Testing Reluctant Teens

A few weeks ago, I saw a 14-year-old who was referred for learning challenges. Her parents were very excited to start the assessment process.

She was not.

She responded to my questions with shrugs and single-word answers. Then she looked at the clock.  It was clear she wanted to be anywhere else but in my office.

If you work with adolescents, perhaps you’ve had this scene in your office, too. Many kids at this age tend to be indifferent, anxious, defensive, or flat-out resistant.

While there are many ways to “get through” testing with these kids, it’s not likely to lead to meaningful change.  Even if we get good data, it doesn’t mean the child will participate in any kind of treatment. 

So how do we engage reluctant teens in the assessment process in a meaningful way? 

What’s Their Problem?

When a child is referred for assessment, we ask parents and teachers for their “referral question,” or the problems that brought them in.

But we can’t assume that adolescents see the same problem the adults do.  In fact, we can pretty much assume they see things very differently.

Engaging children in assessment starts with figuring out what problem the child wants to solve.

In other words, what is the child’s referral question?

It turns out, figuring out what problem the child wants to solve is not as simple as asking, “What questions do you have?”  In fact, many kids:

  • Don’t have the language to ask a question that’s important to them
  • Are afraid that asking a question will mean there’s something wrong
  • Don’t think it will help anyway

I found that overcoming these barriers meant working with the young person throughout the assessment process to help them find the language and feel safe enough to start naming the problems they want to solve.

Here are a few of the strategies I’ve found most helpful to engage resistant teens by helping them to identify their own assessment questions. 

How to Help Kids Ask Quesitons

1. Pre-Session Questions

Teens have a lot of ideas of what “assessment” means before they walk through my door – and often they are not positive. 

To help re-write those ideas from the beginning, I send out a handout for parents on How to Talk to Kids about Testing.  This handout includes scripts that parents can use to let their child know that their questions are a valuable and necessary part of our work together.

For example, a parent might say:

There are things I’d like to know to help me support you better, but I’m wondering what you’d like to know about how you learn, or why certain things are easy and others are hard.

If you can’t think of anything right now, that’s ok. I’ll ask you again tomorrow and we can try to write down a list together.

Even if they don’t come up with a question in this conversation, their parents have planted the seeds we will cultivate during our work together.

2. Brain Questions

Once the young person walks through my door, my first goal is to simply help them get comfortable asking a question – any question.

As I’ve described before, I often introduce kids to the assessment process by sharing some basic brain-based vocabulary using the images below.

Sample images from Brain Building 101.
To download these images as a separate handout, click here.

As we go through this activity, many kids will start to ask questions about “the brain,” which is much easier than asking questions about things that are hard for them.  For example, kids have asked:

  • Is the brain the same in everybody?
  • How does my brain play Mindcraft?
  • Where do lucid dreams come from?
  • Do screens really make it harder to fall asleep?

It doesn’t matter if these questions are related to the adults’ assessment questions.  The goal of this activity is to inspire their curiosity, get them comfortable asking questions, and let them know that this is a collaborative discovery process – not a “find out what’s wrong with you” process.

You can see an example of what this introductory activity might look like here.

3. Compare/Contrast Questions

Now that the child has had a chance to ask some general questions, I turn the conversation back to their personal experiences.

Using the construction metaphor I reference most often, I first ask them about their “highways,” or the things that come easily to them.  This helps to establish the skills they’ve already built – their strengths.

Then I ask about their “construction projects,” or the things that may be a little trickier right now.  Often it’s a lot easier to identify these challenges after we’ve listed out the things they do well.  

As we talk, we keep a list using pages from the Brain Building 101 workbook so that we can see them side by side:

Sample pages from Brain Building 101

Often these highways and construction projects can be paired together.  For example, a child may share that they like one class and not another, or that they can spend hours on art but can’t focus on homework. 

To find a question, we can set up a comparison.  For instance:

  • Why do I like Humanities better than Math?
  • Why can I focus on art but not homework?
  • Why is it easy to make friends at camp but not at school?
  • Why do I get so mad at my family but not at my friends?

