Works and Days

Child Psychology with Dr. Amy Summers: Maddy Wagar, Winter Shadow 2016

Maybe because I’m a Reedie, getting an education at a college that tucks grades out of sight and celebrates the weird and wonky types of intelligence that stick out at awkward angles from standard boxes. Perhaps because, as my mom says, I was raised in a hippy era when testing kids was “uncool.” For whatever reason, I admit I entered into my weeklong shadow with Dr. Amy Summers, a private psychologist who specializes in administering tests to kids to gather information about cognitive development, IQ, and possible learning disabilities, with a bit of a bias. The bias wasn’t even due to an issue of ethics, I think I just heard words like “testing” and “assessment” and “diagnosis,” and thought these translated to numbers, objectivity, and standardization. In all honesty, I thought the work would be a little boring. I was beyond wrong!

I simply did not know enough about psychological testing to realize how interesting, exciting, and nuanced it really is. I’m so grateful to this externship and everyone who made it possible. One week with Amy opened my eyes to some really cool aspects of psychology that I never knew existed, and inspired in me a real fascination with the process of psychological diagnosis.

Amy let myself and my fellow Reed student shadower Jocelyn Hansson follow her through every step of the process of assessing a 5th grader suspected of having ADHD or ADD. Amy works predominantly with young children, mostly to administer IQ tests to kids whose parents are hoping they qualify for a highly capable school or program, or to test for a learning disorder/ADD/ADHD.

The work made me feel like a (better-adjusted) Dr. House or Sherlock Holmes. Amy’s work is so much more than delivering a test and comparing scores to standardized cutoffs— it truly is about diagnostics. It’s investigating the mystery of the mind, putting together different puzzle pieces to try to discern what precisely is going on in each unique child’s mind. How are they processing the world, and how does that affect their performance, on any number of things? There is so much to take into account, from the kid’s home life (bilingual? Income? Siblings? Two parents or one?) to their school environment and learning history.

On our first day, we read every progress report the kid has received in his five years of school, making note of what teachers had indicated regarding his behavior, personality, and work quality. Then, we compared two ADHD diagnostic tests, one completed by the child’s mother and the other by his teacher. Interestingly, the mother and the teacher provided drastically different observations of the child’s behavior.

The next day, we visited the child’s school for a live, in-the-field classroom observation. We worked on the sly, notepads out, pretending to watch the entire group of children while in truth we were interested only in one. We took note of his behavior in class, looking out for evidence of distractibility or inattention.

Then there was the day of his actual testing. It was quite a grueling affair for a young kid, lasting from 9am until 3pm, with a few breaks for snacks and lunch. We administered a battery of different subtests, each of which gathers a bit of information about a specific type of cognitive functioning, attentiveness, or reasoning. For example, under the larger umbrella subject of reading, there are a bunch of specific tests: there’s a test for phonetic understanding (how well can a kid read a nonsense word by breaking down how it’s spelled), reading comprehension, verbal memory, and more. If a kid is struggling with reading, it could be due to any number of reasons, and how they perform— not just how they score, but how they act and the kinds of mistakes they make during— the test helps pinpoint exactly what’s going on psychologically that is causing them to have trouble.

After the testing is completed, Amy writes up a long report that details the kid’s circumstances, family life and home situation, school environment, test results, her impressions, and finally, her opinion on the best course of action for the child.

What I learned is that testing is one of many diagnostic tools, and rather than trying to make a kind fit an existing label, the use of a battery of different tests coupled with other qualitative observations allows the psychologist to hone in on precisely what may be challenging a child, and why. From there, the psychologist can design a personalized plan for parents, teachers, and child to best help the kid overcome their weaknesses and utilize their strengths to be successful.

Throughout the entire week, I was continually amazingly overwhelmed by Amy’s generosity with her time and energy. She let Jocelyn and I jump headfirst and hands-on into her work, and was willing to trust us enough to let us participate completely immersively in her job. Amy was so kind, and had an amazing energizing attitude; it was truly a joy to work alongside her. She taught me so much in such a short period of time, and I can’t express how grateful I am.

The kid’s results? He was not determined to meet criteria for ADD/ADHD (by a long shot!), and while he could use some support with reading, he was a whiz at math. All in all, he scored pretty much average— which, in diagnostics, is great news!

Tags: winter shadow, externship, psychology, clinical, diagnostics, child psychology, testing, learning disability, education