2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Hope and Counseling

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LOOKING DEEPER

First-year school psychology student Colin Cox ruled out an ADD diagnosis for a young patient

LOOKING DEEPER

Amanda Brening chose to attend TC because of the Dean-Hope training program.

The client at TC’s Dean-Hope Center for Educational and Psychological Services was a highly verbal, athletic 12-year-old boy who was getting “only” Bs in school. His parents thought he had attention deficit disorder, but to Colin Cox, then a first-year TC school psychology student, that diagnosis didn’t add up.
“I didn’t pay attention in sixth grade either,” says Cox, who studied English Literature at Notre Dame and coaches lacrosse. “I wanted to be outside.”
 
During a half-day school visit, Cox interviewed the boy’s teachers and observed him in class. His supervisor, doctoral student Rebecca Rialon, and faculty member Marla Brassard, helped him synthesize the information in a 20-page report. Ultimately, after a battery of tests, Cox’s conclusion rested on two key observations:
 
“If he had severe ADD, he wouldn’t have been able to pay attention for two hours a session during tests,” Cox says. “Also, he was doing well in some areas, but not in others—which ruled out an inability to focus.”
 
Each year, some 300 clients from Washington Heights and Harlem in New York and Fort Lee and Hoboken in New Jersey visit the Dean-Hope Center in TC’s Thorndike Hall. On arriving, they step into a cheery green and orange waiting room with wavy cube benches and a photo of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech.
 
Created in 1983 as the Center for Educational and Professional Services and rechristened in 2008, Dean-Hope offers the community a wide array of services, including play therapy for children, couples counseling, career counseling, and long- and short-term individual psychotherapy. It also offers an educational testing and referral program for local children and annually provides some 250 TC doctoral and master’s students in clinical psychology and school psychology the chance to do direct work with clients, under close supervision.
 
Psychological services start at a very nominal fee, depending on the client’s income. About half pay less than 40 percent of the maximum charge for 18 hour-long sessions twice a week. About 30 children annually receive, at or below cost, the educational testing service—including a psychological assessment—a package of professional services worth $3,000.
 
“We are offering families the opportunity to gain excellent quality services that otherwise they would not be able to obtain unless through the Board of Education,” says Dean-Hope Director Dinelia Rosa of the testing program.
 
Over the years, a growing variety of schoolchildren have come to Dean-Hope for testing. “When I first came to Teachers College, the kids we saw typically had lower IQs and came from single-parent homes,” says Brassard, Professor of Psychology and Education, who supervises students learning to conduct psycho-educational assessments. “Now the children come from a huge variety of backgrounds, from poor to rich, and all different ethnicities, including immigrants.”
 
The Center provides translation services for non-English-speaking parents. Dean-Hope’s testing program is popular with Catholic schools, and also with upper-income parents who can afford to pay full price for a professional but are drawn to Dean-Hope’s more comprehensive service.
 
One-third or more of the testing clients have been assessed at least once before they come to Dean-Hope. Often, parents and teachers believe a child has a learning problem, but Dean-Hope’s assessment frequently reveals a bigger picture.
 
“Some children could have used services years before,” says Steve Peverly, Professor of Psychology and Education, who directs TC’s Training Program in School Psychology. Many others have been misdiagnosed with academic problems like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, when in fact they are normal or suffering from emotional problems. Frequently children referred for trouble reading often turn out to have parents who have recently separated, and are living in a new home with new family members and without privacy.
 
If a child is dyslexic, Brassard says, the signs are easy to spot. “Often it runs in the family, the child has had it from the beginning, and the school hasn’t been able to help.”
 
Reading disabilities are another frequent misdiagnosis, especially in boys. “I often think, ‘Why did anyone give this child a label?’” Peverly says. Although boys are diagnosed more often with a reading disability, Peverly points out that scientific data doesn’t support the idea that the disorder is more common in boys than girls. “Boys are more active,” he says. Thus, they get referred for an evaluation more often.
 
All TC school psychology students prepare for their discussions with parents by role-playing in small supervisory groups with their faculty member.
 
“You don’t know what parents are looking for. If you say, ‘No problems,’ that often means, ‘No services from the Department of Ed,’” Cox says.
 
Some parents, Brassard confirms, are seeking a “Nickerson Letter,” which requires New York City to pay for special education outside the system. Some may hope for a learning disability diagnosis to give their child extra time on College Board exams. Often Dean-Hope responds that a child of average ability at a competitive school simply needs additional nightly homework help.
 
Dean-Hope’s testing program is semester-long, for students, so clients have time to bond and reveal non-academic issues. Testing sessions are videotaped; the doctoral supervisors watch the tapes, and Brassard samples them. Dean-Hope’s half-day school visit is also unusual.
 
Another service the Center offers is separate feedback sessions for younger children. When first-year student Amanda Brening learned about emotional issues in a boy who had never discussed them before, she referred him to psychotherapy mid-term, while the full assessment was still underway. But before speaking with his mother, she discussed the possibility of therapy with the boy, who, she says, was “excited” by the idea.
 
Hands-on clinical experiences like these are invaluable for Teachers College students, who begin assessing students in their first semester. “Most school psychology programs won’t let students do the testing in complicated cases until they graduate or in their last year in an internship. We think the only way to learn is by doing it under close supervision,” says Brassard. Brening chose Teachers College over three other programs, all well-regarded and less expensive, because of the Dean-Hope training program. “The biggest draw of Teachers College is that you work with kids right way,” she says. “It’s scary at first, but the supervisors and professors really help. The most important thing I’ve learned is to take note of everything in a session—something that may not seem important may be. You have to take a genuine interest in the child—you could make a huge difference in their lives.”
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