Dr. Barbara Principe is an adjunct professor of psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.
She coordinates the literacy services at The Center for Educational & Psychological Services at Teachers College.
Dr. Barbara Principe is also a psychologist and a clinical supervisor at Interfaith Medical Center, Center for Mental Health.
Psychological assessments are used in many areas: education, industry, the military and the legal system, to name a few. In the area of education, the need for psychological assessments usually arises when a teacher or parent wants to understand why a child is not functioning well relative to his or her peers. For example, the child may exhibit problems with reading or the child may not be motivated to learn at school.
Psychological assessments can serve an important function in changing how the child is perceived. The actions of the child may seem deliberate but may actually have their root in particular problems that may be revealed through an assessment. For example, a child who has an attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder may appear to his or her parents and teacher as someone who intentionally disrupts the class by walking around the room and not focusing on class work. This incorrect perception may cause the teacher or parent to see the child as uncooperative and reprimand the child. This, in turn, can cause the child to devalue his/her own worth. This may lead to problems with low self-esteem.
If such a child is assessed it is likely that the existence of an attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder will be revealed. This will then help the parents and the teacher realize that the child’s behavior is not intentional and therefore, there will not be a need to blame the child or reprimand him/her for the behavior. This, in turn, will reduce the likelihood that the child will attack his/her self worth. Instead the teacher and the parent, based on the recommendations included in the assessment report, may seek remedial help for the child.
Additional remedial work from outside sources, such as a learning center or tutor, may be suggested. Sometimes an assessment may point to a need to administer additional assessments in a related field such as speech pathology and audiology to correct speech and hearing problems that may have been discovered during the psychological assessment.
If it is suspected that emotional factors are part of the presenting problem, it is important for the psychologist to assess such factors as part of the comprehensive psychological assessment. For example, if the child appears sad, could it be that the child is not expecting anything good to happen? Has the child never been praised for good work? Does the child feel that he/she cannot do well academically or that he/she has not learned the skills necessary to make friends? Emotional factors such as these need to be fully identified and understood since they can have a significant effect on how the child performs skills which are involved in academic performance.
There are other examples where psychological assessment can drastically change one’s life. Several years ago, this writer became aware of how an individual was placed in an institution for the developmentally disabled as a young adult. He lived there for years. Later on, when this adult was properly assessed, it was found that while he had some emotional problems, he was not developmentally disabled. Hence, he never needed to be in an institution. The change that was triggered by the psychological assessment led to a life of a normal adult with all the potentials one can imagine.
Placement issues are also common in the case of custody and foster care decisions. Psychological assessments can help determine which home the child should be placed in and can be used to make a good match between a foster child and a prospective foster family.
In the field of industrial psychology, the psychologist may assess the situation in a work place to find out why workers are not productive and what can be done to help them become more productive. The military psychologist may want to assess soldiers to find out which soldiers would perform better in a specific job, such as gunner, radio operator, pilot and so forth.
In the field of psycho-neurological assessment, psychologists can pinpoint how brain injury has affected the functioning of an individual. It can be determined exactly what is not functioning well. Various types of memory loss, perceptual abilities, executive functions, attention and concentration can all be affected by brain injury. The neuro-psychologist can come up with recommendations for remedial work that can restore or ameliorate the effect of the damage caused by brain injury. There are many cases where even severe injury can be corrected to such a degree that functioning is significantly restored.
In the legal system, the work of psychologists is very important, at times, in deciding on the degree of damage an individual sustained in an accident within the context of a court settlement.
There is an interesting case of how a combination of neuropsychological issues and legal issues helped to make a determination about The Last Will and Testament of a brain injured patient. Some years ago, an elderly woman was placed in a rehabilitation center after a brain injury. She was also cared for by her home health aid, who apparently was very dedicated and kind to her. The brain injured woman decided after a while to bequeath her house to the home health aid.
After the woman died, the home health aid claimed the house. Family members of the deceased woman, who were never around before and never visited her, objected and moved to block the transfer of the house to the home health aid. They wanted the house to be given to them, as they claimed that their relative was brain injured and hence, mentally incompetent at the time she wrote the Will.
A legal battle ensued where the District Attorney’s office asked for the help of the psychologist, who conducted an evaluation of the woman prior to her death.The psychologist determined at the time of the evaluation that the woman was competent and that she made the decision about the house in sound mind. The District Attorney’s office removed the block on the transfer of the house and the house went to the loyal home health aid, who stayed with the woman until her death.
As we can see, reliable assessment can make an important difference in many areas. In fact, there are few cases where psychological assessments are not useful. In the end, assessments are as good as the organization or professionals that conduct them. Therefore, choosing the right organization or professionals to carry out the assessment is very important in obtaining the desired information.
Gideon Freudenthal Ph.D. is a clinical Psychologist and Host of “Contemporary Psychology”