How to talk to kids about getting evaluated for special education
Stay in the know
We’ll alert you whenever a new episode of your favorite show airs.
”Why are you doing this to me?!?” Learn how to talk to your child about getting evaluated for special education. This episode of Understood Explains shares insights from three people:
Host and psychologist Dr. Andy Kahn
Educator Julian Saavedra
Parenting expert Amanda Morin
They’ll offer big-picture advice as well as specifics, like how to address your child’s worries about getting pulled out of class and other kids noticing. This episode also tackles a tricky topic: how much of the evaluation report to share with your child.
Keith: My name is Keith and I live in Columbus, Georgia. My son is, wow, it's kind of hard to explain. He is just a running ball of light and he's really awesome in every way. And he honestly, he has embraced being diagnosed with ADHD and he calls it just being different. One day, you know, I said to him, "They say you have ADHD and you have a learning disability, whatever the case may be, but I don’t believe that" and he was like "Dad, I'm not worried about that." I said, "What do you mean?" He was like, "I'm different." I said, "OK." He was like, "But guess what? It's OK to be different." I said, "You know what, you're right. It's OK to be different."
Andy: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains." You're listening to Season 1, where we explain evaluations for special education. Over 10 episodes, we cover the ins and outs of the process that school districts use to evaluate children for special education services. My name is Andy Kahn, and I'm a licensed psychologist and an in-house expert at understood.org. I've spent nearly 20 years evaluating kids for both public and private schools. I'll be your host.
In today's episode, we're going to offer tips on how to talk to your child by breaking the evaluation process into three key parts. First, general questions like why your child is getting evaluated. Second is, specific questions like what to do if other kids ask why your child is being pulled out of class during the evaluation. And finally, explaining the evaluation results including how much detail to share with your child.
Getting evaluated can bring up a range of emotions in kids and it's incredibly common for parents to worry about how to talk to their child about evaluations, everything from "Why are we starting this process?" to "What do the results mean?" It's tricky territory. But we're here to offer some concrete advice on what to say and what not to say. Before we dive in, I want to point out that in the first nine episodes of this season, we ended each episode with tips on what to say to your child. So, this 10th episode will be reviewing some of that information. But we're also expanding the number of voices at the table. Today, we'll be sharing perspectives from three people who have very different but equally important roles on the evaluation team: a licensed psychologist, that's me; a school administrator or teacher, that's Julian — I'll introduce him in a moment — and a parent, that will be Amanda. So let me introduce you to Amanda and Julian, who both been frequent guests in this season of "Understood Explains." Amanda Morin co-hosts Understood's "In It" podcast about the joys and frustrations of parenting kids who learn and think differently. She's also a former classroom teacher and early intervention specialist, and she's a mom of three kids, two of whom learn differently. Welcome, Amanda.
Amanda: Hey, good to be back.
Andy: Julian Saavedra is an assistant principal at a Philadelphia High School. He's also a father of two and co-hosts the Understood podcast "The Opportunity Gap," about kids of color who have ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences. Welcome, Julian.
Andy: So, one of the variables we're going to talk about here today is the age of the child. And we're going to keep in mind that the kids we're evaluating can represent a huge age range. So, we'll be thinking about kids from kindergarten all the way up through high school. So, some of our tips are going to vary by ages. I would imagine we're probably going to slant a little bit more towards older kids because some of the details and content is going to be a little bit deeper because kids are going to ask deeper questions as they get older. So, let's start with some general questions. Maybe let's think about what can educators and families say to help kids understand why the adults in their lives think they need to be evaluated?
Amanda: I mean, as a parent, it's really easy to be able to say to your child, "We're doing this we're having we're starting this process, because I've noticed that you're struggling with X, Y, or Z" and you name out what X, Y, and Z is. "You've told me that this is hard for you, your teachers and I have talked about this." So, to be able to just name the why of why we're doing this and then the end of that sentence, I think is often "Because we want to know how to support you better."
Julian: Yeah, and the key that Amanda said is the idea of support, really making sure that that relationship is strong and coming from the school administrative side, making sure that the relationship between the teachers, the people who eventually will be evaluating and the student and families are all on the same page is incredibly important. So, being heavy on the idea of "This is for you, this is support. And we just want to figure out how we can best help you" is really where kids feel a lot better about the process.
Andy: So, when we take in even the third perspective here, I'm always, you know, when I work with my kids as a psychologist, one of the most important things that comes up is that motivation piece, right? What's in it for them? So, you know, what are some of the other you know, benefits or ways that we can talk to them about this process that would help them? And are there like analogies or phrases, you know, catchphrases you tend to use with your kids that are helpful to them?
