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Innovative assessment tools and methods - Netherlands

Needs-based assessment is a prescriptive model that outlines a desirable, or optimal, procedure rather than the customary procedure. To varying degrees, school-psychologists apply the stages in their practice. They can use the model as a frame of reference for reflection and quality improvement, asking themselves: what are we already doing in a needs-based manner and where is room for improvement? All five principles are translated into activities in each stage.

  1. Intake; 
  2. Strategy;
  3. Diagnosis;
  4. Needs-assessment;
  5. Recommendations.

In the stages 1 and 5 the assessor collaborates and consults with the teacher, child and parents. He or she investigates the child, educational context or parenting situation – only if necessary – in stage 3. In stages 2 and 4 the assessor reflects on his or her decision-making process, by him- or her self or in a multi-disciplinary team meeting.

Teachers, parents and children raise different types of questions, some of which require a diagnosis, while others do not. That is why the third stage – diagnosis -  sometimes can be skipped. The type of question is important as it determines the process that is required to answer it. Needs-based assessment is appropriate when one asks for a diagnosis and a recommendation, when there is a need for clear guidance and instructions as how to fulfil the educational needs of a pupil. The diagnosis can be a description (what is the matter? what type of problem or disorder are we dealing with?) or an explanation (why do these problems exist? what factors explain them?). Once the diagnosis is known, recommendations can be made (how can this child best be helped?). Some diagnostic questions are of a general nature, and their content still has to be specified (e.g. what? which? how? why? how much?). Others are more specific (e.g. is the child behind in reading because of a lack of motivation?). The questions may be closed (e.g. is the child dyslexic?) or open-ended (e.g. why do the reading difficulties persist? how can we best help this pupil with reading?). It is important to assess the type of question because this determines the type of answer that is requested, namely a diagnosis (description or explanation) and/or a recommendation. The end product of assessment can thus be evaluated: has a diagnosis and/or a recommendation actually been given?

Intake stage

How can we work in partnership with the school, parents and child?

The needs-based approach begins in the intake stage, as soon as there is a diagnostic request or question. From the outset, the assessor focuses on the recommendations to be made. He or she works goal directed, asking: what do we want to achieve with this case? what do the school, parents and child want to know and why do they want to know this? if they have this information, how will it change their behaviour towards the child? One of the goals of the intake stage is to collect information so that the assessor can determine his or her strategy, i.e. which diagnostic process is necessary in this case? Another key objective is achieving compatibility between the clients and the assessor, so that a constructive partnership is possible. Responsibilities, expectations and wishes should be crystal clear and realistic as well. The diagnosis and recommendations will only be accepted when there is collaboration and consultation with those directly involved. The intake stage is made up of several steps, which are outlined below.

Reason for referral and client’s requests and expectations

Questions that an assessor asks in the intake stage include: who took the initiative for the referral? why has the child been referred to me and why now? what was the immediate cause? what precisely are the questions? why are they being asked? what are the expectations and wishes of the clients? The client should always be asked explicitly about his or her motivations (what do you hope to achieve with this referral? what is your objective? what do you wish to avoid?). An effective way of finding this out is to ask the school, parents and child what would be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ news for them in the recommendation stage. Some wishes and expectations will appear to be realistic, while others are unrealistic. Consultation then follows. First hand experience teaches us that it is better to resolve potential differences between the assessor and the school or parents at the beginning of the assessment process, while the parties still regard one another in a relatively neutral light, than afterwards, in the recommendation stage. Unresolved differences will have repercussions for the diagnosis stage (lack of co-operation from clients) or recommendations (the school or parents refuse to accept them). Below is an example of expectations, wishes and requests from the school and parents, and the assessor’s response.

Eight-year-old Tim attends a primary school and is referred in June to the school psychologist of a regionally operating assessment team. His teacher has observed increasing behavioural problems over the past six months: Tim doesn’t obey the rules, disturbs other children while they are working, and frequently argues with other children, responding aggressively by hitting, pushing and kicking. After consultation with the special needs co-ordinator, the teacher tried to establish some ground rules with Tim. Tim then nodded in a friendly way, but things continued as before. In the meantime the teacher is having such difficulty coping with Tim’s behaviour that the decision is taken to report his case to the committee, requesting a referral to a special school. One particular incident has prompted this request. Tim’s behaviour has recently led to negative reactions from parents: a child who Tim pushed fell down and was seriously hurt as a result. The school expects the assessor to respond positively to their request. Their reply to the question as to what would be ‘good’ news is “Tim will be going to a special school after the summer holidays”. ‘Bad’ news, in their view, would be “that you say that we have to keep him at this school”.

The parents have a different view, however. They say that Tim is not aggressive at all, and that he is simply defending himself against bullying from other children. The parents do not want him to attend a special school (this would be ‘bad’ news), preferring him to stay in this school (this would be ‘good’ news). They think that the teacher needs to make changes in his approach, perhaps be stricter with Tim but also with the other children as they are the ones who provoke him.
The reasons for the referral are clear, as is the fact that the school and parents want different outcomes. The assessor indicates that although he can understand both motivations, he cannot simply concur with the wishes of either party. He first needs to know what explains Tim’s behaviour, what kind of intervention he needs and where this is best provided (this school, another regular school or a special education school). This is an important decision as referral to a special school would have far reaching consequences for Tim and his parents. For this, the assessor requires information from the school, parents and Tim. He needs to consult with them, which takes time. He needs to learn about the programme that this school is willing and able to offer Tim. He also explains that if he recommends a referral to a special school, a placement cannot be arranged before the summer holidays. It is another committee that decides on such admissions and there may be a waiting list. Moreover, it is ultimately the parents who will select their son’s school.
The school and parents will not be confronted with unpleasant surprises because they now know what they can, and cannot, expect from the assessor. They agree with the reformulated question and the time frame. The assessor can proceed, with their support, in the best interest of Tim.

