Child-Guided Assessment

In this webcast, Dr. Jan van Dijk shares his expertise on child-guided assessment. His child-guided method of assessing is recognized and used worldwide.

Dr. Jan van Dijk of the Netherlands, an international leader with more than 50 years of experience in the field of deafblindness, shares his expertise on child-guided assessment. Dr. van Dijk assesses children by observing and following their movements, emotions and interest to gain insight into each child’s learning process. His child-guided method of assessing is recognized and used throughout the world.

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Presented by Dr. Jan van Dijk

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes


  1. The van Dijk Approach to Child-Guided Assessment
  2. The Domains of Van Dijk Assessment
  3. Behavioral State
  4. Orienting Response
  5. Channel of Learning
  6. Approach Withdrawal
  7. Memory and Anticipation
  8. Social Interaction
  9. Problem Solving
  10. The Advantages of van Dijk Assessment
  11. Insight Gained from Assessment

CHAPTER 1: The van Dijk Approach to Child-Guided Assessment

Child-Guide Assessment with Dr. Jan van Dijk. NARRATOR: Dr. Jan van Dijk of the Netherlands is an international leader in the field of deafblindness, having worked as an educator, researcher and advocate for 50 years. In the early 1960s, Dr. van Dijk began to assess children with sensory impairments and multiple disabilities.

Assessment tests at the time were based on the assumption that the child had been exposed to typical experiences. Because children with sensory impairments and multiple disabilities didn’t experience the world in a typical manner, he realized that the tests were not useful instruments.

Dr. van Dijk began assessing children by observing and following their movements, emotions and interests. He established turn-taking routines that began with imitating the child movements, helping the child to gradually notice the outside world and interact with people and items in that new world.

By observing and interacting, Dr. van Dijk gained insight into each child’s learning process. Dr. Jan van Dijk’s child-guided manner of assessing children uses no standard protocol or materials.

Each assessment is truly unique as it follows the lead of the individual child.

DR.VAN DIJK: Would you ever start building a house without a plan? You could, you could, but I think when you are at the chimney, you’ll forget the foundation, don’t you think so?

We do, even when we don’t do a formal assessment, we always do. It is an intuition. When you start anything to… creativity with a child, and you know that, you are aware that he hardly can hold the brush, you don’t expect a little Rembrandt. You have your assessment in mind. You think, well, I start very simply by doing… coactively, the brushing, et cetera. So on intuition and from experience, every mother, every father, every teacher does estimate the possibilities of his child, okay. Otherwise we would not be grownup people, because they would present us with mathematics when we are three, and, you know, there’s always assessment.

But as the behavior of the development is deviant, then the natural things of assessing the possibilities of a person, of a child, we lose them. And that’s a surprising thing. That, when inexperienced people, a person, meets the child we are dealing with, I’ve never, ever seen that that person does anything good. No. You make all the mistakes in the world. You think he’s deaf…(shouting) You start shouting. You think he’s blind, and you think that’s seeing nothing. It means always something, light, dark, a little bit of light.

There are hardly any blind children. You think he must touch, you grab his hand, and you give something in his hand that the child pulls away. You put him in a wheelchair, with announcing, you start, and the child gets startled. So, what I’ve said is, if you have abnormal behavior, then you need something which guides you, and that’s what we have developed over the years. And it’s so simple.

CHAPTER 2: The Domains of Van Dijk Assessment

DR. VAN DIJK: So, the assessment is looking for areas which are already in development, observing them, and saying, okay, that is what he can do, and now I do a little bit of experiment, see if I can take him to the next area of development. And we have formalized that now, so you’re ending up with, let’s say, five areas of strength of the child, and then your recommendations are based upon the experience you have with the child. And that gives you at least a blueprint.

Let’s say, in this way, you never make big mistakes, because when you’re hitting on the deficiencies of a child… Let’s say, in the old days, we want them all to talk. When I had my training here, you had the so-called Tadoma method, and the child had to talk. But I know now that speech is so hard and demands so much of the brain, but still we tried and we tried and we tried.

We bombarded the child, you know. You see that in an authoritarian educational system. “They should do that.” Some countries have a national curriculum for the children, so they are continuously exposed to the things they can’t learn. So, I look to the best sides of the child, and knowing that I can only hang on the good sides. Because when I try to focus my attention on the poor aspects of development, the child will not be motivated at all, because he experiences failure, which gives him very negative feelings in brain.

