How to assess struggling teens’ special

Dr. Purushothaman
September 5, 2013

To find the right services, schools, or programs for struggling teens, it is important to have a good understanding of his or her unique challenges and needs. This information not only may help parents and professionals choose the right program or school, but also may be useful to staff at the program or school in which the teen enrolls. In fact, one criterion for selecting a program or school is the admission personnel’s interest in all evaluation and assessment information available concerning the teen and their willingness to tailor their educational, mental health, and other services to meet the child’s unique needs.

A comprehensive assessment should include the following information about the teenager:

Personal history:

Birth circumstances: Were there any unique pregnancy or birth circumstances that may have affected the teen, such as premature birth, prenatal drug exposure, or other trauma?
Developmental milestones: When did the teen meet typical developmental milestones (for example, speech, social skills, fine and gross motor skills)?
Strengths and supports: What are the teen’s social supports (caring adults in the teen’s life, such as family members, friends, teachers, coaches, clergy, or other members of the community)?
Successful experiences: What successful experiences has the teen had? What made these possible?
Ethnic heritage and considerations: What is the teen’s ethnic heritage? How comfortable with and proud of this heritage is the teen? Has the teen experienced racism and discrimination? How sensitive to ethnicity must the new school or program be?
Religious heritage and considerations: What is the teen’s religious heritage? How comfortable with and proud of this heritage is the teen? Has the teen experienced religious discrimination? Is religion important to the teen? What kind of religious programs and supports does the teen need in the new school or program?
Temperament: To what extent has the teen always had a predictable temperament and reactions to everyday situations (for example, shyness, irritability, impulsivity, explosiveness, inflexibility, difficulty making transitions)?
Social relationships: How well has the teen made and kept friends? How many friends does the teen have? How long do these relationships last? How well does the teen get along with friends?
Mental status: What is the teen’s history with respect to moods, thoughts and perceptions, and cognitive functioning? Has the teen been diagnosed with mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, Asperger syndrome, a pervasive developmental disorder, sensory integration dysfunction, or adjustment reactions)?
Stressors: What are the unique stressors in the teen’s life (for example, parents’ divorce or mental illness, frequent moves, unemployment, substance abuse issues, poverty, chronic illness)?
Past and current problems: What have been the most significant challenges in the teen’s life (for example, emotional, behavioral, academic, medical, social)? What are the symptoms? How severe have the problems been? When have these problems not been present or been less severe?
Past efforts to address problems: What mental health, educational, and other social services has the teenager received (for example, outpatient counseling, psychiatric hospitalization, tutoring, mentoring, substance abuse treatment)? Which have been most and least helpful?
Education issues: What have been the teenager’s successes in school? Challenges? Has the teen been formally evaluated for learning disabilities? Does the teen have an IEP? Are special education services and reasonable accommodations provided to the teen?
Employment: What paid or volunteer jobs has the teen held? How successful were these experiences? What structures and supports enhance the teen’s success?
Legal issues: What legal risks has the teenager taken (for example, driving under the influence, drug possession, shoplifting)? What legal charges have been filed? Has the teen been placed on probation or incarcerated?

Family history:

Familial and other significant relationships: What is the teenager’s current family situation? Who lives in the home with the teenager? With what family members does the teenager have positive or conflictual relationships? How do family members get along with one another? What kinship resources are available to the teenager?
Changes in family: What family members has the teen lost as a result of divorce, separation, foster care, adoption, or death? What family members have been added to the family as a result of remarriage or adoption? How have these losses and additions been addressed in the family?
Family mental health and substance abuse history: What is the family’s history of mental health issues, substance abuse issues, alcoholism, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect? What diagnoses appear on the family tree?
Medical history: What illnesses and physical disabilities in the family have affected the teen?
Financial issues: How adequate has the family’s income been? To what extent have poverty and unemployment been part of the family’s history?

Teenager’s understanding of his or her current circumstances:

What is the teenager’s definition of the problems she or he faces? To what does the teen attribute the problems? What are the teen’s ideas about solutions? To what extent does the teen take responsibility for choices and behavior? How much insight does the teen have?
How motivated does the teenager appear to be to address challenges?
What kind of help does the teen want?

Parents’ and other key family members’ understanding of the teenager’s current circumstances:

How do the teenager’s parents and other important people in the teen’s life understand his or her current challenges? What do they think has led to the teen’s current situation?
What strengths, skills, and resources does the teen’s family have that have helped them cope with the challenges of a struggling teen?
How ready do the teenager’s parents and other important people in the teen’s life feel to address the issues and be part of interventions, services, and treatments?
What do they think would be most helpful to them and the teenager?

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