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AutismBC Talks

What is a Psych-ed? 

October 4th, 2023


For Everyone

The goal of AutismBC Talks is to empower our members with knowledge to better support themselves and their family members. By hosting learning opportunities with professionals and community members on topics related to autism supports, services, and research - promoting autism acceptance and social inclusion.

What is a Psych-ed? 

A psychological-educational assessment (often called “psych-ed”) is a formal assessment designed to identify a student’s learning strengths and support needs. A psychoeducational assessment is a one-on-one assessment and uses a variety of tools to develop a complete perspective of your child’s academic skills and cognitive abilities. It is important to determine not just how much your child has learned, but how best they learn and problem solve.  

Read the transcript below or listen here: 

Sarah: Hi everyone. I’m Sarah, I’m Vancouver Island Regional Coordinator with AutismBC and today we have Dr. Duff with us to talk about psychoeducational assessment, or as they’re otherwise known, a “psych-ed.” So, thank you for being here today, and if you don’t mind doing a brief introduction. 

Dr. Duff: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for inviting me. Right so I’m a psychologist, I work in private practice here in Victoria, B.C. In the past I’ve worked in children’s hospitals, I’ve worked in rehabilitation centres, but now I exclusively work in private practice. Most of the clients I see, I see a range of ages, so I see kids as young as four, all the way up to older adults. In my practice about 80% of what I do is psychological assessments, and psych-eds are part of that. I also do assessments for autism for adults.  

Sarah: That’s great. So, what does a psych-ed cover and how is it different from an autism assessment? 

Dr. Duff: Right so, they’re all kind of under the umbrella of psychological assessments. So, assessments, there purpose is to answer questions that somebody has either about themselves or about someone that they are taking care of, or that they work with. So, a more broad psychological assessment will answer a wider range of questions, an autism assessment is a very specific kind of assessment, that is answering a very particular a question, is someone, or is not someone autistic. Then the psych-ed assessment is also specific to someone’s mental abilities might impact or play a role in what they do in school.  

Sarah: So how would you know if your child needed a psych-ed? 

Dr. Duff: Yeah, the big thing, so probably the most common reason is a teacher has suggested it, and that’s because psych-eds are mostly used by parents and teachers. So, they are used by parents because the whole purpose of the assessment is not only to answer the questions you have about a child but also to be able to give you answers about what to do about the challenges are that they’re facing. My general advice for assessment, and that includes psych-eds, is that if there is something happening for your child and it’s making it hard for them to be successful either at school or with friends or other aspects of their life and it’s not clear what you should do about it, that is you’ve tried some things and they haven’t worked, that’s usually when an assessment is a good idea.  

Sarah: That’s great. Would someone need a referral for that? 

Dr. Duff: No. For a private assessment you can self-refer, so you just call the clinic, like ours, and ask them if they have availability.  There are some assessments that are available through the school systems, and these are usually done by a school psychologist. So, a school psychologist is a teacher who has received additional training in how to give some of the psychological tests that we give, and they are also trained to interpret those tests. So, some school divisions pay, they employ, school psychologists to do these kinds of assessments. Those assessments usually only answer specific questions around learning style, so they are able to say whether or not someone has a learning disability, or if someone is intellectually gifted, that means they have very strong intellectual abilities, or if they might have an intellectual disability. That’s where they have a hard time learning all different kinds of things, and they need more support than other kids their age.  

Sarah: Could someone get a designation from having a psych-ed if they didn’t have any other diagnosis? 

Dr. Duff: Yes, so what you mean by designation is the Ministry of Education in BC, which takes care of managing all of the education that happens in our province, they set very specific criteria about what kinds of challenges kids can be experiencing that schools can identify and tell the Ministry they need extra support for the school, for these particular kinds of challenges, so that’s sometimes called a Ministry designation. So, the kinds of designations that come from receiving a psychoeducational assessment could possibly be for learning disability,an  intellectual disability, also for some medical conditions, and for really severe mental health challenges so that’s like really severe depression or anxiety for example.  

Sarah: Right, and what age do you suggest this for? Is there a time when the parent would say the child is too young?  