Amanda: I will often say to parents, make sure you're telling kids that you're doing this for them, not to them. That's one that I repeat over and over and over again. And the other thing is, with older kids, it's an opportunity to be able to say to them, "We're looking at how your brain works." Right? "It's about mapping out how you think, and where there are places where we can find ways to give you extra help in the places that are harder for you." You know, that mapping of the brain piece is a really interesting way to talk to older kids about it.
Julian: Yeah, agreed. And, you know, I work with high school students, and it's really important to just be honest, and just keep it 100% real that "We're trying to figure out, you know, what we can do to best support you." And a lot of times I find that, you know, again, it goes back to that relationship piece, if there's a relationship that's already set between the school and the students specifically, then the trust is going to be there, and they're willing to listen to what you're sharing with them. Now, obviously, sometimes, our students are a little bit self-conscious. And they might be worried about how other kids might feel about or hear about them going through this. So, making sure to ease in and understand like, there's other students that are in the school that have also done this, and maybe we can connect you with somebody else that can talk you through it, because a lot of times, kids can be way better at supporting each other than we ever can. And I know that for me, I always try to find ways to make it relevant to something they'll understand. I don't know if you two know anything about social media and Instagram, but I had to have a conversation with a student that the school had determined was going to go through the evaluation process a couple of months ago, and this young lady is very much into her Instagram account. But I was like, you know, "Think of it as we're trying to figure out the best filter for when you're doing your pics," when she understood it that way as like, "Oh, yeah, you know, there's all these different types of filters," she started showing me filters, and I was like, "All right, this is too much for me, I need to walk away." But when I explained it in a way where she understood, "This is not changing who you are, it's just figuring out what's going to work best to show your best self," then it really hit home for her. And I think that way of making it relevant and making it in language that they understand is something that's really important.
Amanda: That is brilliant, Julian, I'm going to take that one home with me. Because I often will say, to my own kids, to other parents to let their kids know, "This doesn't change who you are." But that's such a good way of doing it is to be able to say, "It just changes how we see the picture of who you are."
Andy: So, you know, if we're thinking about how your child's really feeling about the process and helping them understand that, what do we do to help them you know, deal with the worries about maybe being feeling noticed? Like "I'm leaving the room for testing" or "I'm worried about what other people are going to think." How do you guys go about explaining that to kids and helping their parents really keep them calm and managing the process?
Julian: Yeah. I mean, I know that, especially for older kids, you know, it's a very hard thing to participate in when they know they might be singled out, right? At that age, everybody wants to make sure that they're part of the group. So, when I speak with parents, I make sure to make it clear that we will be proactive, we don't want to make it seem like it's something where the kids will be spotlighted or it will be a situation where everybody knows that this is happening. And again, I go back to making sure that the student is at the center of all of it. So, making sure that whenever that is starting, being really clear about when it's happening, asking for feedback, asking for "What would you prefer? We can work around your schedule, we can work around for you," we might say different things or what like "Which class period might be best?" just to make sure that you know the student feels as supported as possible and that they have input. And it's not something getting done to them, it's more they're doing it in tandem with the entire team, is really important.
Amanda: With the younger kids, it's really important to keep in mind that it's all about them at that moment. Like for most kids, it's all about them, but younger kids haven't yet realized that not everybody else lives inside their brain and know what they're thinking, right? So, you have to name that out loud, you have to say, "You may feel like everybody's going to notice when you leave the classroom, but people leave the classroom all the time. And you may not notice that you see other kids leaving the classroom here and there. And they leave for different reasons, too." So, I think one of the things about calming some of those worries with little kids is making sure they understand like "You know what? People may not notice as much as you think because they're not you. So, they're not as conscious of it as you are."
Andy: So, one question here about how can kids help influence the evaluation plan that the team is drafting? And how might that work differently for younger and older kids?
Amanda: One of the things that families can do is have the conversation together. Parents having the conversation about — and caregivers, right? Because it's a whole family kind of conversation — about what it is they're noticing, what it is the school is noticed, and then bring your child into that conversation "What is it that's hard for you? What have we not thought of? What is it that you want other people to know?" To bring that to the table. Making sure that their perspective is reflected is really important. It goes back to the we don't know what's in their head until we ask. So, asking the question, and doing it in a non-leading kind of way, right, like, "Well, I noticed you're having trouble with reading, isn't that true?" is very different than "Tell me which parts of the day are hardest for you in school."
Julian: Right. And again, it's the idea of questions. You know, a lot of kids will open up a lot more than you think they would.
