The fifth annual Betty Finn Psychoeducational Assessment Conference, hosted by the Graduate School of Education (GSE) on May 10, drew dozens of area psychologists and educational professionals for a daylong discourse on understanding the complexities of writing disabilities.
Virginia Wise Berninger, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, offered the keynote address, “Assessment-Instruction Links within Interdisciplinary Frameworks.”
Widely published on writing-related disabilities, Berninger told participants that many children who struggle with some area of writing are diagnosed incorrectly as learning disabled because educators miss the nuance of their problem. In fact, their so-called learning disabilities may stem from a number of issues, including genetic abnormalities, environmental factors, or even cultural differences.
“Because we’ve had too much emphasis on symptoms outside of a profile, we’re missing what’s really going on in too many cases,” said Berninger, who was presented with the Alan S. Kaufman Excellence in Assessment Award earlier that morning.
The reasons for a disability involving writing vary, Berninger said. The problem may be related to a fine motor deficit, which could be corrected by physical and occupational therapy. Or, a child may have an underlying medical issue, for example, a brain injury or seizure disorder. Alternatively, learning disabilities may be purely environmental, for instance, caused by poverty, language or cultural differences, or family stressors.
Since the causes of disabilities are complex, not all children will benefit from the same remedial or special education curriculum. Thus, it is critical to conduct developmental, academic, and genetic assessments to correctly identify what is affecting a child’s ability to learn and tailor a therapy accordingly.
“No single commercially available evidence-based writing assessment or instructional tool will work for all students with learning disabilities or learning differences,” Berninger said. “We need to consider individual developmental differences and socio-contextual (such as family and school systems) and cultural factors in identifying effective instructional approaches.”
The conference also featured Scott Decker, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, who presented, “Writing Assessment and Intervention: A Neuro-Cognitive Perspective,” and Dawn P. Flanagan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at St. John’s University, who presented, “Cross-Battery Assessment of and Interventions for Written Language Disorder Subtypes.”
The annual conference is named for the late Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Finn, Ph.D., former clinical associate professor in GSE.