Berke Assessment Clinic and Library Provides Strength-based Assessment
By Dr. Wilda Laija-Rodriguez, Ph.D., LEP, CPC, Director of the Berke Assessment Clinic and Library
Education Professor Dr. Wilda Laija-Rodriguez, Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling
According to the National Center on Learning Disabilities (2012), 2.4 million school-age children in the U.S. are classified as having learning disabilities. Moreover, students with disabilities represent approximately 13% of all school-aged children in public schools (NCLD, 2012). In addition to those identified with learning disabilities, there are many other students with undiagnosed learning disabilities. Also, a high percentage of non-disabled students struggle in schools. Thus we conclude that there are many students in public schools who require specific interventions in order to be academically and socially successful.
When students are unsuccessful in school, many are referred and evaluated for special education assistance. The assessment determines if a student meets eligibility criteria for special education services set by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (Jacob, Deker, & Hartshorne, 2010). Given the high number of referrals, the quality of assessment will vary, typically focusing on the student’s deficits to determine eligibility for services.
Focusing on deficits does not lead to better understanding of the student’s learning needs, nor does it typically address or promote better outcomes. Moreover, it has been documented that there are unintended negative effects when focusing on deficits. These unintended effects can lead to: feelings of demoralization and diminished self-confidence (Laursen, 2003); lowered motivation and aspirations to excel (Laursen, 2003); and negative expectancies, stereotypes, and diminished feelings of belonging (Reid, Epstein, Pastor, & Ryser, 2000). Thorough assessment requires both an understanding of a student’s weaknesses in order to diagnose/classify disabilities, as well as an understanding of strengths in order to use them to promote student adjustment and learning (Reid et al., 2000).
A focus on strengths has received ongoing attention in the mental health, family services, and educational communities through resiliency research and positive psychology (Lubbe & Eloff, 2004). Increasingly, research is showing a link between focusing on strengths and improved outcomes (Barton, Macking, & Fields, 2006). While a strength-based focus has primarily been used in therapy and prevention, a strength-based focus in assessment has emerged more recently in schools, particularly when addressing behavioral and social-emotional issues.
Because most students who require intervention have learning disabilities, we need a comprehensive assessment model that addresses students’ strengths as well as risk factors to promote positive outcomes for students. Through the work of the Eisner College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, we have developed the Leveraging Strengths and Intervention Model’s (LeStAIM) framework.
The LeStAIM framework is a comprehensive theoretical assessment framework that emphasizes strengths to leverage weaknesses in cognitive, academic, and social-emotional functioning. This theory-driven framework is based on ecological theory and uses standardized and dynamic assessment to investigate learning and adjustment based on findings from neuroscience, psychology, and education. The assessment results facilitate the use of leveraging student strengths to surmount their weaknesses by implementing individual and multi-systemic interventions that promote positive developmental outcomes for students.
The LeStAIM framework has developed over several years. Dean Spagna and I initially conceptualized this project. Subsequently, Dean Spagna referred me to Richard Goldman, the director of the Teaching and Learning Center. Through Richard Goldman’s collaborative relationships with various individuals involved with the All Kinds of Minds program established by Dr. Mel Levine, a group of like-minded professionals emerged: Karen Grites, educational therapist from Learningwisely in Palo Alto, California; Doug Bouman, psychologist at CLC Network in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Dr. Craig Pohlman, psychologist for Mind Matters at Southeast Psych in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jenny Jones, school psychologist at Conejo School District in Thousand Oaks, California; Sam Schwerzmer, school psychologist from Los Angeles Unified School District in California; and Richard Goldman and I from California State University, Northridge.
The principal goal of the LeStAIM framework is to empower students and parents in order to achieve better outcomes focusing on student strengths. The LeStAIM framework involves the student not only in the assessment process but also in the intervention development stage in order to foster self-advocacy. The LeStAIM approach of involving parents in the assessment and intervention process directly applies current research showing parental involvement to be the best predictor of a student’s academic success (Eggen & Kauchak, 2007).
Students and parents rarely understand the student’s learning strengths/needs based on traditional school assessments. This may be due to the use of jargon when explaining results, a lack of time to thoroughly explain information, and/or a focus on weaknesses. These factors often leave the student and parents feeling demoralized and alienated.
To empower students and parents to understand student adjustment and learning, Dean Spagna and I visualized providing strength-based assessment services through the Berke Assessment Clinic and Library. With extensive support from Dean Spagna, Dr. Shari Tarver-Behring (chair of the Educational Psychology and Counseling Department) and Dr. Sue Sears (director of the Teaching Learning and Counseling Consortium), we are currently offering low-cost strength-based assessments through the Berke Assessment Clinic and Library. In addition, Elaine Berke, donor, has made it possible to provide stipends to families in financial need.
The strength-based assessments provided at the Berke Assessment Clinic and Library are conducted by third-year school psychology candidates under the supervision of school psychology faculty. Approximately half of the referrals we have received have been from parents who have had their child assessed in the public schools but do not fully understand their child’s needs or how to assist him or her. Through our strength-based assessments using the LeStAIM framework, it has been rewarding to see parents and students better understand these needs. In addition, through very detailed explanation of interventions directly linked to their adjustment and learning needs, parents have been better able to advocate for and assist their child/adolescent. The overwhelmingly positive feedback we have received has inspired us to continue providing these services to our community while providing training to our students, as we continue to collect data in support of the LeStAIM framework.
- Barton, W. H., Mackin, J. R., & Fields, J. (2006). Assessing youth strengths in a residential juvenile correctional program. Residential Treatment of Children & Youth, 23(3/4), 1-36.
- Eggan & Kechak. (2008). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms, 8th edition. NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Jacob, S., Deker, D., & Hartshorne, T. (2010). Ethics and law for school psychologists. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Laursen, E. K. (2003). Frontiers in strength-based treatments. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 12(1), 12-17.
- Lubbe, C., & Eloff, I. (2004). Asset-based assessment in educational psychology: Capturing perceptions during a paradigm shift. The California School Psychologist, 9, 29-38.
- National Center on Learning Disabilities (2012). Learning disabilities statistics. Retrieved September 18, 2012, from http://www.ldhope.com/statistics.html.
- Reid, R., Epstein, M. H., Pastor, D. A., & Ryser, G. R. (2000). Strengths-based assessment differences across students with LD and EBD. Remedial and Special Education, 21(6), 346-355.