So that’s why I have called it Child-Guided Assessment, and there are a number of domains, I call them domains, as a matter of fact, eight, which cover virtually all aspects of development.

CHAPTER 3: Behavioral State

DR. VAN DIJK: Well, the first, very important domain is the behavioral state. Some children are drowsy. Some children are very excited. They come into the room, or you come, that’s even better, in their house, and you see they are fidgeting all over the place, et cetera, or another one sits there not doing anything. So, observing in what state their brains are. Are they seeking continuously for excitement? Or can they hardly take in any new information because that overflows, already, the bucket? So we always start with quietly sitting and observing the child in an unstimulated situation.

Dr. van Dijk sits across from a mother who holds her young daughter in her lap. NARRATOR: In a video clip of an assessment done in front of an audience at Perkins School for the Blind, Dr. van Dijk sits across from a mother who holds her young daughter in her lap.

The girl has been diagnosed with optic dysplasia and some brain damage. Dr. van Dijk has been a passive observer for over ten minutes before he initiates his first interaction, standing close and joining the mother in singing to the little girl.

She turns her attention to him at the sound of his voice.

DR. VAN DIJK: Shall we sing together, “Row Your Boat”? (girl grunts)


♪ Row, row, row your boat ♪

♪ Merrily down the stream ♪

♪ Merrily, merrily, merrily…♪

DR. VAN DIJK: So, and the next thing is, and sometimes when I teach these courses, I say, now, now I think, when I give this child a familiar toy — ask the mother, “Would you present a familiar toy?” — do I see then a difference in the behavioral state? Does the child become interested or not? And then, I give complete new toy. Is the child anxious, withdrawing, or becoming so nervous that he picks up the toy and throws it away?

We see that very often in behavior. It can be interpreted that there is a very narrow window of tolerance — I call that a window of tolerance — that you have to be exactly within that behavioral state to present new information, because too little… whoop. Too much, they go over the hill.

NARRATOR: In the video clip, taken some 24 minutes into the assessment, conducted with the young girl and her mother, we see Dr. van Dijk now kneeling in front of the girl, who sits on her mother’s lap. The girl and Dr. van Dijk conduct a reciprocal conversation with various vocalizations. (tambourine rattling)

CHILD: Oh-oh!

DR. VAN DIJK: Oh-oh! Oh-oh! (child squeals) (van Dijk squeals)

CHILD: Okay.

VAN DIJK: Okay. That’s what she said, okay? Yes, okay. We are okay.

♪ We are okay, we are okay ♪

♪ We are okay, okay. ♪

NARRATOR: The young girl abruptly turns away and burrows her face into her mother’s chest. Dr. van Dijk pauses the conversation and whispers to the mother that perhaps he is proceeding too fast.

DR. VAN DIJK: Perhaps I’m going a little bit too fast.

DR. VAN DIJK: So, that state is, and parents, teachers, they can say, or I always ask: Is that, what he’s showing now, representative? Is that what you normally… is this normal behavior? No, because this is a strange environment. Okay. But I still can see how the child copes with a strange environment. So that is a very important area.

CHAPTER 4: Orienting Response

DR. VAN DIJK: From my orientation in Russian theory, it’s very important for the development of a person when he is curious. Curiosity is the basis of learning and development. When I was not curious about how does it work, I would not be sitting here. So, that’s called orienting response. And I do all sorts of funny things. You know, you have a nipple, the child is… sucking, and he said to the mother, “Would you mind turning this nipple inside bottle?” Because the child is used to feel the nipple, what will happen when he feels the bottle but no nipple? Uh-huh. He either throws it away… Does he show any curiosity? Even with babies, I can do that, see? That’s the orienting response.

NARRATOR: In a video clip of an assessment done at Perkins School for the Blind, Dr. van Dijk is interacting with a young boy who is visually impaired and has cognitive deficits as well. The boy sits at a desk and is presented with a small, plastic bottle, onto which Dr. van Dijk has screwed a yellow top. The boy briefly attempts to remove the cap before dropping the bottle onto the desk.

DR. VAN DIJK: Don’t believe what the audiologist says, don’t believe what the optometrist says. Find out yourself.

