Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of The Testing Psychologist podcast. Today’s a little bit of a different day. We’re going to switch it up a little bit from the prior weeks in that I will just be talking with you by myself here today. I did two really cool interviews over the last few weeks. So if you haven’t checked those out, definitely go back and take a listen.
Today, I am going to be talking with you all about how to do a school observation. I test a lot of kids. I’ve talked about that in the past. And one of the primary components of my evaluations is a school observation.[00:01:00] I have met a lot of other clinicians and folks doing testing with kids and seems like a school observation is not always part of the package. And so, this has really come to be something that defined our practice, at least here in town. So I wanted to talk with you about what my process is, what makes a good school observation, and how to go about that and integrate it into your evals.
One of the things to consider right off the bat is that there are a lot of really positive aspects to doing a school observation. One of the things that can be just procedurally important is that some districts, I’ve heard this in other parts of the country and here locally as well, but some districts are actually really hesitant to accept outside evaluation results for consideration of special education services or other [00:02:00] school-based services unless the outside psychologist has actually been on-site at the school. So in some cases, you have to do a school observation if you want those outside testing results to be integrated with the kiddo’s 504 consideration or IEP in school services.
Another reason that I really think it’s important to do a school observation is because often parent and teacher reports can sometimes be incomplete or inaccurate even. I’ve found that in many cases over the years, actually, where a lot of the time parents honestly will maybe have talked to the teacher, maybe have some input from the teacher, but a lot of the time, parents don’t really know what happens at school. They don’t know exactly what the classroom setup is like, what the kids do during the [00:03:00] day, or how they’re behaving at recess.
I find this is especially true for kids who don’t necessarily fall in the extreme range for behavior or academic concerns. And a lot of time, those parents are understandably naive about what happens during the day. It’s like this black hole that their kids go into for 7 or 8 hours and then they’re home all of a sudden.
On the other side, teacher reports can also be a little bit, I don’t want to say inaccurate or misleading, but even with checklists, I tend to do the BASC-3, the Vanderbilt, and a variety of other things depending on the presenting concerns. So I get a lot of behavior checklist data but sometimes, as we all know, checklists are not super precise.
I like to go and just get a good sense of what’s actually happening in the classroom [00:04:00] on any given day for that kiddo. I think that’s probably the main reason for me to go into the school is just to give me a much better picture of what’s happening socially and behaviorally in the classroom for these kiddos.
I can think of a lot of examples over the years where I have been in the school and the information that I gathered there just totally alters the course of the eval or really pushes me in one direction or the other with the diagnostic impressions and certainly the treatment recommendations too and thinking about what sort of interventions might be helpful for that particular kid.
I can think of one kid right off the bat where parents were pretty concerned about disruptive behavior in school and at home to a degree, some learning concerns, and maybe some attention issues. And so with this particular kid, I [00:05:00] walked into the school and almost literally walked right into this particular kid kicking the vice principal in the hallway right as I was walking into the school.
I, for better or for worse, got a front-row seat to this disruptive behavior that parents were describing. I got to say to myself, this is really happening. Here we go. And so I got to observe that outburst, which ended up going on for quite a bit of time. And I got a good sense of what they were talking about and what the school was concerned about.
Also, thinking of that same kiddo, after he calmed down and got back into the classroom, I was able to observe what he’s like in the class. He did have some trouble staying in a seat and paying attention and that sort of thing.[00:06:00] I can think of many other stories where I’m questioning whether a kid is on the autism spectrum and I’ll make sure to go to the school during a time when I can catch an unstructured time, like lunch or recess, and I will get out there on the playground and be able to see how kids interact with other kids.
Gosh, I had many occasions where I have observed kids spending time by themselves on the playground, walking around alone, counting rocks, or something like that. And that gives me some insight into how they interact with other kids and how they’re handling the social demands.
Now, on the flip side, I have also seen many kids who behave really well in the classroom environment. And then that makes me question, what’s going on here? The parents are [00:07:00] either perceiving things to be really bad or maybe things are just bad at home and not so bad at school. So it can go both ways. It can either push me in the direction of maybe a more significant diagnosis or maybe give me some information to say, okay, things are going right with this kiddo. Not a big deal.
Now, of course, I always check in and see how my observations during the school observation jive with the kids’ history. Was that a good day? Was that a typical day? Was that a bad day? So you always got to check those things out, but getting into the school for a little while can give you some really good insight into their behavior there in general.
The other thing that I think is fairly important about doing the school observation is that it gives me really good information independent of what kind of day the kid is having. It gives me good information about the classroom environment. [00:08:00] And I have found that that can be really important in considering what might be going on for a particular child.