Problems and positive factors

During the intake stage, the assessor investigates complaints – that is, behaviours and situations which the school, parents or child experience as problematical. Complaints are by definition subjective, involving the personal perceptions of a teacher, parent or child. Examples of complaints regarding a child are: lagging behind in learning, lack of motivation, concentration difficulties, or social - motional problems. The assessor asks for specific examples and evidence for this perception, such as observable behaviours, statements from the child or objective scores from the pupil’s progress records. He or she also asks questions like: who is experiencing what problems and since when? when are the problems present and when are they absent? are the parties involved in agreement? are there social and emotional problems in addition to the learning difficulties? why does the teacher have difficulties modifying the child’s behaviour? and, in the view of the teacher, what obstacles stand in his or her way to teach this child?
The intake stage also takes account of the positive factors – that is, ways in which the child is developing positively and situations that are favourable. Examples include good progress, a highly motivated child who can work independently or social skills. The assessor examines the situations in which it occurs. He or she also identifies areas in which parents succeed and the strengths of the school, classmates and teacher. For example, a teacher who creates a safe and friendly classroom climate and gives effective instruction together with a large amount of positive feedback, or involved parents who have a well structured and affective parenting style.

Attributions and solutions

In order to match the diagnostic process with the school’s, parent’s and child’s perspective, the assessor not only has to know what problems they experience, but also has to be aware of their ‘theories’. This includes their attributions – in other words, what they believe are the reasons (causes or explanations) for the problems  and the solutions that they themselves have already come up with. Attributions can relate to the child (“the child has a maths disability”), the instructional environment (“the teacher cannot cope with this class”, “the class is too large”, “there are too many over active children”) or the parenting situation (“the parents are over anxious”, “they expect too much of the child”). The assessor takes the attributions seriously and may convert them into diagnostic questions. This does not mean that all attributions are investigated. But it does mean that the assessor considers the likelihood of these assumptions and their relevance for the recommendations and that he or she discusses them with the person requesting help. Although certain questions cannot be investigated (e.g. does my child disobey because she had a difficult birth?), they need to be taken seriously. This can be done by showing understanding and explaining why the question cannot be answered.
Clearing up the concerns and explanations of a teacher, parent or child provides insight into the request itself. It can also shed light on the underlying question, the ‘question behind the question’. Although not expressed explicitly, this question is of concern to the client. Parents may have feelings of anxiety (“Will he end up a criminal like his cousin who also caused so much trouble in school?”) or guilt (“Is he so hyperactive because I smoked during the pregnancy?”). Or teachers may have feelings of powerlessness or disappointment (“I’ve given him so much extra attention for months and have achieved so little; wouldn’t a special school be better for him?”). If these questions are ignored by the assessor, there is a chance that the parents or teacher will look elsewhere for answers. Disregarding their ‘theories’ may also mean that they will have difficulty accepting the recommendations. After all, it is hard to appreciate the usefulness of a recommendation if it is based on a point of view that you do not share. A teacher or parent who believes “it’s up to someone else, not me” probably won’t accept a recommendation that states “his or her intervention should be fitted more to the child’s needs”.

Relevant history

Assessors also make an inventory of relevant information from the child’s history, such as special circumstances in the child’s development, major life events within the family, the school history and the origins of a specific problem. They also ask about any prior assessments, steps taken by the school or parents and their outcome: what exactly has been done? what worked and what did not? has a remedial teacher been involved? what interventions have been implemented, by whom and for how long? how susceptible to change was the behaviour? Quite possibly, what worked well in the past could work again in the future. A careful analysis of the information available can thus avoid unnecessary data collecting in the diagnosis stage. To this end, the assessor examines past intervention plans together with the teacher and special needs co-ordinator.

Strategy stage

What do we already know, what more do we need to know and why?

The assessor determines his or her strategy in this stage, by asking the following: in view of the information from the intake stage, how shall I proceed in this case? which diagnostic process matches the request from the school, parents and child? This stage has three steps, determining  (1) what do we already know? (2) what do we still need to find out in order to answer the questions? and (3) if extra information is required, what are the specific questions?

What do we know already?

Before an assessor can decide on the strategy, he or she needs to know exactly what the current problems are. What problems do the teacher or the pupil encounter at school and do the parents or the child have problems at home? The intake stage will have shed light on these questions, providing insight into the current situation. One often knows a great deal already, but the information is very diverse, consisting of test scores, behaviours, thoughts and feelings of the child. For this reason, one organises the information into five areas:

  1. learning conditions and academic skills
  2. work habits and task behaviour
  3. cognitive and intellectual functioning
  4. social and emotional functioning
  5. physical functioning.

