The Message Matters

Talking to Your Child About an Evaluation

There is nothing wrong with your son—he doesn’t need to be fixed.
~ Whitney Stein, Dyslexia Connection

Looking back, Whitney gave me a gift by saying those words to me. After doing an initial dyslexia screening over the phone, she suggested I get my son evaluated for dyslexia. I immediately broke down into tears, well actually, it was a full blown ugly cry!

When it comes to our children, we naturally want to fix things. While our intentions are to help, or even protect, our messaging may be misinterpreted and cause more harm than good.

The first thing we can do to prepare a child for an evaluation is take inventory of our own feelings. As my friend Nicole puts it,

“You are the ultimate role model. If you fall apart and the sky is falling–guess what? He or she will fall apart because the sky is falling.” – Nicole Holcomb, Dyslexia Mom Life

With Whitney, a total stranger on the other end of the phone, I broke down into tears because at that moment my sky was falling. I immediately went to negative experiences and stigmas surrounding my own dyslexia and made them my son’s. Whitney’s words had me put my own feelings in check, this changed how I approached the situation, and in doing so, changed the messaging my sons would receive throughout this journey.

No matter how your child is getting evaluated, through school for special education, or through a private evaluator for a diagnosis, it’s important to talk about it.

Empower your child by explaining why they are being evaluated.

By the time a student has been identified and an evaluation has been scheduled, they have most likely experienced negative emotions about how they view themselves as learners. From my own experience with my youngest son, prior to his dyslexia diagnosis would say things like I’m dumb, I’m stupid, and I hate myself. At five years old, this is what he took away from his struggles in preschool.

Struggling students have witnessed classmates excel in areas where they struggle and now, they’re being “tested” in those areas. If s/he doesn’t understand why they are being evaluated, they will come to their own conclusions based on what they have experienced up to this point.

Talking to them in a positive, open way assures they will receive the correct message—one that helps bring more ease and confidence as they enter this process.

Although talking about the evaluation seems like a simple task, knowing how to approach the conversation may not be so simple. Here are some key points to help guide you:

1. Remind your child that everyone has strengths
   and weaknesses.

Without even realizing it, areas of weakness become a primary focus. It can be in loud ways, such as, negative feelings, words, and behaviors that can surround challenging moments, or the more subtle, such as time spent with a tutor, speech therapist, or even the extra help and attention from parents and teachers. It’s natural for a child to internalize the messages they pull from these experiences—having a huge influence on how they view themselves, impacting their confidence and self-esteem.

Make sure your child understands there is nothing wrong with them and that every person has things that are easy and hard for them. It might be obvious to a struggling student what their weaknesses are–most likely they are reminded daily–it’s important that they start building awareness of their strengths.

  • Share some of your own strengths and weaknesses. Give examples on how your strengths have helped and/or lead you in different aspects of your life.
  • Encourage your child to discover new strengths through their passions and the things they enjoy doing.
  • Point out strengths that are not so obvious and how they can apply them to life now and when they are older.
  • No matter how big or small, behind every accomplishment, is a strength. Point out and talk about the strengths that played a role in getting to their successes.

2. There are no right or wrong answers.

Test anxiety is real. For a child that has been struggling in school the word test can set an anxiety driven tone before the evaluation begins. Frame your conversation with reinforcement that makes the evaluation seem less like a test.

Let your child know that:

  • They won’t know the answer to every question and that is totally okay
  • They will not be getting a grade
  • There is not a pass or fail label
  • The goal is to determine how they learn best and the best way to support/help them in school

​​Although the term activities is often used, some evaluators may refer to the sections of the evaluation as a test, so there are no surprises and stresses if they hear it being called a “test,” you can explain, it’s not like the tests they’ve taken before, using the points given above.

3. What to expect.

Don’t let your child feel surprised or caught off guard. Being pulled from your class and sent to a room, or your mom brings you to an office where some stranger starts asking a bunch of questions, can be scary and intimidating especially if you have no idea what’s going on. Do your child a favor, take away the element of surprise, ask questions so you are prepared to give them an overview of what to expect.

If the evaluation is being completed through the school, a detailed evaluation plan has been put in place. If your school has not shared this plan with you, contact the school for details so you can prepare your child, including who is testing them, where it will be done, and what day and time. You can assure your child they will not miss recess, specials, or lunch.

You can say:

School Evaluation:

I want to tell you about something that will be happening at school soon. A lot of kids go through it too. Someone named XXX is going to come and pull you from class this week (or whenever the evaluation is scheduled). Their job at school is to help figure out how kids learn best and how to help them in school. They are going to do different activities with you and ask lots of questions to help them figure out how you learn best. It may feel like a test, but it is not. You won’t be graded and it’s okay to not know all the answers. Some of the things they ask you to do may be easier for you and others may be harder. Once they are all finished, they will be able to help us understand how to make you feel supported at school.

Private Evaluation:

In a couple of days, we are going to a doctor’s office where you will spend time with Dr. Wingers doing different learning activities that will tell us how you learn best. She will ask lots of questions and you will do different activities, such as play games on the computer, puzzles, drawing, storytelling, and some math and reading. It may feel like a test, but it’s not. You won’t be graded and it’s okay to not know all the answers. Some of the activities may be easier for you and others may be harder. Once she is all done, we will understand how to better support you at school and home.

4. Feeling overwhelmed or frustrated is okay.

During the evaluation an array of different activities will be completed. Some of it will be easy for your child and some of it will be hard. There may be a point where they feel overwhelmed or frustrated and this can be discouraging, as it may bring up some negative familiar feelings.

These assessments are designed so that the items get more challenging as the student advances through the subtest. This means students have to reach a “ceiling” or frustration point—a point where the test gets too challenging for them, and you discontinue the subtest before continuing on to the next.

You can say something such as:

Some of the different things you’ll do will be easy and some will be hard, and all you need to do is try your best. If things get too hard it’s okay. Tell [The Evaluator] you need a break and it’s always okay to say you don’t know the answer.

This will prepare your child that they may feel frustrated during the evaluation and it’s completely okay.

Quick tips for the day of the evaluation:

  • Ensure that your child gets a good night’s rest
  • Make sure they have a decent breakfast
  • Pack snacks (evaluations can last up to four hours)
  • Just in case the room gets chilly, make sure they have a light jacket or sweatshirt
  • End the day on a happy note. Plan something special to do afterwards; a lunch date, or ice cream, or have them pick a movie for a movie night at home

As parents, navigating through this process can be intimidating, confusing, and at times it can feel like a long, windy road with detours that will never end. Getting to this point is a huge step, so take a deep breath and give yourself gratitude on how far you’ve come. Remember our children are resilient and with the support of their family and school they will be okay.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that stands true of our beautifully brilliant children.

When a flower doesn’t bloom—you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.
~ Alexander Den Heijer

Red Square Pegs was established to empower dyslexics by embracing dyslexia through awareness and shared experiences and to be a symbol of acceptance, pride, and confidence.