What I’m talking about when I say classroom environment, I mean, it could be basic things like class size, is this a school where we’re more down toward 15 to 20 kids per class or more up toward 30 or above? It makes a big difference. Lets me see what the classroom setup is like. Do the kids work in those little pods- small groups of desks clustered together or is it more rows or a circle or an independent workspace?
Also, it gives me a sense of just what the classroom is like; what does it look like? Is it clean? Is it organized? Is it chaotic? The population of the class more, are they more energetic as a class, or [00:09:00] is it more of a docile classroom? And all of that just gives me an idea of how this kid might be functioning in that particular classroom. And that can make a really big difference.
Another piece of that is teacher personality, classroom management, and how they handle different kids behaving well and misbehaving.
So there’s a ton of good data that can be had just from sitting in on the classroom for a few minutes. And you get a sense of that pretty quickly, I think.
Another thing that I like about a school observation, on a very basic level, it just gets me out of the office, which is really nice. I don’t know if you call that self-care or just variation or work satisfaction, but it was really nice to just get out of the office for a little while and get out and drive around. I can listen to podcasts and just get out in a different setting.[00:10:00] Another thing that I think is a huge advantage, actually, two big advantages of doing a school observation. One is that parents absolutely love it. Every time, if parents, for whatever reason are not aware that I typically do a school observation, when I talk with them about it, they are so excited to know that someone is actually going to go see what’s going on at school.
I’d say the majority of kids that I work with are parents that bring their kids in. School is a part of the concern. And so, they’re just super excited to have me go out and check things out there in the school environment. And like I said earlier, at least in our town, this has become somewhat of a defining feature of our clinic, I think. As far as I know, other folks are not doing this. And that’s a nice feature to set us apart.
That leads me to the last element that I think [00:11:00] is pretty important about doing a school observation, and that is the marketing element. You could also call it networking or just building relationships, but having done this for several years now here in our community, I am, I wouldn’t say on a first-name basis with a lot of teachers or front office staff, but I am really familiar with a lot of the school staff around town, and that has been a huge asset in building our practice and getting referrals.
Having some familiarity and positive energy just from being out and about in the schools and being visible, I think is a really big deal. Teachers seem to appreciate it whenever I come out to do the observations. The administrative staff really appreciate it just to know that as a clinician, I’m invested to that degree in really [00:12:00] helping the kiddo and figuring out what might be going on.
However you think of that as marketing or relationship building, either way, I think it’s really important and has been a nice byproduct of being out in the schools. And that works back for me too because then I have knowledge of each school’s environment: what the administration is like, what the teachers are like, the community, and what different schools look like.
And then that can help me to make recommendations to parents because parents are often asking me what schools should my kid go to? Where’s the best fit? What’s his learning style? How will that fit in here in the district? So it works both ways. I think it’s a really cool thing to have those relationships in place with the schools.
In terms of the actual process of doing a school observation, I thought I could talk about that a little bit. I’ll just get into some of the nitty gritty here assuming that [00:13:00] some of you might be listening and want to say, okay, I want to put some school observations in place. How do I do that?
So this is just my process. This is what I’ve honed over the years and settled on from doing this for a while.
It starts right off the bat with parents from the initial phone call. When they call asking for an evaluation, we walk them through the process and say, first we’ll do an interview, the next step is a school observation, then the kid will come for testing, and then we’ll do feedback. We mention it right off the bat, just so parents are aware, hey, this is going to be part of the process. Let’s get prepared for this. And this is something that you can count on.
Once they come in for the initial interview, I also talk with them again about the school observation. So, during the interview process, I’ll walk them through and give an overview of the rest of the evaluation. And part of that is [00:14:00] always talking about the school observation.
So what I will say is, okay, now that we’ve done the interview, the next point of contact with your kid will be an anonymous school observation. I typically go to the school before I meet the kid for testing so that I can remain anonymous and hopefully not influence that kiddo’s behavior in the classroom knowing that someone is observing them. So I try to remain anonymous.
I always say to parents, I will go in. I assure you, no one will know that I’m watching your child aside from the teacher. None of the other kids know, none of the parents know, nothing like that. I tell them that what I typically do is I just go in, our district here allows me to stay for an hour at a time usually, so I stay for an hour. I always try to catch an academic period and an unstructured social period if possible, and if relevant. I typically just sit in the back of the classroom, don’t take up too much space, and don’t [00:15:00] disrupt anything. And just try to get a sense of what’s going on in the school environment.
