Get Him Tested? No. Design a Research Project

Half way into her first year in high school Clair came to her mother and said, “I think I need a tutor in math.”

Her mother was delighted and a little surprised at the request: delighted because Clair asked for help, and surprised because she didn’t know her daughter cared that much about her academic success. She immediately set to the task and in short order found a math tutor with an excellent reputation.

Several months later the tutor told Clair’s mother (Jill) that he thought Clair should get tested to see if “there were some organic reason” she was having such a hard time memorizing math facts (like 8 x 7 = 56). Jill asked me for advice.

Here is the gist of my advice:

Save the $2,000. Diagnosis is not where you should put your money and attention, because even after a more-or-less valid diagnosis, one is still confronted with the question of what to do. Instead, assume that Jill’s “problem” is organic (all brain issues are) and start researching the question, “What can be done?”

Education is not medicine—or even analogous to the medical profession. The disciplines of educators are a different from those of doctors. For instance, whereas in medicine engaging the patient in self-healing is occasionally considered, in education it is essential—self-education is the only way to get educated. We can’t teach someone else to ride a bike or learn the times-tables. They have to do it themselves.

So here’s the plan:

  1. Design a research project with the student as the leader of the research team. (The research question for Clair is: “What is the best way for my brain to remember things?”)
  2. Get the right people on the team. (The first person for her to ask is her tutor, who is a dispassionate professional—one would hope). There might or might not be a role for a parent on her research team depending on the age of the child.
  3. A good description with observable data is essential.
  4. At the first meeting the team looks over the list of recommendations indicated by the presumed disability and agree on one to try. (Jill, at the age of 15, can research mnemonic devices herself, and bring a list to the table.)
  5. Agree on the design of the experiment. (e.g. Clair summarizes the first design meeting with: “So, first I will take a pre-test. That will determine the math facts I don’t know. Then, I will write a short poem [Jill likes poetry] for each of 10 math facts I want to focus on first. I will recite these poems once after breakfast before I get on the bus, once on the way home, and once before I go to bed. After a week of doing this you will give me another test, and we will see what effect this technique has—if any. We will meet to discuss the results and see if we think this approach is working. If not we will pick another one. Does that sound like a good plan, team?”)

Clair is a particularly self aware and articulate 15-year-old, but this approach is generalizable to children of all ages and their families. Skip diagnosis. Go directly from description to prescription with the mindset of doing research on how the child learns best.


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13 thoughts on “Get Him Tested? No. Design a Research Project

  1. OK, I really like this. As an educator I frequently get questions from friends about learning “issues” and how can they get a diagnosis. I would agree that, especially with an older child, this approach is wonderful. It seems very empowering for Clair, which in itself can help the “problem.”

  2. Wonderful approach, much more empowering. Too often there is a leap to the “disability” and from there to medication or generalized special education. Often those kids then just kind of get dropped into a “I’m a learning cripple” mentality. In public schools there is even extra pressure to diagnose students with learning disabilities so the school can get extra money (x amount per special ed kid). I’ve seen numerous public schools with programs that made no actual distinction (other than on paper) between a kid with dyslexia, a kid with down syndrome and one with ADHD. Everything was generically dumbed down and the kids simply taught to expect less of themselves and demand dumbed-down treatment (less work, easier problems, etc.).

    I have ADHD and ended up doing something like this myself after the diagnosis-to-medication route made me feel not like myself. I had to teach myself step-by-step ways of not forgetting my keys every day, etc.. If the adults around me had known to help me with such an approach in an organized way (I think one Science teacher was at least supportive) it would have made it a lot easier for me. In the defense of those adults (such as the Dean of Upper School who was outraged that I would go off my medication) at that time ADD was new, still called ADD (minus the H) and very little was known yet.

  3. I agree that the focus of the educators should be on strategies and support. However, for this child, a diagnosis might be a valuable tool in that it seems like she is college bound. With a diagnosis in hand, she can get modifications and accommodations not only for the remainder of her high school years, but also in college. These can be as simple as using a calculator (when not being tested for math facts) to check her work in math, more time on personal high stakes testing such as her college exams. I would direct her parents not to spend the thousands on private psychologists and so forth, but to ask her public school district to refer her to their team. That will greatly reduce costs and might even be free (I assume she is in private school and know that each district works a little bit differently, if it were in my district I know it would be free for any child). It will be a slower process than going directly to the specialists themselves and paying them out of pocket, but speed of diagnosis doesn’t seem like a big issue.

  4. Dear Richard,
    I’m not sure I agree, although your approach might work for some students. After Schools Attuned training many of my teachers came pretty close to identifying the same issues that were revealed by costly testing. Some situations do require testing, however, I believe. Due to my daughter’s testing and results, she qualified for extra time on her SATs and special considerations on high school tests, which she needed.

    Not all issues related to learning can be remediated with common sense. Sometimes the lack is a “foundational” skill that must be remediated rather than an academic issue. A tutor or untrained teacher may not be aware of the foundational skills that are lacking. As a principal of a school for students with mild to moderate learning challenges I sometimes see students who have been drilled and coached without much success, postponing effective interventions that leave the students with an even larger gap.

  5. Helpful advice but I think I have to disagree about not getting tested. If the issue is persistent, I think you need to find out for sure what the heck is going on. Case in point, my freshman son is a bright kid yet for years has had enormous difficulty in math – serious frustrations. At his breaking point (and mine) we decided to have him tested. Turns out there is an explanation to his math issues and he now qualifies for 50% extra time and help from his HS resource center. He does not have learning disabilities per say but with evidence of a slower working memory and other factors, the school was willing to support him in what he needs. Without that official diagnosis, the frustration would only continue.

