Ask the School Psychologist...|
by Beth Bruno, Ed.M., M.A.
The Job Interview from Hell
We were new in town, the only town of any size for miles around. "Centrally isolated," locals called the place, its main claim to fame an Ivy League college within its borders. With two masters degrees and extensive work experience, I was sure I could find challenging work.
"Not so," locals also told me. "Some of the clerks at JC Penney's and soda jerks at Ben and Jerry's have masters degrees, because there are so many graduate students competing for the few professional jobs around here."
I didn't believe them. As a permanent resident whose husband had taken a position unaffiliated with the local university, I figured I'd have a distinct competitive edge over transient graduate students looking for work. As I had predicted, I landed several job interviews, all in my field, each requiring a person with my credentials.
One of the organizations sought a "Developmental Specialist" to evaluate the learning needs of young children (birth to five) with special needs. Having spent several years in the private practice of psychotherapy (treating adults and adolescents), I was intrigued by the prospect of working with such young children and their families. I had closely followed the development of my own children, enthralled by the process of language acquisition and new learning of all kinds. In graduate school I had learned how to administer standardized IQ tests to preschoolers, but I had no idea how to assess the mental development of an infant. Imagine trying to measure the intelligence of a six-month-old!
My initial interview was with Judy K., the Program Director, who told me about the Center and its programs, reviewed the sample test reports I had brought with me and introduced me to several members of the staff.
All were friendly, knowledgeable and obviously committed to the Center's intensive early intervention programs, which were designed to prepare special needs children for their fullest possible participation in society. All joined in to take me on a tour of their facility, an elementary school they had just purchased from the town.
Renovations were underway to convert some of the classrooms to offices and others to rehab spaces for occupational, physical and speech therapy services, leaving five rooms unchanged, to be used for toddler and preschool classrooms. The school was situated on a large tract of land with plenty of space to build a handicapped-accessible playground, already in the planning stages. Staff enthusiasm was infectious. And I was pleased to find out that the Center was strongly committed to ongoing staff training.
Toward the end of the interview Judy told me that finalists for the position would be asked to evaluate a child while parent(s) and staff observed. After the evaluation I would be asked to discuss my impressions with the parent -- also under staff observation. The test kit to be used was one I had never heard of, but I was assured that I could borrow it to prepare for the evaluation. I was invited to return the following Friday to test a four-year-old boy.
On Friday morning I arrived early to review the child's records and set up my materials. I was assigned to a classroom that was lined with cardboard boxes full of materials, not yet unpacked because renovations hadn't been completed. Two cube chairs were placed in the middle of the room for the child, one to sit in, the other tipped on its side to serve as a desk. A low chair next to the cube chairs was in place for me -- low so I could work at eye level with the child.
Danny, the four-year-old, entered the room running, his mother in hot pursuit. I helped her intercept him and guide him to the table in the center of the room. I introduced myself and the observers to her before turning my attention to Danny, who had already popped up out of the chair and run over to the cardboard boxes along the wall.
"What's in these?" he demanded.
"Materials for the classroom," I said. "We won't be using them today.
I have some neat things to show you in the little red suitcase over there. Come sit down and we'll take a look."
He obliged. I began a block stacking and imitation task with him with one-inch wooden cubes. He built an 8-cube tower with ease, then watched me build a 3-block bridge and easily imitated that one, too. Next I built a 5-block gate and asked him to make one like mine, but he lost interest and dashed to the cardboard boxes again. He reached into one that was partially open and brought out a toy train on a string. He began to pull it along the floor, making chug-a-chug noises as he ran.
All of a sudden he pulled up on the string and began to whirl the train around his head like a lasso, but he misjudged its path and it hit him solidly on the head with a loud whack. Everyone in the room winced except Danny. He just dropped the train, laughed and ran over to a full-length mirror on the wall, where I met up with him to check his head. There was a slight bump there, but he showed no sign of pain when I touched it. He shrugged me off and began making silly faces at himself in the mirror -- then promptly spit on his image before scooting away again.
I lured him back to the cube chairs with promises to draw some silly faces together on paper. We took turns drawing happy faces, sad faces, bodies and body parts. In that context I was able to find out how well he could draw various shapes and how well he could represent human figures in his drawings. I tried out a few questions from the test manual while he was sitting at the table, but he refused to answer them.
Within a few minutes he was off again, determined to delve into the contents of more boxes. I followed.
After rummaging through more boxes, mostly filled with children's books that he tossed aside, he trotted over to the windows to look outside.
He stopped short of the windows when he noticed something on the black window sill. Looking more closely, I realized that it was nearly covered with dozens of dead flies.
"What are those?" he asked.
"Flies," I answered.
"Cool," he said. "Can I touch them?"
"Wait, let's bring some over to the table," I suggested.
I gave Danny a piece of paper to hold under the sill while I brushed the fly carcasses onto it with a second piece. With steady hands he carried them slowly to the table and gently set them down. We counted the flies, drew them, identified and counted their body parts, and talked about them for several minutes. Danny appeared relaxed and calm and was able to maintain his concentration throughout this activity; he even answered a few questions about opposites from the test manual before he folded his arms across his chest, shut his mouth tightly and shook his head. He had had enough.
We didn't complete many of the standardized test items, but I was able to learn a great deal about Danny's skills and learning style during this evaluation. His mother expressed relief that I had seen what her son was really like -- a real handful. I recognized that he had many appropriate skills for a four-year-old, but I also knew that he would have a hard time demonstrating them in a typical classroom.
I learned a great deal about the Center, too. Judy K. and other staff members were more interested in how I handled the unexpected than in numerical test results (although some numbers would have been nice). They wanted to see how I answered the mother's questions and how I interacted with her child.
When I left that day, I wasn't sure whether I had succeeded or failed in their eyes. I knew one thing though: this was an interview unlike any I had ever experienced. Apparently I succeeded more than I failed, because the next day Judy offered me the job, and I accepted. I later found out that the other finalist had tested a different four-year-old, who wouldn't stay seated to take the test. After a few vain efforts to engage him with the test materials, that examiner had closed his manual and test kit and pronounced the child untestable.
After seven years of evaluating children as young as five months, I learned that building rapport, knowing how children develop and adjusting quickly to the unexpected are the most important skills for an evaluator of young children to possess. We look for children's strengths (as well as weaknesses) and express them as clearly as we can to families and others who work with children. The resulting profiles are far more useful for devising intervention plans than standardized test scores alone.
Some years later, during a conference presentation for school psychologists, I spoke about Danny and the process of evaluating young children. I reminded the audience that one's knowledge of child development is more important than any materials in the test kit. A gentleman raised his hand to comment.
"That may be true, Beth," he said, "but I think I'll add a small box of dead flies to my test kit -- just in case!"
Developmental Milestones (birth to three): http://www.liidp.org/growth_milestones.html
Early Childhood Care and Development: http://www.ecdgroup.com/eccd.html
Beth Bruno firstname.lastname@example.org
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