I also tell the parents that we take care of the scheduling. I have that go through my admin staff and I’ll talk you through what that looks like here in a minute. But as far as parents are concerned, I say, if you could just give the teacher a heads up, give the principal a heads up if you’re close with that individual, and that can often help the process go a little bit more smoothly when those folks know that I’ll be getting in touch with them.
So that’s what I present to parents. I also have to talk with them about the billing aspect. So if any of you are maybe doing evaluations and are saying to yourselves, but we take insurance. Does insurance cover that? Well, the answer is usually not. As best I can tell, going into the school, it’s a different location [00:16:00] setting on your claims. I think that 03 is the service location code. A lot of insurances don’t cover it.
I’m just upfront with parents. I just tell them that I do charge a flat hourly rate for the school observations. I include any travel time. 15 minutes or less one way I do not charge for. If I have to drive over 15 minutes one way, I do charge an extra $100 to cover travel time. But I do tell the parents, I’ll submit this and try to get reimbursed for the school observation, but usually, insurance doesn’t cover it and that’s going to be about an extra $100 to $150. And most parents don’t even bat an eye at that. They’re actually pretty thankful and they say, that’s totally a worthwhile expense [00:17:00] to add on to get a sense of what’s going on in the school environment.
After I’ve talked with the parents and we get on the same page, this is getting into some of the procedures of our clinic, but we have what we call an interview follow-up form. And on that form, I will mark the school and the teacher’s name and what kind of time I would like to observe at the school or what setting or what class.
And then my admin staff sends an email to the teacher or makes a phone call to the teacher and says, “Hey, I’m contacting you on behalf of Dr. Sharp. We’re doing an evaluation and working with one of your students. We typically conduct a school observation as part of that process. Could we find a time when Dr. Sharp can come by for an hour or so? He typically likes to see an academic period as well as an unstructured time like lunch or recess. Are there any times in the next week or two that [00:18:00] could work for you to have Dr. Sharp come by?”
So, just shoot out an email like that to the teachers. I found that they are very responsive. A lot of teachers are totally willing to have me come. It’s very rare that that does not work out and I’m not able to get into a school.
In terms of the nuts and bolts of scheduling, I think that’s important. School observations can take up a fair amount of time. Like I said, I’m there for an hour and usually, I’m driving 5 or 10 minutes to get there, at least. Sometimes I will go to neighboring cities and it might take up to a half-hour or an hour each way, but it can be a big chunk of time.
So what I do, I think I’ve talked in prior podcast episodes about the schedule that I’ve set out for myself to do evals and make sure that I’m making the most of my time. If you don’t remember that, or haven’t heard that, or maybe I haven’t said it, [00:19:00] I’m not sure. The schedule that I keep these days is, I do a week of what I call on time, where I see people face to face from about, for me, that’s 7 AM to 3 PM doing interviews, feedback, testing, one on one meetings, that kind of thing. So face to face time with clients.
And then I do an entire what I call an off week where during that week I do administrative tasks here in the practice, I write reports and I do school observations. So during those off weeks, I basically have a blank slate where I just block out big chunks of time to get out and do these observations and also have big chunks of time to write reports.
That works for me really well. It also allows me to stack my school observations all on the same day or maybe two days. I tend to do maybe 4 to 6 a week, something [00:20:00] like that, during my off weeks. I also have my admin staff always try to schedule the school observations in close time proximity when they are geographically close.
That was a really complicated way to say something that’s pretty simple, which is schools that are located near each other, I try to stack on the same day and do them back to back. So I’m not driving all over the place. That’s relevant for me. Like I said, I can sometimes go to neighboring cities that are pretty far away. So, I usually try to line those up and just make it efficient in terms of driving.
While I’m thinking about that, I’ll just throw in a little side note that there are a lot of apps out there that can help you track the time and distance that you drive for work. Right now I’m using one called Everlance. I think mile IQ is another popular one. So like I said, just a side note, you [00:21:00] could check those out if you need a mileage tracker. And that’s right on your phone. A lot of them do automatic detection of trips. So soon as you start moving, they’ll start to register a driving trip and then you just classify them as you need to.
After I get the scheduling worked out, then I want to talk about the whole process of actually doing the school observation. So once I get into the school, I think it starts right from the very beginning. Again, that relationship building or marketing piece where I’m very nice to school staff.
The front desk staff are often fairly protective of the students. So I get a lot of, “Yes, who are you? Uh-huh. And what are you here for?” That kind of thing. At the risk of generalizing quite a bit, it’s a little bit of that Mama Bear [00:22:00] kind of mentality, which is totally understandable.