The assessor only includes objective information that is problematic. By omitting repetitions and examples of the same area, they obtain a better overview, making the information more manageable. In addition, the area – titles lead the search for professional literature, to knowledge that can be applied in the process of diagnostic hypothesis formulation and testing, needs assessment and recommendations.
The assessors also identifies the positive factors within each area. For example, a child may have weak language skills but strong spatial skills, may be disobedient at home but obedient at school, or be afraid of failure yet be able to work in a concentrated fashion. These positive aspects shed light on the severity of a problem. Generally speaking, the fewer positive factors there are, the more serious the problem is. Positive characteristics can also point to the likelihood of a particular hypothesis. For example, if parents cite problem behaviours that could point to autism but the child exhibits a positive reciprocal social relationship with the teacher, a hypothesis concerning autism is unlikely and thus doesn’t have to be investigated in the next stage (Diagnosis).
Relevant information about the child’s history, the instructional environment and the parenting situation is also used at this stage. This information can function as a source of inspiration for the formulation of hypotheses.

What do we still need to find out?

The assessor examines the information collected during the former intake stage. He or she does so in a goal directed way, checking whether he or she can already answer the question or whether one needs to gather more information. In the case of a descriptive question (e.g. is this pupil dyslexic?), one decides whether there is an adequate description or classification of the problem. With explanatory questions (e.g. does he have poor work habits because he doesn’t understand the tasks?), one checks whether one fully understands the reasons for the problem. If there is enough information to answer the diagnostic question, the diagnosis stage is skipped and the case moves on to the recommendation stage, in which the assessor answers the questions from the school and parents. In the case of a request for recommendation an assessors checks whether he or she can already formulate the child’s instructional needs. If so, the case also skips the diagnosis stage and moves on to the needs assessment stage where recommendations are formulated. In all these examples there is no need to gather further information and the diagnosis stage is skipped. Thus we reduce the chance of collecting irrelevant information.
However, if the strategy stage reveals that there is too little information to answer the question, then the case moves on to the diagnosis stage, where the required information will be collected. But first, one needs to decide which specific information is needed. To this end, the assessor formulates specific questions – based on hypothesis - about what he or she still needs to know. For instance, an assessor may not be able to formulate a pupil’s instructional needs because he or she has an incomplete understanding of the learning or behaviour problem. The assessor then formulates one or more questions, which benefit the recommendation stage as they indicate what the focus of the recommendations should be: the child, the instructional environment and/or the parenting situation.

Formulating hypothesis

When explaining a problem, we apply a transactional frame of reference. We formulate hypotheses concerning characteristics of the child, the instructional environment (teacher, class, school) and the parenting situation (parents and family). We focus on the compatibility between the teacher’s or the parent’s approach on the one hand and the needs of the child on the other. For example, if expectations are too high, a child cannot possibly meet them, whereas if they are too low, he or she is not sufficiently challenged. Depending on the characteristics of the child, an inappropriate approach from the child’s environment will lead to problems. It is important when informing teachers and parents about the purpose of the assessment to carefully explain this concept of compatibility. It will help them understand why a particular intervention works with one child but not with another. Teachers can be told, for instance, that although their teaching style works well for the majority of pupils, it may increase the fears of this specific pupil with anxiety problems. An example is the case of a competent and enthusiastic teacher who finishes her instruction by using humour to set the class to work: “Anyone who doesn’t get down to work straight away will get a good spanking”. All the children laugh and settle down to work, except the girl who is confronted with physical punishment at home, she freezes.
Below are examples of factors about which one can formulate hypotheses.

1. Learning conditions and academic skills

Learning difficulties are the result of interactions between child factors and instructional factors. Child factors for example include difficulties in information processing, short memory span, little self-regulatory skills, problems working independently, a visual or auditory handicap, poor problem-solving strategies, a negative perception of the learning environment and a negative self-image, lack of confidence in asking for additional instruction, a specific learning disorder such as dyslexia, low cognitive ability or a disharmonic intelligence profile.
Instructional factors are teacher characteristics that relate to effective and adaptive education, such as: inadequately structured instruction, too few exploratory learning activities, poor compatibility between the instruction method and subject matter that the child is able to cope with, poor differentiation or lack of effective instructional and remedial methods.

2. Problems with work habits and task behaviour

Examples are:

  • A child with poor cognitive skills has experienced many failures because the teacher assigns tasks that are too difficult. The child cannot keep up and feels inferior to his classmates. This generates a fear of failure and a negative self-esteem.
  • A child is unable to concentrate on the task because she cannot stop worrying about problems at home. The child switches off, gives up quickly, puts all her energy into hiding the problem, becomes passive and increasingly underperforms.
  • A teacher fails to actively involve a pupil in his learning process so that the child has no perception of his own progress and fails to develop independent learning habits.
  • A teacher does not give a pupil enough effective feedback on failure and success. As a result of unkind treatment and too great an emphasis on results, the pupil has little self-confidence and a negative perception of school.

3. Social and emotional problems

In addition to factors involving the child and the instructional environment, the parenting situation is also taken into consideration in the case of social, emotional or behavioural problems. Child characteristics include e.g. lack of social maturity, poor social skills, over-sensitivity to stimulation, too much or too little self-control, a difficult temperament, impulsiveness, an attention disorder, a conduct disorder, learned helplessness, anxieties or depression.
Characteristics of the teaching environment include a disorderly classroom, no clear rules of conduct, an insensitive and unresponsive teacher, insufficient attention to the child’s perception of competence, a child’s unfavourable position in the class (as outsider, scapegoat or clown) or conflicts between the school and parents.
Examples of characteristics of the parenting situation are insufficient emotional support for the child, an inconsistent parenting style, neglect and lack of supervision, a major discrepancy between the rules at home and at school, parents who don’t value academic performance and keep a child at home to care for the younger siblings, parents who are hostile to and reject their child, a break-down in family communications or a parent’s physical illness or psychiatric disorder.

