Island students have to wait more than 3 years to be assessed by psychologist
435 students are currently waiting for a psychological assessment to diagnose a learning disability
Nicole MacDonald-Jay says her son began to struggle in the classroom in Grade 2. By Grade 3, his teacher had determined something was wrong, and suggested the boy undergo a psychological assessment to diagnose a possible learning disability.
The problem: the waiting list to be assessed by one of the approximately half-dozen psychologists working within the school system on Prince Edward Island is more than three years.
"So we're looking at, at that point, that he was going to be pretty much going into junior high before he was even assessed," said MacDonald-Jay.
School-related anxiety had already led to stomach problems for the boy. "He really was struggling. He was also coming home saying, 'Mom, I'm stupid. I can't do what the other kids do.'"
"When they go to school and they consistently can't do what the other kids can do, you can't counteract that with words," MacDonald-Jay said. "They feel like they're failing."
A 3-year-long waiting list
Four hundred and thirty-five Prince Edward Island school students are currently on the waiting list for a psychological assessment to diagnose a learning disability. According to the Public Schools Branch the current wait time is 3.25 years.
According to the Department of Education and Early Learning, out of 8.4 positions for psychologists within the Public Schools Branch, 6.6 positions are filled, with another psychologist on leave this year.
At a recent meeting of the province's standing committee on education and economic development Julia Gaudet, director of student services with the Public Schools Branch, said the backlog of assessments leaves psychologists with little time for anything else.
"The nature of the wait list has meant that we have to focus all of our time, all of our school site time, on addressing that wait list, and so we're not able to have our school psychologists fulfilling the full scope of their training and practice," she told the committee.
The backlog of cases has been an issue for years. When Gaudet appeared before the same committee a year earlier, the number of vacancies for school psychologists was the same. This year, she told the committee the Public Schools Branch has begun working with the office of recruitment and retention within the Department of Health and Wellness to try to fill the positions.
But she said even with a full complement, P.E.I. would have one school psychiatrist for every 2200 students, far below what she said was the "ideal" ratio, recommended by the Canadian Psychological Association, of one position for every 1000 students.
'We have a budget envelope'
Last December the former minister of education Doug Currie told the P.E.I. Legislature that wait times for psychological assessments within the school system were "completely unacceptable," and said government had begun discussions around using private psychologists to reduce the backlog.
But at last Wednesday's meeting of the education committee, he said government had no budget for that, although representatives of the Public Schools Branch said it had paid $2400 for each of 10 private assessments conducted over the past two years.
"We have a budget envelope that we have to be accountable to," Currie said. "Prior to the budget that was debated on the floor of the House last spring, there wasn't an envelope of money identified. That's not to say that we are not prepared to go back to take a look."
PC MLA Sidney MacEwen said he doesn't understand why this isn't already happening.
"We've got constituents coming to us saying 'I can't wait three years. Three years and my child is already three years further into the system,'" said MacEwen. "Early intervention is key with this. … So I think the priority of the new minister [of education] needs to try to find some sort of budget for this to say, we've got to clear this wait list one way or the other, and we've got to do it before it's too late."
'They're smart kids'
Rather than watch her son struggle another three years, MacDonald-Jay paid $2500 to have him assessed by a private psychologist. As a result, she found out he has dyslexia, along with another learning disability that makes it difficult for him to write.
They're failing because they aren't diagnosed and because they aren't given the tools that they need.- Nicole MacDonald-Jay
MacDonald-Jay said making some adjustments at school, including giving her son a Chromebook for his writing, "changed everything for him. He still doesn't like school like any other kid, but he's not coming home feeling like he's failing. He's coming home with spelling tests that he's getting right. He's producing written work that he feels good about."
But she said she grew up with a single mother who couldn't have afforded a private assessment, and she thinks a lot about families who might find themselves in the same situation.
"It scares me to think that those kids are just—they're failing, and not because they're not capable. They're smart kids. They're failing because they aren't diagnosed and because they aren't given the tools that they need, just because they think a little differently than other kids."
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