The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

The Value of High Quality, Comprehensive Information to Decisionmakers in Juvenile Cases

Public Interest Law

Casey P.,1 a 16-year-old, has no family. Abandoned by his mother, he has lived in innumerable foster homes, Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, and residential mental health treatment centers. The local school board diagnosed him as a student with a serious emotional disturbance. He also has received diagnoses of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, dysthymia, bipolar affective disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and a mood disorder. The mention of his name brings groans of recognition and frustration from caseworkers, educators, public defenders, and juvenile probation officers. Casey has been before courts on various earlier charges including vandalism, auto and retail theft, battery, and resisting arrest and now is before the court for disposition on his most recent delinquency charge of strong arm robbery.

Need for Information to Assist Judges

Casey is like thousands of children and youth who appear before courts in Florida and other states. Decisions that determine the futures of children, families, and their communities must be made in cases coming before courts that address juvenile delinquency and dependency, family law, and special education issues. Attorneys, child advocates, agency representatives (e.g., juvenile probation officers and dependency caseworkers), law enforcement specialists, psychologists, social workers, and others may provide information germane to such issues as the nature of a child’s problems, punishment, assistance, placement, and supervision.

The nature of information presented to courts in disposition hearings in juvenile courts is virtually unrestricted:

At the disposition hearing the court, after establishing compliance with the dispositional considerations, determinations, and discussions required by law may receive any relevant and material evidence helpful in determining the proper disposition to be made.2

Likewise, in special education staffings pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,3 few restrictions exist on information that may be presented on behalf of a school district, children and their parents, or others who may wish to present information.4

Judicial decisions range from those that are mundane to those that are life changing. Those that have a greater impact on children’s lives should be based on evidence that displays high professional standards and addresses important issues before the court. However, judges often receive minimal information about the children and youth who appear before them, thus making judicial decisions difficult.

Judges have authority to establish policy that guides the manner in which assessment data are acquired and presented to the court.5 The purpose of this article is to assist efforts to establish or improve policy governing the assessment of children and youth by identifying professional standards that govern assessment and suggesting methods that may further improve the relevance of information presented to the court (Table 1).

Professional Standards Govern Tests

Professional standards governing test use are set forth in Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (“standards” or “the standards”).6 These standards address three broad issues: test construction, evaluation, and documentation; fairness in testing; and testing applications. Psychologists and other assessment specialists can be expected to know and adhere to these standards when performing their work. The standards also can guide the formation of policy governing assessment services to best serve the judicial system.

Psychological Assessment Defined

The standards define psychological assessment as “a comprehensive examination undertaken to answer specific questions about a client’s functioning during a particular time interval or to predict a client’s psychological functioning in the future.”7

Five Principles Guide Information Acquisition

The standards emphasize referral needs typically are served best by using multiple methods that draw on information from multiple sources to acquire information on multiple traits or attributes that are displayed in various settings and over some period of time. Each of these five features is described briefly below.

Use Multiple Methods. Comprehensive assessments of children often utilize behavioral observations in structured (e.g., testing sessions) and unstructured (e.g., playgrounds, hallways) settings, checklists, rating scales, interviews, as well as criterion- and norm-referenced tests.

Use Multiple Sources. The quality of assessments with children is contingent on a thorough review of existing records and acquisition of information from various persons who know the child well. Information from the child, his or her parents/guardians, siblings, teachers, juvenile justice officials, and other professionals who provide services to the child generally are most critical. Information from extended family members as well as recreation and religious leaders also may be helpful.

Assess Multiple Traits or Attributes. Comprehensive assessments provide a portrait of a child by highlighting important personal qualities in reference to the contexts within which behavior occurs (see Multiple Settings below). This portrait often includes information on general and specific intellectual abilities, language competence (and, with bilingual children, language dominance), academic achievement, social and adaptive behaviors and skills, personality and temperament, and possibly vocational qualities (e.g., vocational interests, aptitudes, work values). An understanding of one trait is enhanced by knowledge of other traits.

Describe Behaviors Displayed in Multiple Settings. A child’s behaviors may differ considerably in different environments. An understanding of a child requires knowledge of his or her behaviors that occur at school, home, in neighborhoods, juvenile detention centers, and other important settings.