Selecting the questions: why do we need to know that?

When formulating hypotheses, an assessor needs to bear in mind that they must be academically sound, plausible in the light of the information at hand and testable. Some hypotheses do not arise because the available information does not suggest them; it may even contradict them. For this reason, the assessor does not formulate just any hypothesis, but proceeds in a goal directed way, combining the information available with their professional expertise and scientific knowledge.
Another important guideline of this model states that only those hypotheses are tested, or investigated, that affect the diagnosis or recommendations. Therefore the assessor selects the relevant hypotheses and transforms these into questions that need to be answered. The idea is knowing in order to advise rather than knowing in order to know. For this reason, we do not test all possible hypotheses, but make a selection based on relevance. We do this by asking ourselves “what will this information tell me?”. We intend to investigate only those child-, school- and parent-related factors that are required to arrive at a diagnosis or recommendations. With each question, we ask what decision it relates to. We apply the ‘if-then’- rationale: “if I know …, then this has the following implications for the recommendations I shall make”. For example, “If the learning difficulties are due to poor auditory processing of information, then visual support is needed during instruction”. The bottom line is relevance to intervention: no assessment takes place unless it affects the recommendations. Although this guideline may be at odds with an assessor’s desire, often prompted by the fear of overlooking something, to learn a lot about a child and his or her family, such a desire does not lead to efficient, goal directed and functional assessment. It is therefore important to check why, and to what end, a particular question is being investigated. An example follows below.
Mischa has social problems at school: he feels lonely because he has no friends. What are the reasons for this? We formulate two hypotheses:

  • Mischa has poor social skills, which – despite help from his teacher – prevent him from maintaining good relationships with other children.
  • Mischa is bullied and deliberately excluded; the other children do not let him join him, even though he asks them in a socially acceptable way. His teacher has failed to notice.

The related questions are:

  • Does Mischa have social problems because he lacks certain social skills?
  • Does Mischa have social problems because he is bullied and excluded?

The ‘if-then’ - rationale is as follows:

  • If Mischa has social problems because he lacks certain social skills, then we might advise social-skill training for Mischa with the support of his teacher and parents.
  • If Mischa has social problems because he is bullied and excluded, then we might advise that the teacher be given help in tackling the bullying.

By the end of this second stage the relevant questions are selected, they will be answered in the next stage 3. If there are no questions left, the case skips the diagnosis stage and moves on to stage 4, the needs assessment stage.

Diagnosis stage

The gathering of information is question-driven

The goal of this stage is to answer the selected – relevant - questions. These determine the information to be gathered in a the classroom observation, discussion with the teacher or parents or by testing the child. Assessment thus involves not only testing the child, but also diagnostic interviewing, analysing the teaching programme and schoolwork of the child, and observing interactions in the school. The assessor only uses instruments that are appropriate for answering the questions and which do so as objectively and validly as possible. As Pijl noted earlier (II.3), most available instruments have been developed to select children with a handicap (barrier assessment), therefore they seldom yield information relevant to educational programmes. Also there is a lack of instruments to assess the quality of the educational context and teaching behaviour.

Partnership between school and parents

Although the assessor is responsible for the diagnostic process, it is vital that the school, parents and child are aware of and agree with the purpose of this process. For this reason, they are informed about the questions and how they will be investigated before the assessment takes place. The assessor explains the relationship with the intake stage so that the school, parents and child can recognise their requests and questions. If they understand and appreciate the assessor’s plans, they will make an active contribution. Discussion of the diagnosis process in advance leads to greater participation, increasing the likelihood that the recommendations will be accepted. The assessor can also use the ‘if-then’-rationale here, for example:

  • Dina’s learning achievements are below her average cognitive level. We plan to examine whether the subject matter and learning activities are compatible with her abilities. If this is not the case, then we will make the necessary adjustments to her programme.
  • We would like to know why your son is so strongly opposed to anything to do with authority, why he prefers to do things his own way and is in constant conflict with the teacher. Once we know that, we will know what help your son needs.

Teachers and parents can observe their own teaching and parenting behaviour and the behaviour of their pupil or child. In this case they function as co-assessors. For example, parents can keep a diary of positive and negative events and situations. Or teachers can use a questionnaire to reflect on their teaching practices, and can then indicate what they would like to change.

Positive characteristics and potential for change

The diagnosis stage needs to be well prepared with regard to protective factors. In addition to searching for situations in which the problem behaviour occurs, we are also interested in when it does not occur. We ask when the child is working in a concentrated fashion or when he or she plays well with other children. We then observe what the teacher or parents are doing at that time and whether this successful approach can also be applied to situations in which the problem behaviour occurs. Emphasising their successful interventions increases a teacher’s or parent’s feeling of competence, raises motivation to change one’s attitude towards the child and also offers hope.
In this stage we also pay explicit attention to the child’s, teacher’s and parents’ capacity for change. It is for example interesting to look at the effect of certain approaches of the child: which one works best? The assessor can check the extent to which parents understand their child’s problems and are able to modify unrealistic expectations. As a child takes a maths test, we can observe how the child solves tasks, the kind of help the child benefits from, the effect of learning a problem solving strategy and how the child responds to feedback. During a classroom observation, we monitor how the teacher instructs the pupils, communicates the classroom rules, interacts with children and ensures that children are actively involved in the lesson, and how pupils interact with one another. Here we are looking at teaching practices and the potential for change. In the follow-up discussion after the observation, the assessor can emphasise what went well and can find out whether the teacher is willing and able to change other aspects of his or her approach to this particular pupil.