  6. Jen, Wendy, Charlene, There is not doubt that your stories (and there are thousands like them) indicate that as a practical matter many children who are having trouble benefit from getting tested, given our system of education as it is.
    My point is that it is well informed extra help that helps. Well informed extra help, armed with accurate descriptions of how the child approaches learning, can pick a probable intervention that is likely to work, and then (together) teacher and student can continue to do research on what works and what doesn’t. Diagnosis is a bad habit that leads to laziness on the part of teachers.
    I am advocating daily action-research that results in learning new things daily about how each individual student learns. –with the student a prime researcher–the source of data and the implementer of strategies.

  7. Those last three lines summarize the whole concept in simple workable words, methodology that Parent Peter, I’d say any thinking parent, can use “daily.”
    But (readers know, by now, how I am with my “but’s”!) parents who seek the comfort of having an authority diagnose a dis-ease can and should get and pay for a test that’s not too invasive.
    With the findings in their back pocket, they go ahead and orchestrate Rick’s Three Line Solution and direct it through to successful outcomes.
    One last thing; Rick, please update us on how Clair is doing. What’s the word from Jill? …
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  8. I sit back thinking about this article. What I am missing here is the problem. Claire has difficulty memorizing her multiplication tables. So do I.

    She’s in high school, there must some other attributes that she possesses that got her this far. Does her memory issue effect other areas of her studies? Can she spell? Can she remember facts?

    Is this an issue because it is being made an issue? I can’t help think that the conversation that Clair started was just a simple, “I would like to be better at math and I think that maybe a tutor could help.” of which turned into what I am sensing an issue to everyone else but Clair or at least up to the time she asked.

    I would caution that while determining the “organic” or lack thereof nature of this issue, that those involve remember that she has other attributes of which should be emphasized, reinforced and not given a back burner priority.

    If in fact this issue is an issue, come to terms with it, give it its space, teach her to use a calculator and balance the lack of math efficiency by recognizing and developing her proficiencies.

    Knowing and being confident about what we are good at is the spice that makes adversity taste good is we’re willing to take a bite out it.

  9. 1) “What is the best way for my brain to remember things?”

    I’m strictly an experiential learner. I was fortunate to have parents who hadn’t quite blended into the American backdrop.

    I have a kiddo that is like that, too. He learns in the dark and while moving. I’m not talking about wiggling–large muscle movement — skiing, climbing, kayaking. And with that goes a need for rhythm of song, a lyric, iambic pentameter, a little alliteration and…lots of metaphor.

    But he’s not much different than many of the kids my grandmother talked about, those she taught in a one room schoolhouse. She hated the move to larger schools and paradigms that worked against more natural learning.

    I understand why tests are often needed…and they do, when properly interpreted, provide good information about some kids. But what Rick is saying, I think, is that we have to ditch the paradigm itself in order to allow an educational atmosphere in which to observe and navigate as needed. I think that ALL people are smarter with a not-so-large arsenal of preconceived notions.

    I unschooled my kiddo right into college. It took a lot of trust and I only lost four kayaks…

  10. Losing four kayaks with a smile on your face is what it looks like when “adversity taste good” Fern just “took a bite out of it.”
    Peter, I will report on how Clair is doing.

  11. Clair’s tutor is still pushing hard for testing mostly so she can have accommodations if she needs them. I’m not really concerned about that right now, but with doing as Rick suggests to get her as far along as she can go. Then if she needs further help or accommodations, fine. I’ll look into that when school starts again.

    Meanwhile, the tutor is having Clair do a variety of exercises, e.g., flash cards and use some website to practice. Clair says she is committed to working on her math this summer and I can only hope she follows through. Obviously I am pushing her and supporting her to do so.

    By the way, I haven’t yet gotten her math grade, but I believe she will get a C in her miserable physics class taught by terrible teacher and B’s in her other classes. My observation is that she has a great memory for things she cares about and not so great for things she doesn’t. She quickly picks up dance choreography and mostly retains it forever.

    Thanks to all for your stories, insights and suggestions. Keep them coming.

  12. Thanks for the update, Jill. If she has ways of remembering things already, the first research project that pops to mind is to think creativeluy about how to apply those strategies to situations where she “can’t” remember things.
    (Don’t all humans have this challenge? each in his or her own way?)

  13. Jill,

    Getting accommodations for college is very different than from getting them for high school. And often there is less need because the paradigm IS different. More than half of my son’s quizzes and tests are online and untimed, and many tests are open book even IN class. Part of the creativity is in planning a path through certain professors — some value critical thinking and discourse more than test scores. So far, college has had more flexibility, more time between classes, better study groups, built in tutors, etc.

    Many schools don’t even look at SAT’s anymore — and for that matter, some students do much better on the ACT than the SAT. A tutor can document: needs one-on-one to pass math; consistently needs time and a half without calculator, time only with calculator. ( Knows the process, has the knowledge but can’t retrieve –usually when writing.) If any teachers give her more time, allow keyboarding, give her instructions in writing, etc., this is also easy to document, and was a huge piece of what the College Board accepted, even thoughwe were told that the College Board wouldn’t budge with that info. One of the best skills she could have alongside creative thinking, in my opinion, is self-advocacy.

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