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March 15, 2006

Dr. Harley: Statement on Social/Emotional Assessment of Young Children

Testimony to:  Senate Early Childhood Policy and Budget Division
Willard F. Harley, Jr, Ph.D Date: 
March 9, 2006
 
Re:     Senate File 2841:  A bill for an act relating to early childhood education; expanding screening to include socioemotional developmental screening; amending Minnesota Statutes 2004, section 21A.17, subdivision 3.
 
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee:
 
Willard F. Harley, Jr.  I have a Ph.D. degree in psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara.  In 1976 I was licensed by the state of Minnesota as a psychologist to provide diagnosis and treatment of emotional disorders.  Over the past 30 years, I have diagnosed and treated tens of thousands of Minnesota residents as clinical director of 32 mental health clinics that were located in 10 Minnesota counties.  While I am presently retired, I have had considerable experience with the diagnosis and treatment of emotional disorders in children.
 
A childs brain is in a constant state of physiological development, which, in turn, significantly affects his or her social and emotional development.  A childs brain is in the process of becoming a functioning mind, but as it develops, it often makes the child do some strange things.  Since a developing brain commonly produce social and emotional quirks in children, many worried parents came to my office concerned about their childs development.
 
My experience had proven to me that even children with severe social and emotional symptoms one year could be completely symptom-free the following year with no counseling or drug intervention whatsoever.  So in almost every case, when these children were brought to me, I recommended no immediate treatment for them.  Instead, I counseled their parents to monitor their behavior, and report back to me every six months or so.
 
Having tracked many of these children that I assessed, I am now more convinced than ever that my approach was correct.  Im reminded of one child in particular who, at the age of four was almost mute, and possessed practically no social skills.  Today, without having undergone any therapy for her social or emotional problems, she is completing dental school on a full scholarship at UCLA, and is planning a June wedding.  From a social and emotional standpoint she is outstanding, and would be one of the first to object to this legislative proposal.
 
Because of continuing neurophysiological changes, the social and emotional problems of a four or five-year-old can be completely gone, or completely different, a year later.  But even when assessments are given a week apart, they have been shown to be very unreliable.  For that reason, false positives, where a normal child is diagnosed to be abnormal, are common.
 
And then, ask yourselves the question, what will be done with these assessments?  The answer, of course, is therapytherapy for those who dont need it because the assessment was incorrect and therapy for those who dont need it because their symptoms will disappear anyway because of normal neurophysiological development.
 
Therapy is not benign.  It is not something that all of us could benefit from sometime during our lifetime.  It can hurt people, especially if a person has been misdiagnosed.  Its like having surgery when you dont really need it.  The advantages must outweigh the disadvantages. As director of what was once Minnesotas largest network of mental health clinics, I constantly reminded the therapists of the risks of what they did.  They could help people, but they could also hurt them.  Since I was particularly sensitive to the harm that counseling and drug therapy could do, all of our therapists were carefully supervised and therapeutic outcomes were reviewed weekly.
 
If you take what Ive been saying to heart, ask yourselves this question, would all of you be willing to submit to social and emotional developmental screening?  And if the screening were to find you needing therapy, would you submit to that as well?  You would know, of course, that it would all be recorded in a permanent legislative file.  Thats what happens when children are screened in an educational settingtheir records follow them through school, even when the assessments have been wrong.
 
Our schools have an important missioneducating our children in the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics.  They also learn about history, science, and art.  This mission has proven for generations to be extremely valuable for our children.  And theres never quite enough money to do it as well as we should.  But when schools start to think they are in the business of providing social and emotional assessment and therapy, significant resources are diverted away from the mission of educating our children.  And they are at risk for severe social and emotional damage.  Children without problems or with only temporary quirks are labeled and given counseling and drug treatment that is not benign.  It can hurt them rather than help them.
 
I encourage you to avoid making a terrible mistake.  In the end, a social and emotional assessment of young children will not only eventually catch many in the trap of unneeded counseling and drug treatment, but will also take limited resources from the true mission of our schoolseducating our children to become skilled and informed citizens.


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