A transactional frame of reference

Diagnosis based on a transactional frame of reference implies that the assessor actually goes into the classroom to observe and to talk to those directly involved. In practice, however, ‘at risk’ children are often tested one-on-one in a testing room outside the classroom. Less frequently assessment occurs in the instructional context in which the problems exist and also have to be solved. Children however often behave differently in an unfamiliar testing room than in their familiar classroom with their teacher and classmates. In a separate testing room, for example, a child with ADHD may be able to concentrate well, a boy with a conduct disorder may behave in a friendly and socially acceptable way and an anxious girl may feel at ease. The behaviour observed in this situation is not representative of the problem behaviour for which we are seeking an explanation. Moreover learning difficulties and behaviour problems usually need to be solved in the context in which they occur, namely, the school setting. Observations in the child’s natural environment can be translated more easily into workable recommendations than information gathered in a testing room. This does not mean that one-on-one assessment in a testing room is not necessary. On the contrary, it is essential for questions relating to a child’s skills, abilities, experiences, thoughts and feelings. So, depending on what we need to know, we combine testing the child with investigating the educational context.
By the end of this stage, the assessor has answered the questions in a diagnostic report that is clear and transparent to all parties involved.

Needs-assessment stage

From a diagnosis to recommendations

At this stage, the assessor integrates the collected data into a diagnosis, which presents a summarised or overall (comprehensive) picture. This picture describes the relationship between the context of the initial request on the one hand and the relevant assessment data on the other. It indicates what the problem is of this child, with this teacher, in this class, in this school, and these parents. Factors relating to the child, instructional environment and parenting situation are included as risk factors if they contribute to or maintain the problems, while factors that protect the child from these risks are reported as protective factors. The positive factors of the child, the instructional environment and the parenting situation are also written down.
A diagnosis usually doesn’t lead directly to recommendations that are both desirable and workable. Although the overall picture points to what needs to change in order to solve the learning difficulties or behaviour problems, it does not indicate how that desired change can be made for this child, this teacher and these parents. In other words, knowing what the problem is and what has to change does not yet suggest how this can best be achieved. This requires the stage of needs assessment, in which the following questions are answered:

  • What do we want to change with regard to the child, the teacher/class/school and the parents/family?
  • What school-based intervention or assistance from outside the school does this require?

Potential for changing characteristics of the child, school and parents

What do we want to change and why? One or more objectives can be formulated, based on the current situation described in the overall picture. There are three possibilities:

  • changing the risk factors relating to the child, instructional environment or parenting situation
  • matching the instructional environment and parenting situation more effectively to the child’s needs and
  • reinforcing the positive factors of the child, the instructional environment and the parenting situation.

Our aim is to solve or alleviate the problems in learning and behaviour. However, sometimes we must be content with preventing the problems from escalating, in which case our aim is to stabilise the situation. Serious learning disorders like dyslexia can be difficult to remedy, but the child’s strengths can compensate. Another possible requirement is dispensation of the demands made by the school. Most problems involve a combination of remediation, compensation and dispensation. It is important that a child with a learning disorder is properly informed about the disorder, how it occurs and the implications for learning. Armed with this knowledge, the child is better able to assess the likelihood of success and failure and to understand why he or she succeeds at some tasks but not at others. It is also important for the child to experience that effort brings rewards, that despite the learning difficulties, the child can influence his or her learning progress. Activating positive factors is another key objective, involving a focus on the strengths of the child, teacher and parents.
This step generates a list of the characteristics that we aim to change. These could be:

  • teaching the child to ask the teacher more effectively for help
  • supporting the teacher in his or her efforts to improve classroom management practices
  • giving the parents a greater understanding of their child’s potentials and limitations or
  • helping the parents build up their social network.

We take into account the potential for change of these characteristics, asking to what extent they can be influenced by school-based interventions. Below are some examples.

What can be influenced by school-based intervention?

Child characteristics such as prior knowledge, learning activity and perception of the learning environment can be influenced by a teacher. Prior knowledge relates to what the pupil already knows of the subject matter he or she has to learn and whether that prior knowledge is complete and correct. The perception of the learning situation involves the child’s perception of the subject or task, namely how difficult, appealing or useful it is. Positive expectations increase the chance of successful learning, while negative ones reduce it. A teacher can influence a pupil’s perception of the learning situation. The same applies to a pupil’s feelings of competence, which determine his or her level of effort and hence achievement. Other child characteristics that instruction can influence are learning style, meta-cognition and self-regulatory skills, motivation to learn, working independently, fear of failure, level of concentration, enjoyment of school and effectively asking the teacher for help.
Through the relationship with the pupil, the teacher can influence the child’s basic needs with regard to competence, autonomy and relationships. Competence covers the strategies and abilities that lead to good academic performance. The teacher can encourage competence by offering structure, such as clear objectives. Autonomy relates to self-regulation in terms of academic performance; it is strengthened by giving the pupil freedom and choices. The need for relationships involves emotional security and solidarity. Relationships are enhanced through teacher involvement, such as displaying interest in the child and offering emotional support. If these three needs are met, the child is more motivated to perform academically.
Changes to the instructional setting are designed to make it more adaptive and effective. Aspects that can be influenced by a teacher include teaching methodology, different forms of learning, attention to how pupils give meaning to what they are learning, classroom management, monitoring pupil progress, pro-active behaviour to prevent problems, alertness (‘eyes in the back of your head’), presentation skills (posture, facial expressions, voice) and acting as a role model. A teacher can also influence classroom factors, such as the classroom climate and the acceptance of pupils who learn and behave differently. School characteristics can be influenced too, such as learning methods and activities, forms of differentiation, differentiated work, and the support given to teachers, for example, by a special needs co-ordinator.
The school is able to influence some aspects of the parenting situation. For instance, a teacher or special needs co-ordinator can help parents accept the shortcomings of their child and can recommend an intervention that is more compatible with their child’s abilities. The school also has considerable impact on the partnership with parents. An open, non-defensive and respectful attitude enhances collaboration. If a school views parents as partners and utilises their ‘hands-on’ expertise, parents gain confidence in the school and become involved in the intervention for their child, which makes the pedagogical and behavioural objectives much more likely to succeed and is in interest of the child.