Dr. Duff: That’s a great question, yeah, and sometimes I think unfortunately schools advise waiting a bit too long for assessments, so the answer is a bit nuanced, we have to be kind of careful, it depends on the kid. There’s always the balance between doing the assessment early and not catching what we mean to catch because kids’ behaviour can be very different and still be normal, the younger that they are.  So, I always use the example like it’s normal for a toddler to run out in the street, but it’s not normal for a twenty-year-old. So, when kids are quite young it’s hard for us to figure out what might be actually a challenge, or significant difference, like a learning challenge. But, then if we wait too long then we won’t be able to identify something soon enough to get affective help.  So that’s especially the case in learning disabilities. Most of what we know in the research on what’s most helpful for addressing learning disabilities, so that’s a specific weakness learning one kind of information, or learning in one kind of way, rather than other ways, is, we know from research that if we catch say a reading disability early, and we do the right things, like in grades one and two, then they actually end up not needing extra help as they get older. So, it’s a long answer to say I don’t think any sooner than kindergarten is usually necessary, unless they are really having a hard time, but we don’t want to wait until grade five.  

Sarah: So, if a parent was bringing their child in for assessment is there anything they should do to prepare? 

Dr. Duff: No. The only thing you really need to do to prepare is to try to get any kinds of reports you have from previous professionals. If you’ve seen a speech-language pathologists and they’ve given you a report after working with your child, it would be great to track that down. It’s also a great time to try to get together all your child’s report cards and any other documentation you might have about your child. There’s nothing you can do to help them prepare or to practice.  

Sarah: Can you tell us a bit about what the assessment actually involves?  

Dr. Duff: Yeah so, we are usually a little bit secretive about what we actually do and the only reason for that is because if you or your child knows what they are going to do in advance it can affect how you behave, and then we won’t necessarily be measuring what we’re trying to measure. Broadly speaking in a psychoeducational assessment, depending on who’s doing the assessment, you’re always usually going to be taking some measure, a test, we don’t usually like using the word test as some kids think it’s like a test at school and it’s not, but we give a test or measurement, that’s intended to measure problem solving abilities. The reason we do that is when we can estimate, take a guess, at someone’s problem solving abilities we can actually use that to predict, or take a good guess at how they should be doing academically. So, where their academical skills should be. The second thing that’s usually given in a psych-ed is an academic test. So, this is a really broad skills test, where we look at reading, writing, and math and all the little bits and pieces that make up those skills. Other practices, like in mine, I typically don’t do assessments, psych-eds, where it’s just looking at those, because that will only let me say if someone has or does not have an intellectual disability or a learning disability. It doesn’t tell me why they’re struggling if those things are not the case. You can also expect a child to be doing questionnaires when they’re old enough about how they think and they feel. You as a parent would be doing similar questionnaires about how you perceive your child behaviour and emotions. We often ask a teacher to give us feedback as well. So, sometimes we’ll speak with the teacher, other times we’ll just send them questionnaires.  

Sarah: Would that be followed up with a written report? 

Dr. Duff: That’s right yeah. It’s usually the last appointment you have is you meet with the psychologist, they will explain to you the results, give you advice about what to do about it, and then provide you with a written copy of the report. We have certain standards we have to follow to make sure the information is presented in a certain way.  

Sarah: That’s great! That’s all I have for today. So, thank you so much for joining us and that was really helpful. 

Dr. Duff: Great. 

Sarah: Thank-you.  

About the Speaker 

Dr. Duff is a registered psychologist in the province of BC and specializes in intervention and assessment (psychoeducational and clinical) with youth and adults. He has worked with thousands of people through his graduate training, private practice, and employment, including at a local children’s rehabilitation hospital, school districts, and a national mental health association. In addition to children and young people, he has specialized experience working with parents, teachers, police, military, first responders, and physicians. Dr. Duff received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia, Master’s degree in counselling psychology from the University of Victoria, and Ph.D. in counselling psychology from the University of Alberta’s Canadian Psychological Association-accredited program. As a past Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta and current clinical supervisor at the University of Victoria, Dr. Duff has taught university courses in psychology and provides clinical supervision to students training to be psychologists. He also trains and consults with parent support coaches in their work with parents of children with problematic anxiety and has provided consultation to school counsellors in their work with students. In addition to his clinical work, Dr. Duff has conducted and published research on the most effective ways to assess for and treat psychological problems, and is a peer reviewer for several professional journals. 

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