Andy: So, we've been talking about ways to help kids understand the evaluation process in general. Now we're going to talk about how adults can help ease specific concerns once the evaluation gets underway. Maybe you can talk a little bit about describing things like classroom observers.
Julian: All right, so in this case, "We've decided we're going to begin doing our evaluation. And at first, you might see some people that are not normally in your classroom coming in. They're not necessarily going to interact with you, they're just going to be hanging out, trying to see what you're doing. The most important thing that we want you to do is not change how you normally act in that space. So, you know, just pretend like they're not there. Just be yourself. And, you know, not necessarily trying to change how you act, it's not judging you on if you're doing well or not doing well, it's just getting a chance to see what's happening in the classroom so that we can then come back and talk about what we see." So, I think when we just frame it really clearly like that, I don't necessarily specify exactly what their roles are or what they're looking for, in particular, because, again, sometimes our students get really into their head about, "Oh, am I in trouble? Should I change the way I'm acting? Are the other kids going to say something about this?" So, making it somewhat broad, but just making it clear that during this class during this period, I might have somebody else in the room, and they're just seeing what's happening in general, that really helps alleviate some of those concerns.
Amanda: I also think that sometimes it's OK to not share that ahead of time. Because you're right, kids get up in their own heads, and they start thinking like, "They're here, they want to see what I'm doing. So, I'm going to change what I'm doing, or I'm going to put on a show." Little kids will do that. They'll put on a show it will be, you know, "Did you see me do that? Did you see me do this?" So, I think knowing your child matters a ton. And knowing whether or not they're going to be super self-conscious and change how they act matters in terms of whether or not you say something as a parent when you know that there's gonna be somebody in the classroom.
Julian: The flip side of that is, that's one part of the evaluation process. There's also the individualized portions. So, you know, if they're meeting with somebody like Andy, a psychologist, where they're going to be by themselves, and they're going to be having a conversation, I'll always make sure to do like a pre meeting with myself or with the teacher that the student trusts, just so that they can meet each other first before they go off and have the conversation. And that really helps a lot too.
Andy: Julian, you sort of segued us in really naturally to talking about the assessment activities, which again, the observation is one of those activities. How do you describe some of those other activities to your kids in a way that you think is helpful?
Julian: Yeah. So, you know, it all depends on what the evaluation is going to encompass. I know that, especially with our older students being clear about, like, "There's going to be an interview portion, it's not a test, this is not something you're going to get graded on, it's not going to reflect poorly on your report card. But this is more, again, just to get your sense of what's happening with your experience in school."
Amanda: And this is one of those times where I tend to avoid using the word evaluation, right? When I'm talking to kids in particular, who you know you're going to be doing some activities with, because I think it's, it's a way to take some of the gravity out of the situation, right? And I mean, we all feel sort of a gravity around evaluation, it sounds like a very big sort of heavy word. So, I think just especially with the younger kids, to be able to just say "You're going to be doing some activities. Some of them may be things you're familiar with, some of them may be new to you."
Andy: Yeah. Perfect. So, let's move on and talk a bit about how to discuss the results of the evaluation with your kid. Really, one of the most important things I always share with parents is that we don't make the evaluation results about defining who your kid is, it's really a much broader situation. But I'd like to get your input on how much of this information do you share any ways that you describe it to the kids that you work with, or the kids in your own household?
Amanda: It really depends on the age of the child. And you know, I have a lot of personal experience with this; I have been dealing with evaluation results in our household for, holy moly, 18 years? something like that. So, I've had a span of young to older kids. And you know, when they're much younger, it's just a matter of saying like "Hey, look at this paper that I have in my hand here. Remember that those activities you did was so and so, this is telling us what that meant, like what they found out on that day; this is like a snapshot of that day and those activities. And I'm going to tell you the things that you did really great on and that that looks like you really are on top of it. And let's talk about some of the things that look like they were more difficult for you.v And then ask your child, vHow do you feel about that? What do you think about that? Do you have questions for me?" Right? But it relies on you as a parent having the time to digest that information first. I wouldn't sit down with them right away. Digest it first to make sure you understand it, make sure you've called your Julian or whoever's at your school, and asked what you need to understand that you don't understand yet, before you talk to your child. As they get a little bit older, I mean, I'm always encouraging parents to bring kids to IEP meetings as often as they can, so kids can have input, right? And will often be the parent in the room who says, "Anything you're going to say about my child, I would hope you'd be willing to say to my child," right? So, I'm trying to set the tone that we're respectful, we're talking about a real human, right? And so, I think, as my kids have gotten older, I've sat down with them with the evaluation report, we each have our own highlighter, right? One color is mine, one color is theirs, and we're highlighting the things that we want the other person to notice or have questions about.