So right off the bat, I’m really nice. I say, Hey, I’m Dr. Sharp. I’m just here to observe one of your students in such and such as classroom. Would that be okay? I’ve already arranged it. I think that person knows I’m coming. Is there anything you need from me? So just try to be disarming and courteous and nice and just know that they’re just doing their job.
You often have to sign in and all that stuff. Often, I will get an escort back to the classroom. Someone will walk me back to the classroom. And that’s always a great time to just make some small talk and try to connect with that person, whoever it is in the front office. Sometimes it’s the principal or vice principal. So that’s a great time to just make some small talk and try to build some of that relationship.
Now, once I get in the classroom, I’m very courteous to the teacher as well. Right off the bat, “Thank you for letting me come.[00:23:00] I’m just going to sit here in the back. I don’t want to get in your way. Let me know if I need to move or if I get in your way in any capacity.” Teachers are usually great. I end up sitting at a lot of teachers’ desks which is fun. They tend to have really nice chairs.
So I will sit in the back of the room, make sure that I can see the kids’ faces. Depending on what grade I am observing and how old the kids are, they may come up and talk to me. They might ignore me. That’s more of a middle school thing. They might be super interested. They might not.
Some teachers handle it differently. Some will announce me or introduce me right off the bat. I always tell them, whether they introduce me or I introduce myself, I always just say, Hey, I’m here to just observe your class and see how your school works [00:24:00] and get a sense of what your teacher is doing and how things are working here. And that usually pacifies the kids. They forget about me pretty quickly.
I take notes on my computer at this point. So I just take my laptop out and will put it on the desk or put it on my lap. I like to take pretty detailed notes while I’m doing the school observation. So there are a few components that help make that possible. One is that I am very descriptive in terms of, well, certainly classroom environment and what the activity is and things like that.
I always note what subject they’re working on, what time of day it is, and how long they work on a particular activity or subject. And I’m taking some type of note, at least every 30 seconds or so. I think [00:25:00] that, again, if you’re submitting the school observation as part of your eval report, it’s really helpful to structure it like the school psychologists do their own evaluations. And those are pretty detailed and contain a lot of standardized information.
So as I’m in there, I’m looking at a lot of different things. I’m always noting, again what the kids are doing, how long they’re doing it for, when they transition, all those pieces, I’ll record on my note.
I should say it’s okay to move around the classroom. Of course, try not to disrupt anything or bother anyone, but I’m totally okay moving around, just making sure that I can actually observe whatever kiddo I am trying to get a handle on.
In terms of the things that I actually pay attention to during the observation, [00:26:00] of course it varies depending on the referral question. So if we’re talking about ADHD, of course, I’m looking at the activity level, distractability, organization, impulsivity, things like that. Social skills are a big one. I’m often trying to figure out how kids are interacting with other kids.
As I’m paying attention, not just to the specific kid that I’m evaluating, I tend to watch the other kids almost as much as the “target kid.” That gives me a good idea again, of what’s this classroom environment, what’s the culture like. And I think sometimes as clinicians, if you don’t spend a whole lot of time observing kids in a group or haven’t spent a whole lot of time around kids, I think kids can act really different in the testing environment. It’s a fairly [00:27:00] structured situation and it’s novel and it’s not distracting, all those things.
I can sometimes get wrapped up in thinking that kids are either really, really good in the testing environment or not so good in the testing environment because I just don’t have other kids to compare them to. So being in the classroom, I always check out the other kids and see what they’re doing just as much as the kiddo that I’m observing.
So I look at things like, are they paying attention? Do they seem focused? Do they seem on task? Are they off task? If they are off task, how much? What are they doing? Are they getting up? Are they wandering? Are they blurting? Are they interrupting? Are they engaging in actual misbehavior or disruptive behavior like the little kid that I described earlier? So I’m paying attention to all those academic pieces.
If I can, I try to get a good sense of how fast they’re working, how efficient they [00:28:00] are. Are they finishing their work at the same time as other kids or are they lagging behind? Do they take longer to transition or are they more efficient with their time and straightforward? All these pieces are pretty important with what you’re actually observing.
Now, specifically, I use a hash mark system on my notes. So if I observe one behavior, let’s say it’s interrupting, I’ll just write interrupting and then make a series of hash marks every time that happens. And then I pair that with the timeframe that the behavior happened in. So then when you go to write the school observation up in your report, you can say something like, first name was off task 10 times within an 8-minute span during a group reading activity, for example. So just a little bit more of an efficient way I think to mark off [00:29:00] behaviors that are happening.