Describe Behaviors Over Time. Behavior should be viewed within the context of time. The time period typically should begin prior to birth and extend to the time of the evaluation. Because a child’s behaviors often reflect a genetic basis, knowledge of a child’s biological parents often is critical to our understanding a child. Information as to prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal conditions; attainment of important developmental milestones; temperament and personality; together with the development of cognitive, language, and motor skills can enrich our understanding of a child and thus the quality of decisions that impact a child. Knowledge of prior and current diagnoses, health disorders, and various moves as well as family and school placements also is critical.

Psychological Assessments and Reports Can Address Important Referral Needs

Psychological assessments and resulting psychological reports commonly occur at the request of a third party (e.g., courts, attorneys, parents, school personnel) to address one or more of four referral needs identified in the standards: legal and governmental decisions; diagnosis; personal awareness, growth, and action; and intervention planning and outcome evaluation. Courts and others who request assessments are served better when they inform assessment specialists of their specific needs.

Legal and Governmental Decisions. The provision of information to judges and others responsible for the administration of justice has become commonplace. Assessment specialists can serve the legal system best when judges and others specify the information they need; identify the issues to be addressed; ensure the specialists have sufficient access to children, other critical caretakers and stakeholders, and records; provide an adequate setting for testing; and encourage the conveyance of assessment information to all relevant parties, including children.

Diagnosis. Diagnostic decisions typically rely on one of three authoritative sources: state laws and statutes,8 federal laws and statutes,9 and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).10 Diagnostic criteria often differ among the three. For example, criteria used in Florida’s public schools to diagnose severe emotional disturbance and learning disabilities differ from that used in the DSM. Thus, those who request assessment information should inform assessment specialists of the diagnostic standards to be used. A report either should discuss whether information exists to warrant diagnoses or should provide information in sufficient detail so as to enable others to arrive at or reject diagnoses.

Personal Awareness, Growth, and Action. Information of a personal nature can promote personal awareness and lead to personal growth and positive behavioral outcomes. The importance of providing information about test results to children and other important care givers and stakeholders as permitted by law and ethics is underscored in the standards. Professionals generally are required to “share test results and interpretations with test takers. Such information should be expressed in language that the test taker, or when appropriate the test taker’s legal representative, can understand.”11

The success of judicial decisions may depend, in part, on involving all parties, including children, in decisionmaking based on current, comprehensive, and commonly understood information. Decisions are more likely to be successful when participants have common knowledge, feel involved in the decision-making process, view decisions as logical extensions of this common knowledge, and feel invested in and committed to achieving stated goals. The conveyance of assessment information to children is vital to this process. Furthermore, information that informs diagnostic decisions is unlikely to be effective in promoting personal awareness, growth, and action.

Intervention Planning, and Outcome Evaluation. Judges and others in the juvenile justice system seek information that assists them in making decisions as to how to intervene to stop cycles of defiance, lawlessness, and illegal behaviors and instead to chart a course that has the potential of leading to positive outcomes. Unfortunately, information that informs diagnostic decisions typically does not inform intervention efforts.

Assessments that focus on specific qualities that can be improved, identify children’s strengths, and utilize methods that link data to interventions are likely to inform the court and others on issues important to personal awareness as well as intervention planning and outcome evaluations.

Focuses on Qualities That Can Be Improved

Many personal qualities, typically those that are broader and general, are more stable and less amenable to change. Information on broad qualities (e.g., general intelligence, adaptive behavior, general reading) and various forms of psychopathology, although useful for diagnosis and decisionmaking, typically provide little assistance in efforts to promote personal growth or to plan and evaluate interventions. Knowledge of smaller and well-defined behaviors and other personal qualities that comprise a broader construct often are more relevant to intervention planning and may be more amenable to change. Two examples are provided below.

Look Beyond General Intelligence. Knowledge of a child’s general intellectual ability may provide information useful for diagnosis and some decisionmaking. However, the construct of intelligence is broad, stable, and not amenable to improvement. Thus, its use for intervention planning and evaluation is limited.

Current concepts of intelligence12 identify seven components relevant to this discussion: language-related information (i.e., the breadth and depth of one’s knowledge, ability to verbally communicate that knowledge as well as the ability to reason using previously learned experiences and processes), auditory processing (i.e., the ability to perceive, analyze, and synthesize auditory stimuli such as blending a sequence of syllables into words), visual-spatial thinking (i.e., the ability to perceive, analyze, synthesize, store, retrieve, manipulate, and transform visual stimuli), processing speed (i.e., the ability to perform cognitive tasks fluently and automatically when under pressure to maintain focused attention and concentration under timed conditions), short-term memory (i.e., the ability to acquire and retain information in immediate awareness and use this information within a few seconds), long-term retrieval (i.e., the ability to retain new or previously acquired information in memory and retrieve it later through association), and fluid reasoning (i.e., the ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems using unfamiliar information or novel procedures). Knowledge of these smaller and more specific intellectual processes can assist in the identification of a child’s strengths and help focus attention on qualities that have direct implications for interventions.

