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Winter 2002 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

By Catherine Nelson, Clinical Instructor of Special Education, University of Utah

Marisa is six years old, deafblind and has cerebral palsy. Testing results describe her as "untestable with probable profound mental retardation and severe behavioral problems." Marisa's standardized evaluation got off to a bad start, when her mother was asked to leave the testing room and Marisa began to scream when she could not locate her. The assessor came up from behind and put his arms around Marisa in an attempt to comfort her. Startled and upset by the unexpected touch of a new person, Marisa managed to get her mouth on the assessor's hand in time to deliver a hard bite. The assessment continued when both Marisa and the assessor stopped screaming. But Marisa again became very upset when she could not understand what was being asked of her and what she was supposed to do with the strange objects that were being pressed into her hands. She had no idea what the assessor was asking of her. She could not perform many of the required skills because her visual, auditory, and motor impairments had severely limited both opportunities and motivation for learning. Marisa's score was far outside of the range of test norms, and her extreme agitation made any results unreliable. Sadly, at the end of the stressful day, her teachers and parents were led to believe that Marisa was both incapable of learning and severely behaviorally disordered.

Fortunately, such a scenario does not have to happen. In the 1960s, Dr. Jan van Dijk and his colleagues in the Netherlands developed strategies for assessment that look at the processes through which children learn, rather than individual, discrete skills. Such processes include the (a) ability to maintain and modulate state, (b) preferred learning channels, (c) ability to learn, remember, and anticipate routines, (d) ability to accommodate new experiences with existing schemes, (e) approach taken to solve problems, (f) ability to form social attachments and interact with others, and (g) communication modes.

The techniques used to obtain such information are guided by the child and thus avoid the unhappy situation that Marisa was presented with. The foundation of this assessment is the establishment of a relationship between the assessor and the child that builds from a secure base. The children assessed are never unduly stressed by having those with whom they feel secure leave before the new relationships are developed. They are given time to explore and become comfortable in new environments. The child's interests and abilities determine what materials are used and the direction the assessment takes, thus increasing both motivation and understanding. The assessor is responsible for adjusting his/her emotional level and communication to those of the child. Child-guided strategies are conversational in nature and often begin with establishment of an interactive routine. The assessor imitates what the child is doing, and adds new information as turn-taking routines are built. Communicative signals are elicited by stopping the pleasurable routine and waiting for the child to signal continuation. In this fashion, children are able to demonstrate their abilities to learn, and the methods through which they can best be taught are identified. It is from this information that meaningful educational plans can be developed.

Because the child guides this holistic process, there are no standard materials or instructions. In order to help professionals and parents learn the assessment process, Dr. van Dijk and I developed an interactive CD-ROM entitled Child-Guided Strategies for Assessing Children who are Deafblind or have Multiple Disabilities. The CD uses more than 40 video clips of six children to demonstrate these strategies and their implications for intervention. Users are asked to answer questions pertaining to the video clips, each of which demonstrates several specific assessment techniques. The answers are then discussed, and if more in-depth information is desired, relevant literature is accessed by the click of a button. After getting an overview of the process, the user can interactively view two complete assessments and participate in designing intervention plans for the children being assessed through an interactive question and answer format. The CD-ROM contains an index of many terms having to do with deafblindness and each term is defined, explained in depth and illustrated with video clips. Twelve full text articles by Dr. van Dijk and his colleagues, that explain the "van Dijk" approach to assessment and intervention with children and youth who are deafblind, are also included in the production. The CD-ROM is now available and may be ordered from Joe Franken, 4619 Spyglass Dr., Dallas TX, 75287. The cost is $50.00 per unit. Further information and previews of the CD-ROM may be accessed through the production website at

All children can learn, but it is our responsibility as educators and parents to discover how they learn best. Through the techniques developed by Dr. van Dijk, children such as Marisa will have the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. Most importantly, as effective methods for intervention are designed and implemented, they will have the opportunity to realize their full potential.