During this conversation, the young woman I mentioned at the beginning of this article shared that she finds it easiest to study with friends but struggles to get work done on her own because she finds it impossibly boring.  From here, we identified her first question:

How do I get through boring work?

She agreed that if we could find a way to make it easier for her to get through her boring work, the assessment might be worthwhile.

4. “Next Construction Project” Questions

As I noted above, many kids struggle with asking an assessment question (or engaging in the assessment at all) because it implies that something is “wrong” or “broken.” 

Even the “compare/contrast” strategy above can be tricky for some kids because it implies that there’s something they aren’t good at (yet.)

For many teens, I’ve found it helpful to start by talking to them in depth about their “highways,” or a skill they’ve already built. 

Then, I ask them what their next step will be.  In other words:

“What’s your next construction project?”

Some responses I’ve heard become questions like:

  • How do I beat the next level of my video game?
  • How do I pass algebra?
  • How do I speak up more in group projects?
  • How can I learn to do a backflip?

When a child’s question is obviously connected to an adult question (e.g., passing algebra), it makes it an easy starting point for the feedback session.

However, when the child’s question does not seem related (such as getting better at a video game), the answer to this question often becomes an inlet for talking about bigger challenges that might be too hard to address as a whole.

For example, my 14-year-old shared that she felt proud of the skills she’d built in a recent photograph class.  For her next construction project, she wanted to work on her drawing skills.  Her question became:

How do I get better at drawing?

On the surface, this question seemed unrelated to the academic challenges her parents and teachers observed.  However, the assessment revealed that one of the current obstacles for this child was the anxiety she had around sharing her work in class for fear that it would be judged or wrong.

By helping her figure out a plan for getting better at drawing, we were able to address some of the anxiety behind others evaluating her work in a way that was emotionally “safe” for her.

For example, we talked about the pros and cons of taking a class versus a self-driven study.  She shared that she’d prefer the class because it would be more interesting (not “boring work”), but that she didn’t want to have to display her work (an expectation for finished pieces.)  As we talked, she offered that if she took the class with a friend she trusts, she could show her work to her friend first to get feedback and build her confidence.

Instead of trying to convince her that she had an “anxiety problem,” we were able to help her start to address her anxiety by helping her solve the “drawing problem.”

Kids’ Questions = Powerful Feedback

When a child is able to ask their own assessment question, they are more engaged in the assessment process because:

The assessment solves a problem for them.

When testing is complete, the feedback session is our opportunity to answer these questions. 

When I use the child’s assessment questions to guide our feedback discussion, I’ve found that feedback is more:

  • Meaningful, because it addresses something important to the child.
  • Understandable, because I’m using their words to explain the findings.
  • Not Overwhelming, because we stick to what they asked about
  • Not surprising, because the child has set our agenda with their questions.

By creating her own assessment questions, my 14-year-old walked away from the assessment with new knowledge about how she could get through boring work, as well as some strategies for overcoming the anxiety of having her work judged.

Her mom reported that in the car ride home she said, “You know, that was actually pretty helpful.”  

A Tool to Help Kids Ask Questions
(Only 10 days left!)

Brain Building 101 is a workbook designed to walk you and your client through the strategies outlined above.  It was created to help identify what will make the assessment most relevant and meaningful to the child, and increase the therapeutic impact of the assessment process.  

This book has been an incredibly powerful tool for the families I work with.  I hope it’s helpful to yours!

Brain Building 101 is available for preorder through Kickstarter until February, 18th.  That means there are only 10 days left before preorders close!

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is a platform that allows us to learn if there is enough community support to make it possible to produce this book at scale.

By preordering the book, Kickstarter backers receive special discounts and early access to materials.

If a tool like this could be helpful for your work with adolescents, please click here to support the campaign. Thank you for your help in bringing this empowering feedback tool to life!


Of course, if you are working with ages 5-10, The Brain Building Book for Elementary is available now!

Find this book and many other tools to support feedback sessions with kids at www.BrainBuildingBook.com.

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