CHAPTER 5: Channel of Learning

DR. VAN DIJK: What is the most preferred channel of learning? Let’s say, despite poor vision, the child is still visual, he will learn and build up concepts via that channel. And some children, when they hear the music or the rhythm, that’s the way they conquer the world. So, it’s very important to know what area of sensory input reaches the brain.

The visually impaired boy rests his head and upper body on a desk while holding a plastic shaker in his hand. NARRATOR: In a video clip, the same boy who was visually impaired rests his head and upper body on a desk while holding a plastic shaker in his hand. He occasionally shakes the rattle or taps it on the desk. The scene then dissolves to the same boy, now sitting at the desk and manipulating a paper cup. Dr. van Dijk hands him a cup with a hole cut in the bottom. As the boy lifts the cup to his face, he reacts to the light now coming through the cup. (audience laughs)

DR. VAN DIJK: Very often, what we call a multisensory approach is not working very well because that requires a lot of cohesiveness in brain. Sometimes we have to go, just via one channel, and it’s not saying that, let’s say, when the child is profoundly deaf but has still pretty good vision, that it is vision which is the most preferred. It can still be hearing, see? So that’s why you cannot judge from an audiogram, you cannot judge from an ophthalmological assessment report. You have just to look. Some get just from little corner of their eye — let’s say, one percent of vision — and 50 percent of hearing. It is the vision that does it.

CHAPTER 6: Approach Withdrawal

DR. VAN DIJK: Approach withdrawal. We know that in a lot of those children– and I have explained that, talked about the limbic system– that they have already an image in their amygdala of fear. When there is something new, a new approach, a different person, a different environment, a different smell, they withdraw in themselves or become self-abusive. Or, are they approaching you? I’m sitting there, close, and I look and say,

♪ Buh, buh buh, buh buh buh. ♪

I hear something? And I say to the mom– I always work, when the child is small, from the mother’s lap, because that gives security– “When I sing, would you move?”

♪ Buh, buh buh, buh buh buh. ♪

And the child approaches me. And that’s why my moustache, because, see the difference. In approach withdrawal, it is, is the child, does she want to be with us, does she want to learn, does she feel comfortable, or do I raise, very easily, fear in the child?

NARRATOR: In a video clip from the assessment done with the young girl, we see her reach out to Dr. van Dijk from her mother’s lap. Now, some 34 minutes after she first heard his voice, she transfers to his lap and nestles to his chest.

DR. VAN DIJK: So… Gosh!

CHAPTER 7: Memory and Anticipation

DR. VAN DIJK: A forgotten aspect is, very often, is memory. So, suppose that I have, the child is eating with a fork, and I bend the fork. I can see there’s orientation reaction, you know, it’s a bended fork. And then, I straighten it up. Nice experience for orienting response.

But after 20 minutes, I bring it back. Does the child remember, and comes up to me and says, “Okay, will you straighten up?” Very, very, very important thing because you have to develop a solid, robust network in your brain. So, this type… you need a lot of repetition. We learn by routines and we learn the best way when we anticipate something, when we expect something to happen.

The young girl bouncing on a large ball which rests between her mother and Dr. van Dijk.NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see the young girl bouncing on a large ball which rests between her mother and Dr. van Dijk. Dr. van Dijk is singing as she bounces.

As we listen and watch, we observe that the young girl not only anticipates the stopping of the song, and thus the bouncing, she then initiates the resumption of the activity.

DR. VAN DIJK: ♪ Bouncy boom, bouncy boom and stop! ♪

GIRL: Yay!

DR. VAN DIJK: Why is anticipation so important? Because, at that moment, you boost the growth of the nervous system. You… connections. Learning is making new connections, and that happens more in anticipatorial situation than in associative. You know, in the old days, we said, “Ball,” we give child a ball, I make sign for ball. Ball, ball, ball. That’s a very weak way. But the moment when you play ball, and the child enjoys, you know, and then all of a sudden, the ball is gone, then he may come up because he expects you to continue with the play. So, anticipation is a very important domain.

CHAPTER 8: Social Interaction

Dr. van Dijk's assessment with a young boy who is visually impaired. DR. VAN DIJK: And then, of course, social interaction. How does the child interact with the mother, with the teacher, with the intervener, and with a stranger? Is there any initiative? Does he want to share his feelings and emotion?

That is the heart of the development, interaction, and then it comes more to language and symbols and so forth. We call that communication.

NARRATOR: In a video clip from Dr. van Dijk’s assessment with a young boy who is visually impaired, the boy and Dr. van Dijk are sitting knee-to-knee in facing chairs.

