Neuropsychological Evaluations: A Guide for Parents

Getting your child evaluated and receiving a diagnosis can be a scary thing for both parents and children. We sat down with our advisory board member, Dr. Laura Tagliareni, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Pediatric Assessment Learning & Support (PALS) to discuss the best and most comfortable ways for families to navigate the process.

At PALS, Dr. Tagliareni typically conducts a three-day evaluation in order to obtain a comprehensive assessment of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. It is important for a neuropsychologist to spend enough time with each child to fully examine critical areas of cognition, development, and social-emotional functioning. This helps the neuropsychologist make the appropriate diagnosis and guide parents in educational and treatment planning. Dr. Tagliareni says that at PALS, in order to ensure they are getting the full picture of each child, they "almost always observe children in their school because students often present differently in an educational environment than they do in our office."

When looking for a neuropsychologist, Dr. Tagliareni recommends seeking out a professional who will conduct a thorough, individualized evaluation of your child. This should include getting an extensive history from the parents (and child if he or she is old enough) and gathering information from teachers and any specialists who work with the family. The testing measures should be specific to your child, not a prescribed battery of tests. Dr. Tagliareni further notes that, since children have good days and bad days, “seeing a child on one day isn’t sufficient to ensure the most accurate diagnosis.” Failing to fully evaluate children over a period of time can result in unfortunate outcomes, such as misdiagnosing or mislabeling kids. Of course, a critical component of the evaluation is receiving educational and treatment recommendations from the neuropsychologist that are tailored for your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Once your child has been evaluated, understanding and accepting his or her diagnosis can understandably be an emotional process, not only for you, the parents, but also for your child and his or her siblings. Dr. Tagliareni recommends taking a family-centered approach to communicating the ins-and-outs of a diagnosis.

First and foremost, she suggests getting all members of the family involved. “Some families are fearful of sharing information in order to protect their children. In fact, learning about a diagnosis can lessen a child’s anxiety as it often clarifies and explains challenges, struggles, or differences. As parents, learning to accept and embrace the findings will send a message that it’s okay to learn or think differently.”

On a similar note, Dr. Tagliareni reiterates the importance of finding good support for siblings in dealing with the diagnosis. Siblings often feel like they’re not getting adequate attention because of their brother’s or sister’s needs. Unfortunately, as Tagliareni laments, there are not enough resources available for siblings. However, some organizations, such as the JCC, offer sibling support groups to provide them with a positive outlet and network of others in similar situations. She notes that, at the Meeting House, “Bring a Friend Day” can be a great way to include typically-developing siblings in the social environment of their brother or sister.

Another key part of embracing your child’s diagnosis is to be proactive. You are your child’s best advocate. In order to be most proactive, parents first have to accept and embrace the diagnosis. Channeling a positive mindset, while gathering knowledge, will mean that you are taking the most proactive approach to your child’s diagnosis and sending a message of acceptance to your child and his or her siblings. In order learn the most, Dr. Tagliareni advises parents: get as much information as you can; find the best professionals who can help your child; speak with other parents who have been through the process; and, do research on the most appropriate school setting for your child.   

Finally, and equally as important, parents must accept that they sometimes need support too. A common question posed to Dr. Tagliareni is, Could I have done something differently? “No,” she says, “most of these diagnoses are, in some way, biological in nature.” Parents often feel guilty about their child’s developmental differences, and they need to hear from others that it is not their fault.  

By taking the step to obtain an evaluation, Dr. Tagliareni notes, parents are beginning the process of doing everything they can for their child. Parents should be sure to remember themselves throughout the process. She suggests being open to joining support groups for parents facing similar diagnoses and trying to take time for self-care when possible. Dr. Tagliareni concludes, “The best way to view your child’s challenges, ultimately, is to take a holistic approach, and make sure your child, their siblings and your family are open and communicative about the issues— and that you all have the support you need.”