I’d imagine some of you out there maybe even have a spreadsheet or something super organized to do this. I don’t have that right now, but that could be a good idea. So I’ll just take note of all those behaviors. I like to go out to recess and to lunch, like I said earlier, to catch an unstructured time and just pay attention to, are they socializing with other kids? Are they doing so appropriately? Do they have friends? Are they up in people’s space? Are they not? So there are a lot of things to pay attention to.
I should say too, again, that theme of being kind to school staff, when you’re out on the playground, you again, can get some of that protectiveness from school staff. Playground staff will be out there. I get a lot of, “What are you doing here? Why are you here? Who are you watching?” Stuff like that.
So [00:30:00] again, courteous. Make some small talk. Of course, I always try to protect confidentiality as much as I can. I’ll just say like, I’m observing a student. I’m in private practice. I’m a psychologist. I work with kids and see how they’re doing in school. I leave it at that. I don’t make it super clinical or formal or anything, but I do try to make some small talk and continue to build relationships there with any school staff that might be out on the playground.
Now, as the observation is wrapping up, I always try to catch the teacher’s eyes. I say thank you again. Slip out quietly. Try not to disrupt.
Often, during the course of the observation, I’ll at least get a second of the teacher’s time. So they might come over or maybe we’re walking down the hall as the kids walk to lunch or something like that. And I always check in and just say, Hey [00:31:00] anything that you would like to share with me? Anything that feels important for me to know? What else is on your radar? Stuff like that just to make sure that I touch base with the teacher a little bit and get a sense of what they feel is important. I think that’s really big.
After you leave the school and get back, like I said, I take notes on my computer, so that all goes to our HIPAA-compliant Google Drive cloud-based records so I can have access to that whenever I need it. And then it’s all about integrating that school observation info into the rest of the report which is up to you and how you might pursue that. I just do a pretty big written paragraph or two in the section of my reports where I do the interviews and observations. I’ll just put it in there and make it available for [00:32:00] anyone who’s reading that report.
I often find it interesting doing feedback sessions. Parents can be really curious about what happens at school. They just like to have a sense of my thoughts and my opinions and what I saw. Like I said, it’s almost like this black hole or something where kids go and parents don’t often know what happens there, which I would say is definitely true for me. I, to be honest, have very little idea of what my kid is doing in school all day long. Even though I’ve done some observations there, it’s still hard to picture sometimes. So I think this is valuable.
Doing a school observation can be valuable for parents, can be valuable for teachers, certainly is valuable for me from a clinical perspective. It gives me a lot of great information to integrate into the report. And like I said, there have been several, I mean, more than I can count, situations where the school [00:33:00] observation and the info I got there really influenced the diagnostic picture and helped me tailor recommendations. I think that’s a really big piece.
For those of you who work with a lot of kids and submit eval reports to the school, I’m sure you have heard at one point or another, something about how to make your recommendations helpful. Are they realistic? Can the teachers really do this? Something along those lines.
And it’s been my experience that doing a school observation really helps with that and gives you some credit as an outside evaluator to where you can say, yeah, I have been in the school, I know what this classroom looks like. I’ve seen this kiddo and I’ve seen the classmates. Here are some things that I really think could be helpful and hopefully doable in the classroom.
So those are my thoughts on doing a school [00:34:00] observation. I would love to hear from any of you about your own strategies for school observations. If there’s any discussion to be had around this, that would be super valuable. Always looking to incorporate any new strategies or techniques or tips during any part of the process, but this is the way that I approach it. And like I said, I think it’s been something that’s been really helpful and a defining feature here of our evals here in the community. So I will stick by them. I think they’re helpful.
Now, this is likely going to be the first in a series of probably two episodes where we’re talking a little bit more about the school environment.
Today we talked about school observations. Next week, I’m excited to, I’m trying to line up the interview, I think it’s going to work out, but I’m going to be speaking with Dr. Amy Fortney Parks- a psychologist out on the East Coast in Washington, DC. [00:35:00] We’re going to be talking all about integrating recommendations from an outside evaluation with the school and with special education services. Amy has experience as a school psychologist who’s now in private practice. She’s going to be talking with us all about how to bridge that gap between a private practice eval and making recommendations for the school that are doable and helpful and not overwhelming.
So hope you might tune in and listen to that one. Like I said, hopefully coming up in a week. I think we’re going to get the interview time worked out. So look forward to that.
Thank you as always for listening. This has been awesome. It’s really cool to see the podcast continue to grow and to see our Facebook community continue to grow. You can search on Facebook for The Testing Psychologist Community. We are adding members every week and having some cool discussions about technology, [00:36:00] testing and private practice, and different aspects of the evaluation process in the business there.
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I think that is it for today. So thank you again for listening. Talk to you next time. Bye-bye.