Look Beyond General Adaptive Behavior. Adaptive behavior refers to a person’s ability to assume responsibility for personal needs (e.g., dressing, eating) and to respond to the needs of others. The American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR)13 and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (2000) altered their definition of mental retardation to shift emphasis away from general adaptive behavior to adaptive skills. Adaptive skills include communication skills, use of community resources, functional academics, home living skills, health and safety, use of leisure time, self-care, self-direction, social relationships, and work. This change was intended to encourage professionals to refocus their attention away from the broad construct of adaptive behavior, a quality that is unlikely to change, and instead to identify strengths that can serve as pathways to success as well as to identify weaknesses that may be improved.

Identify Children’s Strengths. Success occurs by identifying strengths and utilizing them well. A medical model typically is used to guide assessment practices in psychology. Assessment practices in this model pursue a quest for evidence of weaknesses and pathology, not strengths and wellness. Thus, strengths commonly are both overlooked and not discussed. Various tests together with data analysis methods can assist in identifying children’s strengths and thus possible pathways to their success. Their use may require modifications in prevailing assessment and interpretative practices together with directives from the court that such information is desired. The discussion of temperament-related learning styles below is intended to show how test data may be used to identify strengths.

Link Data to Interventions. Links between assessment and interventions are needed. A child’s score profile should inform others as to interventions that hold promise for success. Information on specific features of a child’s academic achievement, behavior, attitudes, work-related behaviors, and temperament has the potential to so inform others. Links between temperament and interventions are discussed below. Additionally, knowledge of temperament can assist in addressing issues important to the four previously discussed referral needs.

Links Between Temperament and Interventions

Knowledge of temperament in children and adults often provides information on four important personal qualities: where one prefers to acquire energy and motivation, how one prefers to acquire and store knowledge, how one prefers to make decisions, and when one prefers to make decisions (Table 2).

Children’s temperament preferences are expressed in their behaviors. Those who prefer an extroverted style acquire energy primarily from external sources and are interested in the outer world of people. In contrast, those who prefer an introverted style acquire energy primarily from internal sources and are interested in their inner world of thoughts and feelings. Those who prefer a practical style focus on details, facts, their direct and personal experiences, and rely heavily on all forms of external stimuli acquired through their senses. In contrast, those who prefer an imaginative style focus first on theories and then details. Those who prefer a thinking style generally make unemotional decisions based on objective data. In contrast, those who prefer a feeling style generally use a subjective decision-making process that reflects their personal value system. Those who prefer an organized style generally make decisions as early as possible and rely on planning, order, and routines. In contrast, those who prefer a flexible style are more inclined to postpone decisions, rely on spontaneity and adaptability when doing so, and reject externally imposed rules.14

Children’s temperament differences often result in learning style differences.15 In brief, learning occurs best when those with extroverted styles talk while those with introverted styles reflect, when those with practical styles view learning as directly applicable to their lives while those with imaginative styles better understand the big questions of life, when those with thinking styles are able to express opinions fairly and objectively while those with feeling styles express opinions based on personal viewpoints, and when those with practical styles encounter environments that are predictable and rule-bound while those with flexible styles encounter environments that provide freedom and flexibility. Information on a child’s temperament enables professionals to tailor environments that have a greater likelihood to promote development and overcome psychopathology.

Children with oppositional defiant disorders (ODD) appear frequently before the court, given their repetitive and persistent pattern of behaviors in which the basic rights of others or major-age appropriate social norms or rules are violated. They tend to be aggressive toward people or animals, destroy property, display deceit or theft, and seriously violate rules.

A study of temperament qualities of children, largely males, with ODD found they display a decided preference for extroversion (78 percent) over introversion (22 percent) styles, practical (98 percent) over imaginative (two percent) styles, and thinking (80 percent) over feeling (20 percent) styles. Differences in preferences for organized or practical styles were not apparent.16 Temperament-related interventions to help children overcome ODD qualities are discussed below.

