:55):

I don’t think you’re alone in that.

Aaron  (29:58):

No, I don’t think I am either. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.


Genia  (30:02):

The, and really the, um, some of the systems levels issues are, you know, the, they really are, they, they either are deficit focused or they lend themselves to deficit focused thinking. You know, even grading systems, for example, um, that are really looking at, um, performance measures that are really quite disconnected from the state standards. You know, you’ve got many areas, many jurisdictions have really great state or provincial standards that actually provide a lot of entry and exit points for kids all across, all across the continuum. where they can be demonstrating, um, mastery, excuse me, mastery of the, um, of the, some aspects of the standards. But often we’re still grading on things like, you know, can they write this 109 question test effectively and, you know

Aaron  (31:07):

Yeah. And that kind of goes into the, uh, like the good data versus not, not very good data. I mean, when I was a teacher, I taught music. And so, um, music is very participation focused. Um, but, uh, like if you have you, I mean, there were scenarios in which you have a student that really tries their best and is participating every day. But, um, and, and that’s great if you want the grade to reflect participation, but often we think of grades as like, this is a still, you know, that you can do or can’t do or something. And so if it’s, it’s just, you know, it’s, it’s really understanding what does this data show and what does it, what does it perceive to mean? And what does it mean? And does it accurately reflect, you know, what, what we all think it reflects. Yeah. Yeah.

Genia  (32:05):

Has the student learned what we think they’ve learned based on the way that we’re evaluating them?

Aaron  (32:11):

Yeah. And that’s the same with like IEP goals. You know, like, um, sure we want them maybe to, uh, I don’t know, I’m trying to think of, I’m trying to think of one, like to stay in their seat for 30 minutes at a time, you know, but, um, but there’s larger level skills than just like being in a place for 30 minutes. I’m trying to speak, but yeah, yeah,

Genia  (32:40):

No, I think it, I mean, we, we talked, um, quite a lot about this and I, I talked to all kinds of people about this. Like the, you know, you can look at, um, a scale like that and say, is it, is it helpful? Well, sure. Being able to sit still for 30 minutes is helpful, but could you change the classroom and the lesson planning so that students can still be learning the standards without needing to sit for 30 minutes straight? Absolutely you can. And where’s the, like, where’s the biggest priority, you know. Um, when I teach about, um, priorities in special education, um, you know, the three areas that I think are, should always be a priority are literacy and communication and access to the curriculum and connection with peers. And essentially if you connect, if, you know, if your IEPs and your classrooms are really focused on that for all students, um, you can address them some of those micro functional skills underneath those banners without sacrificing those high priorities. Um, but the reverse is not true, right. If your focus is just on having a kid sit still for 30 minutes, and it’s unlikely to lead to directly to, um, literacy and communication and access to the curriculum and connection with peers.

Aaron  (34:03):

Yeah. And it’s usually a lot more work and not, I mean, for the teacher and maybe for the student too, and it’s just not, it doesn’t really translate, um, outside of the classroom. Yeah.

Genia  (34:16):

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So, Aaron, as you move forward in your, um, in your career, what, what do you like, what would the perfect job description for you be as a, you know, as a school psychologist? Like what do you want the school system to look like in five or 10 years and your role within it?

Aaron  (34:45):

I, um, okay, so that’s a great question. Um, I am my it’s, it’s funny that we are trained so much on tests and assessment. Um, and I feel like in some ways those are helpful, but in a lot of ways, they’re really not. They’re like, I, I, I, my metaphor I use is an assessment. It’s like a photograph, you know, so you can get, you can get at one image of what someone looks like through a photograph, but you don’t really understand who they are or the full picture, you know? Um, and so I just kind of getting back to your question, like my perfect job would be one, um, where it’s really collaboration, focus talking about, um, interventions and, um, and, uh, modifying curriculum to the point where, um, where I don’t really have to give standardized assessment to, to determine what a student needs. You know, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t feel like assessment really, um, in the big picture is, is that importance, um, to determining what can help students be successful in life? Um, so, uh, so a lot of work, uh, would just be with working with teams, working with families, um, and seeing what’s, what’s maybe not working with a student and kind of addressing those.

Genia  (36:24):

That’s embarrassing on my own podcast that my phone just went off. Sorry about that, everybody. Yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s great. Um, I think that’s really great. I, I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about this, but I actually usually recommend that families decline psycho-educational assessments, at least through the school. Um, because the, the sort of dream of the psycho-educational assessment is that it will translate into direct and targeted supports for the student, but that almost never happens. It almost never happens that it’s like, okay, well, this student would benefit. The student has an auditory processing disorder. And so therefore this is the instructional, um, adaptations that are going to remove some of the learning barriers of that. And this is how we’re going to implement them in the classroom. Like that is not how that usually gets used.

Aaron  (37:25):

I understand that perspective. My, my, I guess my counter would be like, what, what are we doing instead? You know, um, cause in so many places, you know, those cycle, uh, those, those huge assessments, um, are going to be the best. Unfortunately the best that there is, in my opinion. Um, I, I don’t know. Like, I, I do think I agree with you. I just, I don’t want, I, I think, um, we should support the alternative, you know? Support the, uh, the observations, the getting to know the student and understanding like, um, what is it that will help them? And unfortunately, a lot of systems just aren’t really set up for that. Um, or it’s just so foreign to some education teams that they, they, they don’t do it, you know? And so the alternative is nothing it’s like,

Genia  (38:27):

I think the alternative is good pedagogy. Yeah. Just, just standard good pedagogy. So one of the things that, that I see happening all the time is that what the psycho-education, the results of the psycho-education assessment is that the student is denied access to good standard pedagogy and curriculum. And even in the absence of targeted, um, efforts to remove barriers to learning, good pedagogy is going to take you a long way. Right? Good teaching, good teaching strategies are going to take you a student a long way. So I would counter argue to your, to your argument that students are better off in a general education classroom with a, with a good teacher who just, you know, practices good educational strategies. Um, rather than getting a psycho-educational assessment that then has them, um, placed in, um, you know, placed in a deficits focused self-contained classroom, where they then are, you know, withheld access now, I think, and, and, um, and families have no control over how those assessments are used once they’re done in the school.

