Just as each snowflake is unique, so are each student’s learning processes. So when students come to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Learning Assessment Clinic, clinicians work together to develop an individual plan to identify and to target areas of learning challenges and to boost areas of proficiency to make learning effective.
“We’re thrilled that the VKC is able to provide learning assessment services to families of children who might be struggling in school,” said Elise McMillan, J.D., co-director of the VKC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD), VKC director of Community Engagement and Public Policy, and senior associate in Psychiatry. “Having a proper diagnosis is a major first step in equipping parents with the ability to work alongside teachers and create a learning plan that will help the student get the most out of his or her education.”
The Learning Assessment Clinic is often the next step after a student has received a formal diagnosis from a developmental pediatrician or psychologist as having an intellectual or developmental disability or other disorder that may affect a child’s learning abilities. With the diagnosis in hand, the LAC clinicians are trained to work with the student’s symptoms and to create an individual learning plan that strengthens academic performance.
“Because our focus is to find out why a student is struggling academically, our assessment stays laser-focused,” said Sheryl Rimrodt-Frierson, M.D., faculty clinic director of the Clinic and assistant professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Developmental Medicine. “Most often our diagnoses relate to ADHD and/or reading and writing diagnoses, for example, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and related specific learning disabilities of reading and written expression. Some students have diagnoses that don’t fit into those specific categories, [like] deficits in nonverbal skills, working memory, or processing speed. A few are diagnosed as having intellectual disability.”
The initial Clinic appointment is a family affair that involves a day’s work for an individual student. A typical first appointment includes the family, LAC administrative coordinator Alicia Cumberbatch, Rimrodt-Frierson, and Rachel Hundley, Ph.D., the Clinic’s faculty psychologist. Hundley then begins work with the student in another room while Rimrodt-Frierson speaks with the parents.
“It typically takes about one-and-a-half hours for me to interview the parents and review additional information from teachers and other sources. Then the parents relax in the waiting room,” said Rimrodt-Frierson. “Dr. Hundley and the student typically work until 11:30 or noon doing cognitive and academic achievement assessments.
“At noon, we typically send the family to lunch for an hour to allow the student to rest and eat. When the family returns, I spend about another hour doing a neurodevelopmental assessment before sending the family home for the day,” Rimrodt-Frierson said. “Most families are leaving around 2:15 p.m., but it can be different depending on the age of the student.”
The families can expect to return to the Clinic in 2 weeks’ time, when the LAC team will meet and discuss the evaluation results.
“The family receives a copy of the report, we go over all the testing, discuss how we came to our diagnoses, give an overview of our detailed recommendations, and answer all of their questions,” Rimrodt-Frierson said. “Most importantly, we are careful to make sure we have addressed the question that brought them to the Clinic in the first place.”
The LAC faculty and staff hope to ease anxieties and to simplify the process by delivering information in a way that everyone can understand, as well as providing supports after the assessment.
“We hope they leave with a more full understanding of our assessment as well as how that connects with prior assessments, diagnoses, and treatments,” said Rimrodt-Frierson. “We make specific recommendations to address the primary question that brought them to the Clinic. Some recommendations may be medical, like a recommendation for modification of stimulant medication, while others address ‘behavior problems’ or behavioral interventions. Behaviorally, we help them identify possible sources of recurrent conflicts, usually around homework, within the family or with teachers, and discuss ways to minimize the antecedents of conflict. We offer parenting tips in the form of specific examples of positive behavior management strategies to address specific problems they identified. Also, based on what we learned from the assessment, we suggest specific educational accommodations and instructional strategies that directly relate to the current concern.”
The LAC staff also provide a list of resources–websites, books, parent support groups–intended to help the family learn more about the diagnoses and about how to become a positive and effective advocate for their student.
“We arm them with the formal documentation that includes everything we talked about for later review. Families find these documents helpful when talking with medical providers, teachers and tutors, and other relevant professionals. When appropriate, it can be used to support their request for accommodations during standardized testing, for example, college entrance examinations.
“The most rewarding aspect of working with these families is being part of their journey,” she continued. “From initial contact with the Clinic to the follow-up visit, we seek to bring them from a state of being worried, angry, and weary, to a state of being energized, with a new way to look at their old problems and specific strategies to get a different outcome this time.”
Elizabeth Turner is Communications coordinator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.