Extroverted style related qualities include group discussions that allow children with ODD to hear and process their thoughts and, though brainstorming, enable them to voice alternative responses to situations. They respond well to opportunities to interact with others, praise that affirms their ability to express themselves, and public forms of recognition (e.g., merit badges, titles). Practical style related qualities include keeping therapy issues simple and clear, explicitly communicating required behaviors, role-play of specific behaviors, employment of an explicit behavioral monitoring system, and assessment of measurable outcomes (e.g., reward systems for improved behaviors). Thinking style related qualities include the promotion of listening skills, empathy, and expressions of feelings and guilt. Children with ODD generally respond well to complements that recognize their logical and objective thought process.

More About Casey

Casey’s general intellectual ability and six of the seven specific intellectual abilities (language-related information, auditory processing, visual-spatial thinking, processing speed, short-term memory, and fluid reasoning) are in the average range (i.e., 16th to 86th percentiles). His long-term memory is below average (5th percentile). His reading comprehension is within the average range while his achievement is below average in mathematics reasoning, calculation skills, word recognition, spelling, and written language. Casey’s adaptive skills are within the average range at home and in the below average range at school. Casey and his aunt, serving as his custodian, characterize his behaviors as displaying elevated levels of delinquency and aggressiveness. His teacher identifies elevated levels in delinquency, aggression, withdrawal, inattention, and anxiety. Casey reported a preference for an extroverted, practical, thinking, and flexible temperament preference—a profile often seen in children with ODD.

Testing also revealed that Casey has strengths: He is talkative and social, and has many friends. Because of his extroverted style, he learns best in groups. He has average intelligence and is able to learn, especially when information is presented in a logically organized fashion. He is adaptable to change and works well with hands-on activities.

In Casey’s case, because of his long criminal record, he was facing commitment to a residential juvenile justice facility. After considering the information provided through testing, the court determined that a moderate risk, rather than a high risk, program would offer the best chance for Casey to succeed. The court was able to identify a program that could provide vocational training, in a small group setting, where Casey’s strengths would be of value. Even though a high risk placement could have been justified as punishment, the court took advantage of the opportunity provided by access to information in order to place the child in a program that could meet his needs. Casey followed through and successfully completed the program.


Information summarized in Table 1 may assist efforts to establish or improve policy governing the assessment of children and youth by identifying professional standards and practices that govern assessment. Judges and others involved in the legal system may improve the quality of information on children, and thus improve decision-making practices, by becoming more informed of professional standards and practices and requesting information relevant to issues before the court.

1 The name of the child was changed to maintain confidentiality. Other descriptive information about Casey is accurate.

2 Fla. R. Juv. P. 8.115(a) (delinquency) and 8.340(a) (dependency and termination of parental rights).

3 20 U.S.C. §1414 (d).

4 20 U.S.C. §1414 (d)(1)(B)(vi).

5 Fla. Stat. §§39.407 and 985.224 (2000).

6 American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council of Measurement in Education, Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (1999).

7 Id. at 119.

8 John Petrila & Randy Otto, Law and Mental Health Professionals: Florida (1996).

9 E.g., Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, supra notes 3 and 4.

10 American Psychiatric Association., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Florida (4th ed. 2000).

11 American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education 135 (1999).

12 John Carroll, Human Cognitive Abilities: A Survey of Factor-Analytic Studies (1993).

13 American Association on Mental Retardation, Mental Retardation: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Support (1992).

14 Thomas Oakland, Joseph Glutting, & Connie Horton, Student Styles Questionnaire: Star Qualities in Learning, Relating, and Working (1996).

15 Gordon Lawrence, People Types and Tiger Stripes: A Practical Guide to Learning Styles (2d ed. 1982).

16 Diana Joyce, Temperament-based learning styles of children with conduct disorders and oppositional defiant disorders (May, 2000) (unpublished doctoral publication on file with the University of Florida).

Thomas Oakland is professor of psychology at the University of Florida. He is president of the International Foundation for Children’s Education and past president of the International School Psychology Association and the International Test Commission. He is board certified in school psychology and neuropsychology. His interests include psychological and educational characteristics of children and youth, measurment, international issues, and professionalism.

Claudia Wright is an attorney, legal skills professor, and director of the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic at the Fredric G. Levin College of Law, University of Florida. She has represented children for more than 25 years. GatorChild brings together lawyers, social workers, educators, psychologists, and other professionals to provide advocacy for children.

This column is submitted on behalf of the Public Interest Law Section, Matthew Dietz, chair, and Gerard Glynn, editor.

Public Interest Law