Dr. van Dijk, who had earlier put on a pair of plastic gloves to provide a different tactile stimulation, engages in mutual facial stroking.

The young man pauses the stroking and then initiates some cheek pulling, which Dr. van Dijk imitates. (audience laughs)

CHAPTER 9: Problem Solving

DR. VAN DIJK: And then the eighth area is problem solving. That is as I did with the nipple, with closing a box, with the refrigerator, when the child takes knows the car keys because he wants to go home. I give him the wrong car keys, and trying and trying, what does he do? Banging on the door. Or, when I give him another option, he takes that, so he thinks, “Aha, that’s the one.” So in problem solving, you can have a lot of fun that the child knows how to solve. But again, within the realm of his experience.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, Dr. van Dijk is interacting with the young boy who sits at a desk and plays with some paper cups. Dr. van Dijk then takes a smaller cup, places it upside-down inside the larger cup, and observes the boy’s reaction. The boy explores the new configuration with his hand and attempts to remove the smaller cup.

CHAPTER 10: The Advantages of van Dijk Assessment

DR. VAN DIJK: That’s why many, many other testing and assessments do not work. Because they do not take the child’s limited or special, I must say special, experiences into consideration, right. When there’s a vocabulary test, and the Peabody, as a psychologist, I used that when a Muslim population came in the Netherlands, and one of the pictures is a hot dog, well, a hot dog, and meat and so forth is not the right thing. So that sort of tests are so cultural-bound that there is no test. There is no test for these kids. There’s only, what I think, a kind of assessment. Is then testing not valuable?

For research. I’m not against testing when it is used in a positive way, and in the testing you see often, with the materials the psychologist uses, is not made for them. So you get very, very unsatisfying results, and it makes the parents very… and the teacher, unhappy, because it’s all, “Cannot do, cannot do, cannot do, cannot do.” So, for purpose of research, that’s fine, but that’s not the purpose to parents or the teacher or whoever wants to know, wants to know what is successful. And as you know, there is nothing more successful in life than being successful.

CHAPTER 11: Insight Gained from Assessment

DR. VAN DIJK: With their poor senses, that might be one of the reasons why this big intellectual delay. Building up concept about what intelligence is all about is… I think, if we would creep into… under the skin of those guys, we would be surprised. With so little, we expect them to do so much.

The boy reaches out to begin exploring the floor in search of the shaker. NARRATOR: In a video clip, the young boy rests his upper body on the desk and plays with a plastic shaker, which gets knocked to the floor. We watch as the boy eventually moves to the edge of the desk and reaches out to begin exploring the floor in search of the shaker. Eventually, he locates it and moves back to the desk.

DR. VAN DIJK: Was he happy?

WOMAN: Yes, very happy. Big smile.

DR. VAN DIJK: When you are bereft of your senses, my gosh, it is a very shallow foundation. Very shallow. You see just a little, you hear just a little. The perceptions are so weak. That means, if you want them to root in the brains, it needs a lot of consistency, repetitions, go over it again in a meaningful way to build it up like that. So, if you have every day another subject, I’m going to predict you that nothing will be stored in the brain.

So if you have these simple routines of the child’s interest, you know, like planting a bulb or watering the plants, do that every day, water the plants, and make small changes. Have a big bulb, a small one, remove the soil. Add the soil, have the problem, but come back to that, talk about it, and you can talk about it with words but also with the object, with the real situations. But in order to have, really, concept development in the brain, it needs a long time.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see Dr. van Dijk kneeling now in front of the young girl, as she sits on her mother’s lap. Dr. van Dijk sings and moves very close to the girl, and she laughs several times and then withdraws to her mother. We hear Dr. van Dijk whisper to the mother.

VAN DIJK: She needs the time to process the information.

WOMAN: Mm-hmm.

DR. VAN DIJK: Then she’ll come back. Waiting is the key, waiting.

All this challenging behavior, all this withdrawn behavior, all this autism, you know, I think we missed out on that, because we did not know. But now, we know a little bit more, and what is always, in practice, is always a little bit behind, is always a little bit behind. Therefore, I keep on going until my last breath. That’s why I’ve opened now the website, to keep people up to date about these things because everybody’s busy and have no time to… Because it’s not easy materials. I try to make all these things accessible for my colleagues.

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