What cannot be influenced by school-based assessment?

Instruction has little long term effect on child characteristics such as intelligence, temperament, working memory, social maturity, impulse control or anger management. However, some of these aspects can be influenced by interventions outside the school.
It is extremely difficult to modify teacher behaviour if the teacher is unwilling or unable to change, in which case school-based interventions have little chance of success. The same applies if the school fails to create the necessary conditions for change, refuses to offer extra training or supervision, fails to make the required timetable changes or take the necessary educational steps, such as purchasing remedial material. A school has little influence over certain characteristics of parents or family such as parenting style (e.g. authoritarian parents, parents who spoil or abuse their child), the division of roles within the family, a parent’s psychological problems and dysfunctional family relationships. In principle, however, child welfare institutions do have an impact on such characteristics. The school should therefore refer these parents.
In general, we know what recommendations are desirable for a particular diagnosis; we know what usually works. But what works well in general, and hence constitutes a good recommendation, is not necessarily effective in a particular case. The recommendations may not be practicable for this specific teacher or parent. To determine the feasibility of a desired recommendation, we use indicative and counter-indicative factors. Indicative factors are characteristics of the child, teacher, class, school, parents and family that positively affect the likelihood of success of a particular recommendation, whereas counter-indicative factors have a negative effect. These factors function as arguments for and against particular recommendations. Many indicative factors can be traced back to two characteristics of the parties involved: their willingness and their ability to make every effort in relation to the recommendations. In other words, are this child, this teacher and these parents willing and able to act on these recommendations? Do they accept their usefulness? Are they confident of success? Are they prepared to lend their support? Do they wish to make the extra effort and try something new? Can they make the extra time and energy available? Can they implement the recommendations in practice? If the answer is yes, this considerably boosts the chance of success. Therefore the assessor involves these factors in his decision-making process. When this information is not yet available, he asks those involved about it in the next stage, the stage of recommendations. Here are some examples.

  • A teacher’s classroom management practices enable him to offer regular additional individual instruction, help and opportunities for practice to a pupil with a mild mental impairment. This is an indicative factor for maintaining the child in this class.
  • A teacher recognises her own role in the interaction difficulties with a rebellious pupil and is willing to work on the problem by means of teacher support using video. This is an indicative factor for intervention based on video recordings of her interaction with the pupil.
  • If parents accept that their inconsistent approach is contributing to their son’s disobedient behaviour and if they wish to solve this by being more consistent, the recommendation ‘parent support in order to achieve a more consistent approach’ has a high chance of success. If, however, parents think their child is disobedient because the teacher is not strict enough, it is improbable that they will accept a recommendation for ‘parent support’.

A transactional frame of reference in the needs-assessment stage

The overall or comprehensive picture not only describes characteristics of the child but also translates them into specific needs and the extent to which the parents and school succeed in meeting them. The resulting picture is a transactional one. Some characteristics can be changed, others hardly. Problem behaviour in children is often reactive: it augments under unfavourable conditions and it improves under favourable ones. This is why recommendations often involve the teacher and the parents, their tolerance for particular problem behaviour or their own teaching or parenting practices. A combined approach, in which the recommendations target not only the child but also on the instructional environment and the parenting situation, as well as their compatibility, has the greatest chance of success. The quality of the context is therefore essential: the more it matches the needs of the child, the better the child will develop.
Usually assessors focus on risk factors. The assumption is that if we remove these risk factors, the problems will disappear. But protective factors are also helpful in this stage: they prevent the situation from deteriorating and are a good predictor of the effect of intervention (Carr, 1999). Teachers and parents who in the past have managed to solve problems with the child feel more competent; they have had the experience of being able to influence the child’s behaviour. Recommendations that target their approach to the child are more likely to succeed with them than with teachers or parents who have a pessimistic outlook (“this child has a handicap, therefore what I do doesn’t make any difference, so these recommendations will fail”). A child’s specific interests or skills can be drawn upon in the recommendations. For example, a boy who is good at sports but lacks social skills can work on those skills through a team sport; or a girl who is crazy about horses but hates reading can be motivated to read through books about horses. Simple and self-evident as these recommendations may be, we sometimes overlook them because of our focus on problems.

A systematic approach

The needs-assessment stage is crucial because it establishes the link between the diagnosis and the recommendations, ‘translating’ the former into the latter. It systematises the step from an optimal to an achievable recommendation by answering the following questions.

  1. What does this pupil need: what are his or her pedagogical and behavioural needs?
  2. What form should the desired instructional programme take? How can this be achieved?
  3. Can this programme be implemented at the child’s current group/school or elsewhere?

