A Parent’s Guide to Formal Evaluations for ADHD

boy daydreaming in classWhen trying to determine if a child or teen is experiencing attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), it is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis and sense of how he or she is functioning in different domains. This can help guide treatment and other interventions.

As parents begin the process of determining if a child or teen has ADHD, many wonder what is entailed in a formal evaluation by a psychologist—and what benefits it may provide. As a psychologist who provides evaluations to diagnose ADHD and treats the issue through psychotherapy, I thought I could shed some light here. The methods used vary from professional to professional, but here is a general overview of a formal evaluation for ADHD, as completed by a psychologist.

In-Depth Clinical Interview

The time frame may vary somewhat, but on average this lasts one to two hours and provides the clinician with an opportunity to gather comprehensive background information about the child or teen, current symptoms, and other difficulties. The psychologist generally spends time meeting with the child or teen and his or her parents, together and/or separately.

Consultations with Relevant Professionals

Many psychologists consult with other service providers working with the child/teen, including mental health therapists, speech/language therapists, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists. In a lot of cases, the clinician will endeavor to complete a school observation and interview teachers. (Depending on the circumstances and the comfort level of those involved, this may not always be warranted or feasible.)

Formal Testing

The exact measures used and amount of time needed to complete testing vary, to some degree, for a variety of reasons. On average, formal testing for ADHD lasts between four and nine hours. Many clinicians opt to break up testing into two or three sessions on different days.

A variety of standardized measures involving direct interaction between the psychologist and child/teen—computerized measures, self-report and parent/teacher report questionnaires, and other types—are used to look at several areas of functioning, including cognitive functioning, academic achievement in a variety of domains, reading/language skills, attention/impulsivity, visual-motor skills, and emotional functioning.

Completed Report/Formal Feedback Session

Reports can take several weeks to complete; it takes considerable time to carefully review/interpret results and document it all.

The feedback session is an opportunity to learn about the results of the evaluation and begin talking about specific recommendations to assist the child/teen in improving areas in which he or she is struggling.

Diagnosing ADHD in children/teens is often not as simple as one might think; many issues, such as depression, anxiety, sensory issues, learning difficulties, auditory processing disorder, and even autism spectrum issues, have symptoms that can mimic ADHD. A formal evaluation is helpful in ruling out other issues to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

Nonetheless, depending on the presenting issues, an evaluation doesn’t always lead to definitive conclusions about diagnoses. In these cases, a parent still would come away with a clear sense of how the child/teen is functioning, and would have recommendations to assist him or her.

Benefits Beyond Diagnosis

Aside from obtaining an accurate diagnosis, here are a few possible benefits of having a formal evaluation conducted:

  1. Good understanding of the child/teen’s strengths and limitations
  2. Recommendations for teachers at school
  3. Recommendations for helping the child/teen at home (suggestions to improve organization, time management, behavior, etc.)
  4. Information and specific recommendations to help current and future service providers (psychiatrists, mental health therapists, etc.) best assist the child/teen
  5. Documentation of the issue that may qualify the child/teen for special education services in the form of a 504 plan or individualized education program (IEP). This may entitle the child/teen to accommodations such as extended time, private or small group testing environment to reduce distractions, use of a word processor in class, etc. Older teens may qualify for accommodations on college board exams as well as services in college. (Not all public school systems/private schools use outside evaluations in the same way, so depending on the school system, ADHD alone may not qualify a child for services.)

If you believe that your child/teen has ADHD and he or she is struggling academically, socially, or in other areas, it is important to get a clear sense of his or her difficulties, determine if it is indeed ADHD, and obtain appropriate treatment.

Disclaimer: The preceding article is intended as general guidance based on the author’s professional opinion, does not constitute an established professional relationship, and should not replace the recommendations of a psychologist or other licensed professional with whom you initiate or maintain a professional relationship.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carey Heller, PsyD, ADHD: Inattention, Impulsivity, and Hyperactivity Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Alec

    February 5th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    So the general riule is not just to take the word of one friend or one teacher before beleiving something about your child.
    It is best to work in conjunction with many professional to determine an accurate diagnosis as well as course of action for your child in order to assure that he reaches all of his potential.

  • April C

    February 6th, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    In my humble opinion I think that there are too many parents and teachers alike who are too quick to jump the gun, looking for easy answers and a label to one’s behavior when there may not be an easy answer. There are too many kids who are being poorly diagnosed and mislabeled all because they may exhibit bad grades or subpar behavior in the classroom. But does anyone ever stop to look at the child’s behavior at home and how this is disciplined? Or the classroom plan of the teacher and how this could have an adverse effect on the child? Or better yet are there those who ever stopped to think that just maybe the classic curriculum doesn’t work for this child, is there another model that could be more beneficial to him? All too often the blame is placed solely on the kid who at certain ages can do very little to help themselves.

