Are Online Assessments As Good As In-Person Sessions?

Are Online Assessments As Good As In Person Sessions

Takeaway: Online assessments have a lot going for them, and some children prefer them to in-person sessions. It all depends on how skillfully the psychologist can manage online assessments. And you, as a parent or caregiver, can play a vital role in the process.  

A ‘developmental assessment’ is the process of evaluating your child’s skills and abilities, as compared to other children her age.

They are specific ‘milestone’ skills that all children learn at approximately the same time. For example, most children can turn over onto their stomachs by 6 months of age, crawl by 9 months, and experiment with walking by 12 months. These are milestones for physical development, but there are similar milestones for language and communication, cognitive abilities, and social skills. So, if your 9-month-old still hasn’t learned to turn over, for example, a specialist can carry out a developmental assessment to explore the issue.

As a parent, you’ll spot signs that your child is struggling. But only a formal assessment can help you define and address the problem.

Say, for example, your child can’t (but should be able to) dress herself. This could be for many reasons. Perhaps she can’t control her hands and fingers properly — a problem with her fine-motor skills. Or perhaps she can’t plan and carry out tasks — a problem with her cognitive abilities. Or maybe she has a sensory-processing difference that makes some aspects of dressing difficult. As a parent, you’ll know she can’t dress herself, but you won’t know why. And the issue might be more far-reaching than you think. A formal assessment is methodical and thorough that it will clearly outline your child’s challenges, which is the first step to helping her.

If assessments are useful, are remote (i.e. virtual ) assessments as good as face-to-face sessions?

Because of the coronavirus pandemic,

The Ed Psych Practice offers remote assessments. And these are especially important because children are stressed from being socially isolated.  But can an online assessment ever be as good as an in-person session?

Online assessments do have their drawbacks. For example, there’s the technical component that takes getting used to.

The most obvious challenge to remote assessments is the technical side of things. Videos can lag or be bleary, audio may become unclear or muffled, and internet connections slow down and speed up at random. So, at least initially, you might have to resign yourself to bearing with and sorting out these minor inconveniences. But there’s more to the problem than just technical difficulties. Psychologists find it harder to connect with children via their computer screen, and many of their assessment techniques won’t work as well online. For example, they have to observe how a child interacts with her environment. But how do you do this when a webcam focuses only on a tiny part of that environment? And how do you pick up the nuances of body language through a video?

We can’t ignore these problems, but thankfully we can fix many of them.

With the right setup and a bit of experience, we can problem-solve audio and video difficulties. Parents can experiment with camera angles and lighting so that the psychologist gets a better view of the child as she plays and completes assessment tasks. In some cases, you could use two webcams to track your child’s movements better. And psychologists, in turn, can develop new techniques that work well even over the internet. Most importantly, technical hiccups don’t have to ruin a session if we learn to laugh and bond over the challenges!

What’s interesting, though, is that remote assessments are better than face-to-face sessions in some ways.

One big advantage is that they’re so easy to set up. You don’t have to travel anywhere, and you can schedule them for any time of the day. In that sense, they’re so much more flexible than face-to-face sessions can ever be. Moreover, all children act more naturally at home — which is critical for assessments. Also, applications like Zoom offer technical perks like screen- and document-sharing, which make up for some of the inconvenience of not being face-to-face.

So, what can you expect during an online assessment? Whether remote or in-person, an assessment consists of the same process.

The psychologist will:

  1. Define the problem (i.e., why does your child need to be assessed?)
  2. Gather background information about your child’s functioning.
  3. Observe your child as she communicates and does basic tasks.
  4. Measure your child’s performance on some sample activities specially chosen to assess key skills.
  5. Explain what she’s learned from the evaluation and suggest a plan of action.

Assessments usually involve getting your child to do activities from a predetermined list, ordered from simple to complex.

Sometimes, the psychologist will check off the items your child can do. And sometimes, she’ll get your child to keep going until she can’t do the next activity. But it’s not always just about numbers and checklists. For example, with a dynamic assessment, she might observe your child struggle with a task, teach her how to do it, and then ask her to redo the task to see if she’s better at it now. This sort of ‘scaffolding’ is what teachers do in the classroom all the time, and it’s a more real-world type of learning. Whereas ‘static’ assessments measure what your child has already learned, dynamic assessments explore your child’s capacity to learn. For instance, if the psychologist asks your child to point at a triangle and she can’t do it, is it because she has a learning problem? Or is it because she doesn’t yet know what a triangle is? A dynamic assessment can tease out this difference.

What it comes down to is the psychologist’s ability to adapt. Remember, assessment principles stay the same, online or in-person.

Beyond a point, the mode of assessment doesn’t matter too much. An experienced psychologist can translate most in-person tasks into online equivalents and replace those that can’t be translated. Also, she can solve many problems by planning ahead. For example, if some equipment is essential, she could consider mailing it to you.

Online assessments are a relatively new phenomenon, but data trickling in hints that they work.

There aren’t yet enough studies to tell us conclusively that online assessments are as good as in-person sessions, but some qualitative evidence is trickling in. For example, a Russell Group survey of students in Manchester shows that 70-90% of the students polled want sessions to remain online even after the pandemic subsides. And an IDB feasibility study in Peru showed that children could sit through a 20+ minute test, understand the instructions, and perform to their caregivers’ satisfaction.

As a parent or caregiver, you’re a crucial aide to the psychologist. You will, in effect, be her eyes and ears.

If, say, an assessment task calls for your child to interact with a book, you’ll be the one to set it down in front of her. And you’ll add your observations to complement the psychologist’s. Perhaps you hear your child whisper the word ‘teddy’ because there’s a picture of a teddy bear in the book? If the psychologist misses this, you’ll be able to point it out. And it could end up being a pivotal piece of information.

Also, you’re the perfect person to provide your child’s background details.

For example, you’ll know all about her interests and hobbies. You’ll know what she’s like while playing, and how she communicates her wants and needs. And you can point out where she shows the most progress and where she falls behind. Most importantly, you’ll be able to give the psychologist feedback after each session: what went well, what needs to change, what was challenging, and what you’d like to see your child do next.

Remember, though, that it’s not all about struggle. There’s also room for celebration!

After an assessment, the psychologist will suggest a plan of action. It’s tempting to focus on the hard work involved, but there’s more to it than that. Think of it as a partnership that’s investing in your child’s future happiness. Keep each other up-to-date on the latest happenings with your child, and collect photos, stories, and work-samples to make into a scrapbook. It’ll be a brilliant way of marking your child’s progress. The journey may be long, but there’s always room for celebration!

Does your child need an assessment? Consider consulting a specialist to set up an online session.

The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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