By Anne Bellefeuille, Ph.D.
If a child is struggling at school and parents or teachers suspect that the student has a language-based learning disability (LBLD), parents should consider either psychoeducational testing or neuropsychological testing for the student.
The terms are often used interchangeably because of the overlap in assessment measures and the professionals performing them; however, the two types of evaluations differ in the scope, depth, and usage of the evaluations.
The Psychoeducational Evaluation
A psychoeducational evaluation can be performed by a licensed psychologist,school psychologist, or a special education professional. At a minimum, a psychoeducational evaluation consists of formal assessment of cognitive/intellectual functioning (IQ) and academic achievement. This evaluation seeks to measure the discrepancies between cognitive and achievement levels. If academic skills do not meet the expected level given the cognitive/IQ profile, then a learning disability will be identified.
While the psychoeducational evaluation can be useful in identifying certain learning disabilities (such as LBLD), it is inadequate for assessing other aspects of functioning that can negatively affect learning. For example, the psychoeducational evaluation does not formally assess attention, executive functioning, and/or emotional factors that may be co-occurring with the learning disability. As such, psychoeducational evaluations will yield limited information to guide interventions.
I explain psychoeducational evaluations to parents as targeted evaluations that quantify the difficulties in reading, writing, and/or math. The psychoeducational evaluation is useful to qualify students for services and/or accommodations in school, such as extended time on tests. It falls short, however, in determining the specific services and/or interventions needed for the child to succeed.
The Neuropsychological Evaluation
The neuropsychological evaluation is performed by a licensed psychologist with a specialty in neuropsychological assessment (i.e., a neuropsychologist). It can sometimes be performed by a school psychologist who has received additional training in neuropsychological assessment.
Neuropsychology is a branch of psychology that seeks to understand brain-behavior relationships. As with a psychoeducational evaluation, the neuropsychological evaluation includes cognitive/intelligence (IQ) assessment. In school-age children, the neuropsychological evaluation also includes academic testing. Thus, a psychoeducational evaluation is usually incorporated in a neuropsychological evaluation in school-age children. The neuropsychological evaluation is broader, however, as it includes assessments of specific domains. These domains include: language, visual-perceptual abilities, information processing, attention/executive functioning, learning and memory, sensory functioning, and psycho-emotional functioning.
With a neuropsychological evaluation, the results obtained on cognitive/intellectual testing and academic testing (i.e., psychoeducational evaluation) are analyzed within the greater framework of brain-behavior relationships. Thus, the neuropsychological evaluation yields broader and deeper information about functioning than the psychoeducational evaluation. It provides information about how the underlying neurocognitive processes affect learning. In other words, the neuropsychological evaluation provides information as to why a child is struggling in school. A learning disability may not be present, and/or it may be co-existing with another disorder. The neuropsychological evaluation can help with differential diagnoses, such as LBLD versus ADHD, anxiety, sensory impairment, autism spectrum disorders, or language disorders, which can all have an impact on learning. By understanding the child’s functioning in greater depth and knowing strengths and weaknesses, the neuropsychological evaluation will help develop more specific individualized interventions.
Which Evaluation Should I Choose for My Child?
The choice of evaluations depends on the referral question. When diagnostic information and guidance regarding interventions are needed, a neuropsychological evaluation is usually preferred. When a child has already been diagnosed with a learning disability and only needs documentation for accommodations in school (such as extended time on tests), then a psychoeducational evaluation can be sufficient.
Anne Bellefeuille, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist who works with students with learning disabilities, attentional disorders, and other developmental disorders. In addition to neuropsychological and educational testing, Dr. Bellefeuille also provides working memory training using Cogmed.