The answer to the question “what does this pupil need?” can be translated into behavioural, pedagogical, and organisational measures that the school should take. Examples can be found below.

  • Behavioural measures: actively listening to a child, making agreements about behaviour during transitions between lessons, emphasising and recording success, giving a child a responsible task, offering many verbal and non-verbal signs of support, expressing positive and realistic expectations, assigning a child an active role in the learning process and paying attention to the child’s perception of the learning situation.
  • Pedagogical measures: choosing an appropriate learning method, extending the instruction and learning time through intensive individual or small group instruction, matching individual instruction to whole-class instruction, introducing a remedial programme that complements the class instruction, giving a pupil time to master skills before working independently, attention to self-evaluation, working independently of the teacher with computers, CD players with headphones and the like.
  • Organisational measures: flexible groupings (heterogeneous groups as a basis, alternating with small homogeneous instructional groups) to practise specific math or reading skills or individual instruction, with an extra teacher or assistant to create additional instruction time, or peer tutoring.

During this decision process, an assessor formulates different recommendations that are supported by arguments for and against. They may rank the recommendations from ‘optimal or desired’ to ‘minimally required’. The way in which the assessors arrive at these decisions is transparent because the desirable alternatives are discussed with school and parents, with arguments for and against. This takes place in the recommendation stage.

Decisions regarding special education

Alternative learning objectives or a prognosis about the pupil’s future prospects are important at this stage. The child’s future prospects should be taken into account in any recommendation that the child be kept in a mainstream school. It is vital that the school, parents or child not be given the impression that a transfer to a special school will lead by definition to a better prognosis. Although the child might feel socially and emotionally more at ease in an environment that does not consist solely of pupils who outperform him or her, when mainstreaming one can also set alternative objectives for an ‘at risk’ pupil. For example, if we establish that a 10-year old girl has well below average intelligence and is lagging more than two years behind her peers, this might suggest that a vocational school providing practical training would be best for her. Transferring that child to a special school would do little to change this. Below are findings from Dutch research that an assessor may use at this stage as arguments for or against mainstreaming versus recommending a special school.

What is the added value of special schools?

The themes “the desirability of integration” and “the effectiveness of special education” recur in discussions about the value of special education in a separate setting. Dutch research into the effectiveness of schools for special education centres on pupils with mild mental impairment and learning and behavioural problems: the so-called “WSNS ‘at risk’ (mainstream) pupils” and pupils in special schools. The study focuses on the question of whether these pupils can develop best and learn most in a special school or through integration in a regular school (mainstreaming). However, methodological problems make it difficult to determine the effectiveness of special education. For instance, the random allocation of pupils to special or mainstream education is neither achievable nor ethically acceptable. Nevertheless, some research exists that has produced relevant data. Jepma (2003) for example examined the cognitive and psychosocial development of 1000 ‘at risk’ pupils in mainstream and special primary schools. Some had been referred to a special school, while others remained in mainstream education. The latter group was obtained by matching these pupils to counterparts in special education, using characteristics such as sex, age, and social and ethnic background. The added value of special education could not be demonstrated (Jepma & Meijnen, 2003). There was no clear difference in intelligence development. After four years, pupils in mainstream education scored higher in maths and language tests than pupils in special schools. There was no significant difference in psychosocial development, while work attitudes and self-confidence were comparable for pupils in mainstream and special education.
These results largely parallel those of American (Slavin, 1996) and other Dutch studies (Karstens, Peetsma, Roeleveld & Vergeer, 2001; Peetsma, Vergeer, Roeleveld & Karsten, 2001). Nevertheless, some questions remain about Jepma’s research. The 500 pairs represent relatively well functioning pupils from special education and relatively poorly functioning children from mainstream education (Pijl, 2003). Because they have been matched, the pupils appear equivalent but they are not entirely comparable in that they were not randomly assigned to the two research groups. In other words, they were not assigned ‘by chance’ to mainstream or special education, as this would be both ethically unacceptable and impossible in practice. The fact remains that, for whatever reason, half of these children remained in mainstream education while the other half were referred to special schools. A combination of various factors leads to a referral to a special school (De Rooy, 2003), some of which, such as the quality of education and the pupil’s home situation, were not included in this. It is by now clear that in referring a child to special education the Netherlands is no guarantee of superior interventions. No significant differences between special and mainstream schools in terms of teacher behaviour, methodology and organisation, have been found. The smaller classes in special schools are not by definition more effective. We find expertise in teaching special needs children in both mainstream and special schools. Some teachers employ more effective teaching strategies than others, regardless of the type of school in which they work. Some studies show that employment prospects for pupils who have attended a special school are not very bright. Very few move on to secondary or higher professional education and unemployment rates are relatively high for this group (Drenth & Meijnen, 1989; Lipsky & Gartner, 1996).
However, there are also studies that show more positive developments for pupils in special education, particularly in the social and emotional domain (Larrivee & Horne, 1991). They show that these pupils experience less stress, a greater feeling of competence and greater social integration (Bakker, 2002). Children with learning difficulties in mainstream education, on the other hand, are barely accepted by their ‘normal’ classmates; they are ignored, sometimes even rejected (Ochoa & Olivarez, 1995). They number among the least popular pupils in the class, a status that they retain throughout their schooling (Kuhne & Wiener, 2000; Le Mare & De la Ronde, 2000). Nor do studies of the self-image and self-esteem of children with learning difficulties suggest that it is best for them to be integrated into mainstream education, according to Bakker (2002). Special education can offer these children a protective environment; even if it is just because they are confronted with a smaller variation in achievement levels and therefore do not easily feel ‘inferior’. As a result, these children experience greater well-being in special schools than in mainstream education (Bakker & Van de Griendt, 1999).

