Psychological Testing Explained

Perhaps your child has recently been having behavioral problems and their pediatrician suggested that a psychological assessment may be helpful. Or maybe you have been feeling overwhelmed and your therapist recommended that you have a psychological evaluation. You may have even seen psychological tests being administered in movies or television shows. But what exactly is psychological testing?

What is Psychological Testing?

Imagine that for the past few weeks you’ve had frequent headaches that you have never had before. Wondering what might be causing them, you find that an internet search brings up many possible medical conditions but no good way to tell which could be correct. Although each diagnosis has the symptom “headache” in common, the treatments are very different. For example, we don’t treat caffeine withdrawal the same way as we treat, say, the flu, even though headaches are common in both. That is why your physician runs a series of tests before prescribing you medicine or performing an operation: to rule out what the problem is not and provide the best treatment for what the problem actually is.

Psychological testing (or “assessment” or “evaluation”) works the same way, but uses surveys, puzzles, and verbal questions instead of blood samples and MRIs. If you’ve been having difficulty concentrating, you could be having problems resulting from ADHD, but they could also be caused by depression. If your child is not performing well academically, they may have a learning disorder, or their problems could be the result of anxiety. Psychological testing can identify the real cause of your problems (and rule out the wrong ones) so that you can receive the most efficient treatment possible. There may also be things that you can do on your own, and there will be clear and specific recommendations for you if this is the case.

What Types of Issues Can Psychological Testing Help Me With?

Psychological testing can be beneficial in many situations, including the following:

  • School, Work, & Developmental Issues: Learning disorders, intellectual giftedness, developmental delays, school readiness, intellectual disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and career satisfaction
  • Behavioral Problems: Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and other problems of defiance and maladaptive behaviors
  • Social & Attachment Problems: Social skills deficits, insight into personality functioning, difficulties in interpersonal and romantic relationships, Reactive Attachment Disorder, & other problems with parent-child/family relationships
  • Depression, Anxieties, Fears, & Traumatic Exposure: Depressive disorders, other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), adjustment problems, and histories of abuse and other traumas
  • Cognitive & Executive Functioning: Memory problems, difficulties with attention, planning, and self-regulation, and problems with time-management and multitasking
  • Severe Mental Illness: Identifying thought disorders and other severe mental health problems
  • Clearances for Bariatric Surgeries

The following are some scenarios where testing was helpful:

  • An 8-year-old boy with a history of academic success began performing below expected levels at school. The assessment revealed that his performance was impaired by a learning disorder in math combined with an emotional reaction to his parents’ recent divorce. Recommendations tackled his math deficits as well as his ability to adjust to the changes in his family’s structure.
  • A young woman on a leave of absence from college due to problems making friends and fitting in was worried that she may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder that had not been identified in childhood. Testing ruled out autism and illuminated how her history of trauma made it difficult for her to form close relationships. She was given steps to take to become more comfortable in social situations and suggestions for treatment to help her cope with the difficult experiences from her past.
  • Following a head injury sustained during a serious car accident, a man experienced significant memory problems. Psychological testing was able to distinguish between which aspects of his memory difficulties were a direct result of his head injury, and which were better explained by his emotional reaction to the accident. He was provided recommendations to overcome both of these issues.

What will happen during the testing process?

  • The psychologist (always a Psy.D. or Ph.D.) will meet with you to understand the issues you are having and your goals for the assessment. This is an opportunity to let the psychologist know exactly what questions you are hoping to have answered. The psychologist will also conduct an interview with you to a gain a full understanding of your or your child’s history.
  • The psychologist will then select tests based on your specific needs. Several different types of tests can be included, such as survey forms, verbal questions-and-answers, storytelling, drawing, and puzzles. Testing is tailored to you, so your experience may be different than someone else’s.
  • You will then meet on one or more occasions to complete the tests. As the testing process can be tiring, particularly for children, it may be better to have several shorter sessions rather than fewer, longer sessions. Even knowing as much as you now do about psychological testing, you may still feel anxious as you are testing – this is very normal! However, be assured that you can’t “fail” a psychological evaluation: these are not tests for which you should try to prepare yourself or your child. The tests will be most accurate – and therefore most helpful to you – if you simply respond as honestly as possible.
  • The psychologist will use the resulting information to develop a clear picture of the problem and provide an accurate diagnosis. The psychologist will also compile the information into a written report that includes the results and recommendations. Unfortunately, this process is not as simple as printing out a blood test and it generally takes two or three weeks for the psychologist to complete a full report.
  • After the report is complete, the psychologist will schedule a feedback session with you to review the report and answer any questions you may have. The psychologist will provide you with a copy of the report, and you can let the psychologist know if you would like a copy of the report sent to anyone else (e.g., a school or doctor).

While this may seem like a complicated process, psychological testing is the most effective way to obtain an accurate understanding of the problems you or your child are experiencing, as well as effective means to overcome them. This information can be invaluable in obtaining the help you need for yourself or your loved ones.

Danielle Rothman, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Insight Into Action Therapy. If you are interested in psychological testing, contact her at (703) 646-7664 ext. 11.


  • jresquival says:

    That’s a good point that psychological testing can help diagnose behavioral problems. That way you can address any issues you’ve been having with your thought processes. I’ve been having difficulty cooperating with co-workers at my new job- maybe I should get testing.

  • My children have been having a lot of problems with talking back and fighting among themselves and I was wondering if it would be beneficial to have them go through a psychological evaluation to make sure that everything is okay. I like that the testing consists of puzzles and problems rather than probing so that they don’t feel the pressure and stress of being tested. The fact that this test can help to determine if they have things like ADHD is important to know how to help them. Also, if it can help my children with behavioral problems and social problems, that is exactly what they need help with.

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