Aaron  (39:51):

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a good point. Yeah, I think, um, and, and I liked, uh, so coming from my perspective, those psycho-educational reports, like I, I, do you have tests with the purpose of supporting those gen ed teachers like this, these are accommodations or modifications that can help based on what I’ve seen. Um, but yeah, if they’re used for deficits focus and to place elsewhere, like that’s obviously not, um, probably not what’s best for, for students. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um,

Genia  (40:34):

Just on that topic, I’m just, if parents are being, um, if parents are being asked to consent to psycho-educational assessments, or is that just, you know, any of the kinds of assessments. What are some questions that they can ask to help understand whether or not going through the testing process is likely to result in helpful outcomes or just to focus on deficits? Um,

Aaron  (41:15):

I mean, I would be asking what tests are being provided and why. Um, uh, I, I, the reason why I’m thinking about your question is, is a lot of these, I mean, we, we should not be predetermining where students are or, uh, where they, where they will be. Uh, the, the goal that the idealic goal of my job is that I provide assessments and then we have a discussion regarding the results. But unfortunately often it is the case where, um, someone do you mean an assessment kind of has an idea, um, like this might be, this might be the suspected disability. This might be like what we’re looking at. So, um, so for parents, like, I’d, I’d say, like ask questions, asked why, um, uh, I’m trying to think of. I mean, um, made sure the assessments are appropriate for your child if, if they are being provided assessments, um, a lot of assessments are difficult for students with low verbal abilities or, uh, with like English as a second language. Um, I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I don’t know if I’d really answered it super well, but yeah, well,

Genia  (42:48):

I think you’ve raised a couple of really important things. You know, you want to know why it’s being suggested. Um, I would add, you know, how will the results be used to benefit the child? Um, and then also raising the, the relevance or the applicability of the tests. This is certainly, um, something that I see all the time. So you have a child with, you know, a really complex body. Um, and you know, there’s been not, um, there’s been no effective communication system put in place. And the student is, you know, undergoes testing, um, and their sheer lack of ability to be able to express what they know and think means that they score really low. Um, and then it’s determined that, that, that is in fact their, their baseline. And there’s often a footnote saying something about, you know, this is just an assessment of current situations and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but it’s not how people actually perceive it. So, and I think that that question of is this a, is this test even appropriate? Was it written with my child in mind is really powerful question to ask, because if your child doesn’t speak the language, or if there’s culturally specific content on the test that they may not have had the opportunity to, um, learn, as you mentioned earlier. Or if their expressive communication is limited, then, um, and you’re doing a comprehension, a test that relates to comprehension, like you’re really going to get any accurate results, right. Yeah. And one of the things,

Aaron  (44:37):

Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m sure like, um, with those assessments that sometimes we know, like it’s going to be really low, you know, or something’s gonna come out really low. Um, and, and yeah, that, that’s a good one, I guess, the challenge, um, just because, uh, sometimes there aren’t a whole lot of educational benefit or recommendations that could come out of that. Sometimes, like I’ve given those assessments for honestly, um, to, uh, like adult services or, um, you know, government services. Sometimes they require something like that. And so it’s, it’s more of just like for the parent’s benefit to access some of those services, but yeah. Yeah. Um, but in, in those cases, like they’re really not super helpful for the educational programming. Um, and, and so, yeah, so like when we’re presenting it at a meeting, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on it because I know this really isn’t, this really isn’t the student, uh, it doesn’t help the student too much in our discussions.

Genia  (45:48):

[inaudible]. And to your knowledge, are there tests that have been specifically designed to remove all of those biases?

Aaron  (46:00):

Uh, I mean, it’s, it’s a constant battle with the test makers and, um, uh, so it’s, they always try to, there are like nonverbal tests at quote. I should put that in quote, nonverbal tests, um, or like culturally, um, uh, equitable tests again in quotes. Um, so there are certain assessments that are going to be better for students that are low. I have low verbal skills or maybe like Spanish speaking or something. Um, but there’s, there’s no perfect. There’s no perfect test. And that’s kind of the that’s one of the downsides of assessments is that yes, this is just, this is just a snapshot. Um, and there’s going to be mitigating factors no matter what.

Genia  (46:56):

Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And do you have any final thoughts or things that you’d like to share before we wrap things up?

Aaron  (47:07):

Um, yeah, I would just, I mean, I know parents, um, listen to this pod that’s, that’s the most of your audience. Um, so I was just encouraged them to, um, to establish a relationship with the psychologists in your school, if you, if you don’t have one already, um, and they’re really there to help you, um, they’re really there to, to team with you and to listen to your concerns. Um, but, uh, you know, ask questions, um, and, and challenge, challenge the school, uh, if, if necessary. Uh, in, uh, in, uh, in a kind way if you can, but, um, uh, you know, the school it’s, it’s their responsibility to, to like to grow and to learn, um, and to serve students as best we can. So I just encourage parents to, um, to really ask questions, um, challenge when, when appropriate.

Genia  (48:07):

Thank you very much, Aaron. I really appreciate your time, and I appreciate your, your insight and your willing to your willingness to, um, kind of unpack, you know, the, the complicated beast, which is our, you know, our education system. Thanks, Genia .

Speaker 1 (48:30):

Thank you so much for joining Genia on the podcast. We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. See you next time.


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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.