Recommendation stage

From a desirable to an achievable and workable recommendation

By this stage much has already been achieved. There is an understanding of the problems and optimal (or desirable) recommendations are known. The school and parents have been involved in the diagnostic process from the outset, working together with the assessor throughout the entire process. They were consulted during the intake stage, and then informed of the assessor’s strategy. They were asked about their expectations regarding diagnosis and recommendations, and any unrealistic expectations were modified. Also, the wishes, abilities and needs of the child, school and parents have been taken into account. In short, the foundation has been laid for tailored recommendations. Now, in the recommendation stage, the assessor informs the school and parents about the diagnosis and recommendations so that they can make their choice from these recommendations. This may involve consultation between the school, parents and assessor. The recommendation chosen by the client becomes the definitive one.

Information transfer and consultation

In this stage the assessor presents his or her findings to the parties involved. The overall picture is attuned to the information needs of the teacher, special needs co-ordinator, parents and child in question. The assessor then explicitly invites discussion. He or she asks whether the school, parents and child can identify with the overall picture, how it relates to their own ideas, and whether they agree with it or not. Only when there is sufficient consensus about the diagnosis does the assessor move on to the following step – explaining the recommendations and the arguments for and against.
The school and parents then make their choice. It is up to them to decide; they may opt for the optimal recommendation or select another. The school makes choices concerning the educational context, while the parents decide on parenting issues. The assessor concurs with the wishes of the school or parents, provided he or she finds them to be in the interest of the child. Here the assessor clearly defines his or her professional boundaries: the other parties are free to choose and consultation does take place, but within the boundaries of what is in the child’s best interests. Practice has shown this to be both meaningful and effective. On the one hand, it satisfies the need for consultation and optimal compatibility with each school and parent (What are these parents and this teacher willing and able to do?). On the other hand, it also complies with the assessor’s professional responsibilities (What does this child need from the point of view of professional ethics?).
Thus the recommendations are proposed rather than imposed. Imposed advice will not be effective if the parties involved don’t agree. If a teacher sees absolutely no need for a rewarding system as this is against his or her personal view of education (“I refuse to reward one pupil for doing something that all the others do by themselves”), the assessor must take this opinion seriously. However much confidence the assessor might have in his advised system, it will be pushed aside by this teacher. In the consultation, the assessor can modify the recommendations until a teacher says: “Fine, I agree with that, that will work”. Only then do the recommendations become achievable.
Below are examples of questions for discussion.

  • Can the teacher adopt a more neutral attitude toward this defiant girl in order to reduce the incidence of battles of wills?
  • Can this bored and therefore disruptive boy in class 2, who is advanced and eager to learn, already be taught to read?
  • Is the teacher willing and able to adopt more of a ‘wait and see’ approach to this passive boy to encourage him to take the initiative and become more assertive?
  • Do these parents want help in bringing up their child who has autism through home counselling with the autism team?

In this stage the pupil can be involved in setting goals for his behaviour or learning and also in making the plans on how to achieve these. We find it important that the goal setting is done from a positive starting point (e.g. “I can already read/write in level 2 and want to achieve level 3” or “I can already work for 5 minutes by myself and want to be able to do this for 10 minutes”) in stead of a negative one (“I’m behind in reading/writing” of “I can’t work by myself”). An example format that works when planning together with the child, is the following:

What is my goal? What can I do myself to achieve this goal? What can my teacher do to support me? What can my parents do to support me?
  • At the moment I am already able to….
  • In the next few weeks I want to be able to ….

Positive characteristics also play a key role in the recommendation stage, promoting collaboration between the parties involved. The positive things that the parents and school have said about one another can be used in conflict mediation. Here the principle is not one of “you two don’t agree on this at all” but rather “you are in agreement on these problems”, “the school is positive about the parents with regard to ....” and “the parents appreciate the fact that the school...”. It is easier to work toward agreement between home and school from a position that emphasises the strengths of the school, parents and child than from one which focuses on the shortcomings of all concerned.

Drawing up an individual educational plan

If the school, parents and assessor are in agreement about the recommendations and an individualised education plan (IEP) is required, this is drawn up together with the school. Here the assessor makes use of both recent research into effective pedagogical and behavioural practices and of the expertise of the educational professionals involved: the teacher and special needs co-ordinator. The child also plays an active role: what would the child like to change and what solutions does he or she have? Parents are involved in the intervention plan as well; as ‘hands-on’ experts, they can make a valuable contribution. Thus an intervention plan is drafted in direct consultation with the people 'on the working floor'. In this way, the specific situation in the classroom and the abilities and wishes of the teacher in question are taken into account. Only when the assessor, together with the teacher, has translated his or her general recommendations into the teacher’s specific instructional setting, can they be used. An assessor takes into account classroom organisation, the methods used and the abilities and wishes of the teacher. This gives rise to a usable IEP that is tailored to the child. This makes the plan achievable and workable.
Needs-based assessment increases the likelihood of informed recommendations, such as an IEP, because it is based on a child’s instructional needs. It also gives rise to recommendations that are workable because they are compatible with the abilities of the teacher and are made in full consultation with him or her. In this way, needs-based assessment can make a valuable contribution to mainstreaming.

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