Julian: If I had to rank the more difficult parts of our job, sharing evaluation results is up there. Because it's really, really nuanced and it's hard. But this is going to be the start of more and more conversation. And I think that there's a lot of emotion that can come out and is just making sure that everybody that's involved understands that that is part of what it is. And it's OK.
Andy: So, what's the best way to talk about recommendations with your child? And also asking them "Are they helpful?"
Amanda: Well, first of all, if the report doesn't have a recommendation section, which sometimes happens, that's the time a parent should be reaching out to the school and saying, "Wait, what's the next, like, what are the recommendations?" So, I think it's important to note that sometimes you may not see that. So, if it isn't there, it's really hard to have that conversation. The other part of it is, with kids, to be able to go through that and sometimes it's helpful to be able to say, "Can you see what this might look like in your classroom?" Because some of the recommendations are sort of hard to picture in action. So, with older kids, I think it's OK to say like, "Have you seen this in a classroom before? Have you seen your teacher do this? Is this something that you're comfortable with?" All of those kinds of questions. With younger kids, you can say "This is one of the things that came up, do you think this would be helpful?" In part because kids have to buy in. Kids have to buy in to what we put into those plans, what we put into place. If we don't have our children's buy in It doesn't help at all to put that into place.
Julian: Yeah. And I also would think that sometimes it's a who, like, who is this involving? For a lot of kids, they attach the experience to people. So, I know, in my own school, you know, our special education teachers are some of our most popular people in the building. So, when you attach a name, and there's already like a relationship built, or there's a reputation of that person, within the school, then a kid might get extremely excited about that, "Oh, I get to spend more time with so and so" or "Oh, that person is going to be helping me?" And then that really changes the outlook. So, you know, making sure you're translating what it says on the paper, you know, you're going to have extra time on a test, or you're going to have preferential seating or some of those terms. And like Amanda said, making it like in a student-friendly language, and actually couching it as "What is this actually going to look like in your day to day?" And then asking them, "Now that you've heard what this is actually going to look like, what do you think about it? What are your thoughts? And are you willing to try it for a certain amount of time, and then we can come back and see if it's working or not?"
Andy: Folks, this has been such great input. I can't thank you enough for bringing all your unique and really rich perspectives to the show. Thank you so much for being here.
So, we've been talking about how to talk to kids about evaluations. If there's one thing you can take away from this discussion is that evaluations can help kids understand their strengths, as well as what can help them in areas that are more challenging. As always remember that as a parent, you're the first and best expert on your child. But your child can have a lot of valuable input too. So, look for ways to partner with them during the evaluation process, and keep reminding them that the evaluation is something that is being done for them, not to them, and that the whole goal of evaluations is to help your child thrive.
You've been listening to Season One of "Understood Explains" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.
And now, just as a reminder of who we're doing all this for, I'm going to turn it over to Lincoln to read our credits. Take it away, Lincoln.
Lincoln: "Understood Explains" is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also made the sound design for this show. Brianna Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. A very special thanks to Amanda Morin and all the other parents and experts who helped us make this show. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
Andy: Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more atunderstood.org/mission.
is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.
July 13, 2022
How do schools evaluate kids for special education? For a quick preview, listen to the trailer for Season 1 of the Understood Explains podcast.
July 13, 2022
Is your child struggling in school? Are you wondering what supports might help? Get an overview of how schools evaluate kids for special education.
July 13, 2022
How do schools and families decide if a child needs an evaluation? Get tips to help decide if now is the right time or if you should wait.
July 13, 2022
What rights do families have in a school evaluation? Learn how special education law protects your rights during the evaluation process.
July 13, 2022
School evaluations are free — and you can ask for one at any time and for any reason. But the details you include can make a big difference.
July 13, 2022
What happens during the evaluation? And what role do families play? Learn how to help shape the evaluation plan and help your child get ready.
July 13, 2022
What do all the numbers mean in your child’s evaluation report? This episode explains key terms and gives tips to help make sense of the results.
July 13, 2022
The evaluation report is done. Now what? Learn about eligibility determination meetings and different kinds of supports for struggling students.
July 13, 2022
Why do some families pay for private evaluations when the ones at school are free? Find out in this episode of the Understood Explains podcast.
July 13, 2022
How often do kids need to be reevaluated? Find out what to do about losing IEP services and how reevaluations can help teens get ready for college.