Educational disability: ‘Does my child need help?’

Educational psychologist William Wilkinson aims to take the mystique out of assessments

Detection of an educational disability can be a profound moment for parents, for teachers and for children themselves.

"It really is a game-changer," says educational psychologist William K Wilkinson. It can help parents put aside their frustrations, make teachers rethink their "must try harder" verdict and show children that they are not "stupid" after all.

This sea change can be a long time coming. In Wilkinson’s experience, it is not unusual for Leaving Certificate students to attend for a psychoeducational assessment for the first time and have a significant problem diagnosed.

“When that happens, parents will be looking at me and asking, ‘Why wasn’t I told about this earlier?’ Obviously, I can’t answer that.”


The children who are quietly muddling through at school are most likely to go under the radar.

If they're acting out and disrupting others, or consistently scoring very low marks in standardised tests, schools are likely to alert parents, but only the most severe cases will secure free assessments through the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) or the Health Service Executive (HSE).

Schools may advise other parents to have their child assessed privately if they can afford the fee, which can range from €450 to €1,000. Under the current system, it takes a psychologist’s diagnosis to trigger a child’s entitlement to resource teaching hours: not to be confused with the general allocation of learning support, to which schools assign pupils.

There are a lot of misconceptions around psychoeducational assessments, says Wilkinson, which is why he has written a new book outlining exactly what is involved, to try to remove some of the mystique.

Entitled Does My Child Need Help? – A Guide to Educational Assessments and Interventions, it aims to tell parents what they need to know if they are wondering whether their child would benefit from an assessment.

It outlines the methods, diagnoses, what the ensuing report might look like and the benefits it can help deliver for the child, from supported learning and language exemptions to assistance at State exams and an alternative route to third-level education.

He uses graphs to illustrate the typical profile of a child within each diagnosis category, to give parents a better understanding of how data collected during an assessment is used to reach an outcome.

Too much jargon

The need for such a book is indicated by comments from Rosie Bissett, the chief executive of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, which receives very positive feedback on its own assessment service but gets mixed reports about experiences elsewhere, both public and private.

“While some psychologists give a very good service, others appear not to communicate their results clearly,” says Bissett. “They have too much technical jargon in reports that isn’t well explained, leaving many parents and individuals at a loss as to what the report is telling them or leaving them without a clear idea of how to proceed.”

Wilkinson addresses parents’ fears about having their child “labelled” and argues that, whether or not assessment results in the diagnosis of a cognitive disability and/or an emotional or behavioural disorder, it is a “win-win” situation.

Being in private practice himself, he agrees that some people might respond with “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” However, he goes on to make a persuasive case.

It is misguided to think that children who are struggling at school are not already labelling themselves, he says.

“Most kids who think they are slow or not very smart, it’s because their reading or writing levels are way below but their actual intelligence could be above the [average] bar.”

It can be a big relief to them when it’s explained how their problems are very specific and not a reflection of their level of intelligence.

The process is also about identifying strengths as well as difficulties. Indeed, US-born Wilkinson, who has had a practice in Galway for the past 19 years and is adjunct lecturer in the clinical psychology doctoral programme at NUI Galway, had the working title of “Assess for Success” for his book.

Information about strengths and weaknesses can help teachers and parents tailor teaching methods and later on enable secondary-school students to select subjects – and ultimately careers – in which they are likely to do better.

Where an issue is uncovered, perceptions are changed, he explains. “You wouldn’t believe how often I hear from parents and from teachers that their attitude towards a child was misdirected because they didn’t know there was an underlying problem.”

If there isn’t a diagnosable problem, with the child’s profile coming within the “normal” range – which he estimates occurs in roughly 10 per cent of assessments – parents can be reassured and move on.

In those cases, the issues that prompted the parent to bring the child may be due to a developmental blip, problems of motivation, or perhaps a relationship with a particular teacher, he suggests.

Dyslexia and dyscalculia (learning disability with numbers) are the most common learning disabilities, followed by a general learning disability, comprehension disability, then non-verbal learning disability. He also covers the diagnosis of “gifted” in the book.

“It’s not a learning disability, but the issues can be quite serious if it’s not picked up,” he says. “Kids can get extremely bored and lose interest very early and quickly if they are that far above where they are supposed to be.”

Again, teachers’ attitudes will change as a result and there are enrichment programmes that can be used with the child.

No room for bias

Although, anecdotally, some parents speculate about whether or not a certain psychologist is more likely than another to give them the result they may be looking for – such as one that exempts the child from Irish, or an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis to enable resource hours – Wilkinson stresses that the assessment process is so standardised and methodical there is little room for bias.

He takes issue with a comment by the National Council for Special Education working group, in its proposals for a new model of special needs allocation within schools (see panel), that professionals feel under pressure to label children as having a disability simply to ensure that the school gets additional resource-teaching hours.

“You have to be true, ultimately, to the results. If there is nothing there, there is nothing there,” he says. “You can’t turn around and say something to a parent just to appease them.”

Parents also need to know that diagnoses are not necessarily for life. If a child is reassessed three or four years later, there can be marked changes.

“For example, the finding of ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] which was initially prominent, may become less significant, while another co-occuring problem, such as dyslexia, may persist. Or vice versa.”

The sub-type and level of a particular problem can change over time.

“Once you get an assessment, you get interventions. And if interventions work, things get better,” he points out. However if, despite the interventions, the problem gets worse, “it probably means the dyslexia is here to stay no matter what you do”.

Three-year cycle

That’s why he would recommend a three-year cycle of reviews. But he singles out the critical stages as early primary school, late primary (sixth class) and then pre-Leaving in late secondary, when reports can follow the student on into college.

For parents who have niggling concerns about a child, even when teachers haven’t identified a problem, his advice is follow your intuition.

“Teachers are very powerful players in the parents’ world and if they say there is nothing there, it’s probably going to be a major block to seeking an assessment.”

However, school tests are not the same as the tools used by psychologists. “They don’t look at a writing sample – how well they put their ideas on paper.” A child not being able to express him or herself in writing is a form of dyslexia.

“I can’t imagine how many parents are in that position,” he adds. He believes a large number “are sitting on a problem and they don’t know it”.

Does My Child Need Help? – A Guide to Educational Assessments and Interventions by William K Wilkinson is published by Orpen Press