Neuropsychology can help us better understand our child’s development. We reached out to Dr. Laura McDonald, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist and founder of Whole Child Neuro group practice, to help shed some light on neuropsychology for parents and caregivers.
The Child Therapy List: Does neuropsychology help with self-harm, learning, behaviors, esteem and addiction and why has it emerged?
Dr. McDonald: A neuropsychological evaluation can help identify how a child processes information and identify strengths and weaknesses regarding a child’s ability to think, learn, and perform daily activities. For example, a parent and pediatrician may be concerned about a young child’s early development. In this case, a neuropsychological evaluation can be helpful by testing the child’s milestones and comparing it to typically developing peers to see if there are any gaps that need to be addressed. Or, an early elementary school student may struggle with learning how to read and it is unclear if his reading is just developing a bit more slowly, or if the student may have dyslexia or other processing issues. A neuropsychological evaluation can pinpoint what is going on. Or, a high school student may have trouble focusing on her classes and it is suspected that she may have ADHD. Neuropsychological testing can clarify a diagnosis and see if, in fact, the student has ADHD or if there is anxiety or a learning or processing issue that makes paying attention more challenging for her. Children who suffer from genetic or medical conditions, such as seizures or cancer, which might affect their processing, learning or memory, can also benefit from neuropsychological testing to better understand their functioning.In addition to providing a more accurate diagnostic picture and true understanding of strengths and challenges, neuropsychological evaluations also offer solutions and research-based strategies so children can function at their true potential and succeed in school and life.
Neuropsychological evaluations are given across the lifespan.
A pediatric neuropsychologist, like myself, typically works with young children all the way through college age. College students who have a history of a learning disability or ADHD may require an updated evaluation to qualify for accommodations and to help them better understand how they learn and process information. Neuropsychological evaluations are also very helpful in evaluating an individual’s functioning after brain trauma, such as a motor vehicle accident or a concussion.
The Child Therapy List: How does neuropsychology leverage advancements in neuroscience and our understanding of the brain?
Dr. McDonald: Neuropsychology focuses on brain development and function, and how these affect behavior, learning, social-emotional health, as well as other life skills. For example, it focuses on how changes in the health of the brain may affect the ability to pay attention, remember, or solve problems. This understanding between how someone thinks and acts and how the brain works is used to inform diagnosis and treatment.
While classical neurology focuses on the pathology of the nervous system and classical psychology focuses on the mind (emotions and behaviors), neuropsychology seeks to study the brain-mind/behavior connection.
The Child Therapy List: Is it difficult to find a practitioner like you? What can parents/caregivers do to incorporate this approach for their child’s mental wellness?
Dr. McDonald: In most states, clinical neuropsychologists are licensed as clinical psychologists and have specialized training (both pre and post Doctoral) in neuropsychology. In most cities, neuropsychologists can be found in hospitals and private practices. In rural areas, it might be more difficult to find a neuropsychologist. If this is the case, developmental pediatricians or clinical psychologists might be available to offer assessments. Also, if concerns are in the area of learning, a psycho-educational evaluation offered by a psychologist or school psychologist can clarify whether a learning disability is present. For more complex medical cases, traveling to a city to see a neuropsychologist might be necessary as neuropsychologists have specialized training in this area.
When undergoing an evaluation for your child, it can be very helpful for parents to come up with a list of questions that they would like to have answered or clarified and provide that list to your provider/examiner. At the end of the evaluation process, bring the list with you again to the feedback session and your examiner should hopefully be able to provide answers to your questions. These meetings can be quite overwhelming because a lot of data is shared with you. It is ok to ask many clarification questions if you don’t quite understand something. The goal is for you to leave the meeting and have most of your questions answered.
You will want to have an understanding of the barriers to your child’s learning and functioning, as well as a good grasp of their strengths and talents.
You will also want to have a game plan of how you as a parent, your child’s school and any professionals involved in your child’s care can ensure that strengths are optimized and weaker areas are supported in order to allow your child to reach their full potential.
The Child Therapy List: Are there tools or other resources that can be learned by parents and used at home, for instance? What advice do you have to give to parents?
Dr. McDonald: As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate. If your instinct tells you that something in your child’s development is not quite right or that they are having to put too much effort into a certain skill, then listen to that and look for answers. It is often the unknown that feels so scary to children and parents alike. Once difficulties have been pinpointed and a plan identified, everything becomes a lot more manageable and less scary. Knowledge is power, particularly when it is translated into comprehensive, useful, and practical steps that can be implemented to help a young person thrive.
Quite commonly, I work with children or teens who feel “stupid” because they know that they are struggling more than their peers. If a child has to work much harder than her peers to just get mediocre grades, it often starts to affect their self-esteem and confidence. Through an evaluation, we are often able to determine that the student in fact is smart and has many significant strengths, but that there is a certain skill that is harder for them. Maybe they struggle with memory, attention or organization. Once we figure out what their challenge is, we are able to address it and provide accommodations to make things easier. When I go over these results with parents and students, I can often hear a sigh of relief and see a sense of empowerment on their faces because they now understand their unique learning style and steps to take toward success.