  • brandi

    February 7th, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    I have a child with ADD, and just going through this allowed all of us to see that none of this was our fault and that there WERE ways to make this better for all of us that didn’t automatically have to resort to medicating my child. That was the last thing that I wanted to have to do but I also wanted him to have success in school. It is a work in progress, shall we say, but we have all been doing the things together in school and at home that we can to help him be the most successful that he can and I think that we are all making real progress. It is a team effort, he can’t do it by himself and his dad and I can’t do the hard work for him. But having a name, having someone with who m we can work to get this right and teachers who are also on board is making a huge difference.

  • Lorna

    February 8th, 2014 at 6:23 AM

    You have to find an ally, for both you and your child. We might not have all of the right terms or words to use when discussing his or her issues, but if you can find an advocate and a voice for you in an educator, a pediatrician, a friend who has experienced the same things, then I think that you will most likely be better equipped to get your child the help and the guidance that he or she is going to need. Too many times these are the children who are allowed to just fall through the cracks because we know that they don’t fit that ideal of what parents or teachers want kids to necessarily be. So you have to raise awareness that this difference makes your child’s learning and bahvior style just different, but that doesn’t have to mean that this makes them bad. I think that too many times people rush to judgement, and they don’t take into consideration just how much harm they are doing to this person as a result.

  • Carey Heller, Psy.D.

    February 26th, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope that the information provided is useful to you. If you have specific topics related to ADHD that you would like to see an article written about, please feel free to leave a reply and I’d be happy to consider writing a future article addressing that topic.

  • Kairi G.

    April 15th, 2016 at 6:23 PM

    Thanks for the overview of what to expect when having my child evaluated for ADD. I didn’t realise that formal testing could take up to nine hours. I’ll be sure to make time in our schedules for this. I agree that an accurate diagnosis has many benefits so it is worth our time. dinopeds.com/pediatrics-services-grand-junction-co.html

  • Max

    May 1st, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    I would definitely recommend seeing an ADHD doctor to anyone who thinks that their child may have this disorder. I grew up with ADHD, and I like the benefit you listed of being able to get better recommendations for teachers at school. It would have been nice to have been diagnosed earlier so I could have gotten more help in school, but I’m glad that I was able to see an ADHD doctor a few years ago and get it officially diagnosed. ibrainandbody.com/addadhd/

  • Jenna

    April 26th, 2018 at 3:19 PM

    I appreciate your list of things that a formal ADHD evaluation could help discover about your kid. It would be good to know the child’s strengths and limitations because of their disorder. If I ever know someone with this situation, I will pass on all of your advice about how to diagnose ADHD.

  • Amanda

    May 25th, 2018 at 2:33 PM

    My son is always bouncing off the walls, and he has a really hard time paying attention at school and at home. I think that I should maybe find somewhere that can evaluate him for ADHD. So I like how you point out that an evaluation can also give you specific recommendations and information to help future providers.

  • Sariah M.

    February 24th, 2019 at 4:34 PM

    It might be a good idea to look around for some testing services for my son who might have ADHD to help guide treatments that he’ll need. Since testing lasts between four to nine hours, I think it would be a good idea to let him prepare for it. Hopefully, it would help me understand his strengths and limitations as a parent so that I can help him out with his possible condition.

  • Ethan H.

    May 8th, 2019 at 12:27 PM

    I found it interesting how you mentioned how consulting after an ADHD diagnosis can help both you and your child understand the road ahead. A close friend of mine was overwhelmed when he found out his daughter was failing her classes for no reason. After a visit to the doctor, he now feels anxious for the road ahead. Because I want them both to be comforted, I will keep this in mind as we search for ADHD help counseling near us!

  • Zachary

    April 4th, 2020 at 3:00 AM

    Thanks for helping me learn more about child formal evaluations regarding ADHD. My friend thinks his kid has ADHD and I wanted to help him clear that suspicion out. I had no idea that ADHD tests could last from four to nine hours. I should share this with him so he’ll be aware of what happens around an ADHD evaluation.

  • Mia

    June 14th, 2021 at 4:15 PM

    Thanks for pointing out that the average time that the formal testing is done is between four to nine hours. I will share this information with my sister because she wanted to get her 7-year-old son tested if he might have ADD. She started noticing the symptoms especially when he still has trouble talking and expressing until now.

  • Chance Cook

    July 30th, 2021 at 9:37 AM

    It’s good to know that ADHD testing only goes on for about four to nine hours. I thought it would be an overnight thing. Waiting that long for my son to get tested wouldn’t be too bad.

  • donald86

    August 16th, 2022 at 8:53 AM

    Great Article! Thank you for sharing this is a very informative post, and looking forward to the latest one.

  • David

    May 9th, 2023 at 10:54 AM

    Nice Blog! The information you have provided is incredibly detailed and insightful.

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