Intellectual Disability and Child Feedback

When Dr. Skye McLennan picked up 6-year-old Noah from his classroom for his first testing session, she asked him if he knew why he was coming with her. 

“Because I was bad?” he hesitantly replied.  

Skye works primarily with children who have intellectual and language delays.  She shared that these children are all too often left in the dark when it comes to the assessment process, even though they are the ones going through it.

As a result, kids like Noah tend to come up with their own narrative for why they are going through the process – and this narrative is often negative and full of shame. 

Skye sees assessment as a vehicle for changing these negative and shameful narratives.  Her goal is not to define terms like “intellectual disability” for them, but rather for her students to leave the process with a more accurate and empowered sense of themselves as a learner – in their own words.

Building on the core principles of collaborative assessment from Therapeutic Assessment and the tools from The Brain Building Book, Skye and her team of interns developed a series of strategies for:

  • Meaningfully engaging students with intellectual delays in the assessment process
  • Providing feedback in a way that they can understand, using their own words
  • Helping students use these words to be strong self-advocates

The examples below are a few of the ways that Skye and her team are empowering elementary-aged students through the assessment process.  In a future post, I hope to share some of their strategies for older students as well!

1. Asking for Consent

Skye’s approach to assessment begins with a fundamental respect for the child.  She wants to make sure that their experience is one of being a partner in a discovery process.  

As a first step for engaging kids as respected partners, Skye says she asks for the child’s consent.

For a kid such as Noah, this means making sure they know why they are there, and that they have a say in the process.  She might say saying something like:

I’ve come to work with you to find out how to make school more fun for you, what makes you feel happy when you’re here, and to make sure that you’re doing some good learning. We’ll do different activities together like puzzles and word games, and some things that are similar to what you do in class.
 
Would that be ok with you?
 

Importantly, she has laid the foundation for a feedback session where she and the child will talk about:

  • What is fun for them, or their strengths
  • What makes them feel happy at school, or how they learn best
  • What teachers can do to make sure they are learning

2. Creating a Shared Language

The biggest challenge to assessment feedback with any child is finding the right language.  For kids with intellectual and language delays, this is even more challenging.
 
To this end, Skye begins her first testing session with a Strengths Sorting activity.  When the assessment is complete, she can then use this same language as a starting place to share what they learned.

Click the button below to download a copy of this activity for the children you work with!

Using a pile of prewritten sentences on strips of paper, she reads each statement to the child and then asks them to say if the statement is:

  • A lot like me
  • A little like me
  • Not at all like me

Together, they sort the strips onto three differently colored papers.  Skye glues down the paper strips to the “A Lot Like Me” page and decorates it with the child.

Skye reflected that this activity has been a powerful way to:

  • Show the child that they are there to discover their strengths
  • Engage the child as a partner in the assessment process, even for those with difficulty using language to express themselves
  • Learn about the child’s perspective of themselves
  • Increase the child’s engagement in the rest of the testing sessions

3. Templates for Explaining Testing Results

After testing is complete, Skye invites students back in for a short meeting to talk about what they learned. 

Below are two examples of feedback templates she uses with her elementary-aged students.


All About Me Template (10-30 minutes)

For many of the children she works with, Skye uses a 3-part All About Me feedback template.  She breaks the results down into these simple categories:

  1. My strengths
  2. My brain learns best when… 
  3. My teachers can help me by…

Click the button below to download a copy of this template for the children you work with!

This template uses very concrete, direct language, as many of her students are not able to access the common metaphors or analogies used to explain learning differences to children.

Importantly, Skye shared that, while she comes prepared with ideas for what should go in each box, she starts her meeting with a blank template.  She always asks the child:

  1. What they think should go in each box
  2. If they agree with her ideas before writing them down on the template

Skye makes sure that everything she writes down resonates with the child and uses their words. This way, after the session is over, they are better able to tell their teacher or caregiver what they learned about themselves – an important first step in building self-advocacy skills.


Certificate of Awesomeness (10 minutes)

Skye and her team found that children at earlier developmental stages had difficulty accessing the All About Me activity.  However, she emphasized that feedback sessions are still critical for these students:

“These kids still need a conclusion, they still need to know what the assessment was for, that they did a good job, and that everything is good with the world.”

Skye has seen incredible benefits to having a quick, 10-minute feedback “check-in” session, including:

  • Giving the child an accurate understanding of what happened and why
  • Planting a “positive seed” that may be protective against future negative assumptions
  • Providing closure to the process
  • Creating a positive experience working with the psychologist, setting them up for positive expectations the next time they are assessed

For these children, Skye presents the child with a Certificate of Awesomeness or a Certificate of Thanks.

Click the button below to download a copy of this template for the children you work with!

Skye personalizes these for each child, using a graphic of something they like.  For 6-year-old Noah, this was a race car!

During this short session, she and the child decorate the certificate and talk about:

  • What they did together
  • What the child liked about it
  • What’s going to happen next

“What happens next” may be as simple as letting the child know Skye will tell their teacher all about what they did together.

After receiving his certificate, Noah ran back to his classroom and eagerly presented it to his teacher.  All the kids crowded around, and he held up the certificate proudly.  While he was just in the beginning stages of understanding his strengths and needs, one thing was crystal clear:

Noah was no longer defining himself as a bad child.

4. Becoming a Strong Self-Advocate

The worksheets above are much more than a fun activity.

For many children, showing their completed worksheet to a teacher or caregiver is a first step in self-advocacy.

As a psychologist working in schools, Skye is rarely able to bring teachers or parents into her feedback sessions with children; however, having a concrete product that kids can take home means that teachers and caregivers can all get on the same page – even when the child is not eligible for services (e.g., a “slow learner” or “borderline” profile.)

Skye takes time to make sure the child is able to decorate their worksheet and truly make it their own, so that they are proud to show it to the adults in their life. 

This small gesture has been hugely impactful!  In fact, Skye noted that many teachers and parents refer back to the child’s summary much more than the full report. 

Most importantly, it highlights the child’s words and their important contribution to the assessment process.

More Feedback Tools

Additional tools for talking to kids about testing results and their diagnosis are available on www.BrainBuildingBook.com.  These include:

I hope these ideas have been helpful for your practice.  Thank you for all the amazing work you do!