Seven-year-old Sierra Pepper started having trouble keeping up with other students in school a few years ago.
Her mother, Tina Denomme, took the young girl to a psychologist, who diagnosed Pepper with ADHD.
Though Pepper took her prescribed medication, Denomme said her daughter's behaviour — which included hyper-activity, an inability to pay attention, and acting like she was "in her own little world, staring at the ceiling" — didn't seem to improve.
Denomme soon learned about additional psychological assessments after her nephew received additional care, but was disheartened because she wasn't able to afford the several thousand dollar test.
Until, however, Pepper's school called, to let the family know that a few spots had opened over the summer for free psychological consultation.
"She had the testing done … in July, and then we got our test results back in August," Denomme said.
Rather than ADHD, Denomme learned her daughter's brain "has grown only to the age of a five-year-old."
Nonetheless, Denomme said she was relieved, "because we can put in place the systems that we need to … help her achieve what she wants to achieve."
This year, Pepper began school with special education classes and an individualized education program to help her catch up to other students her age — all thanks to that free testing.
"We have a jump start on getting her up to where she needs to be," Denomme said. "Now they're saying, with this added help … by high school, she should be learning at her age level, as compared to two years behind."
Funding provided by Ministry of Education
According to Michael Wilcox, superintendent of special education at the Greater Essex County District School Board, Sierra Pepper wasn't the only student who received a free assessment this summer.
Thanks to funding from the Ministry of Education received in January, Wilcox said a total of 69 students were able to receive consultations in July and August.
"It provides us with a lot of information which helps us moving into September to meet their needs and support them in the classroom," Wilcox said.
Wilcox said the GECDSB is typically able to conduct 280 to 300 assessments a year.
Still, according to Dr. Marc Crundwell, a speech and language pathologist who serves as a psychologist with the GECDSB, it's not rare for students to end up on a wait list for consultations.
"Even though we're doing 300 per year, there's always more children who need to be assessed than we have the resources and time to do during the school year," Grundwell said. "And then, over time, that [wait list] sometimes will build."
Wilcox said it can take between three months and six months to receive an assessment — and even longer for students on a wait list.
Grundwell said funding from the province's education ministry "allowed us to really take a look at that wait list and to really address that wait list."
Wilcox put it more bluntly. He said the funding "almost eliminated our wait list."
Despite those additional funds, Wilcox said students probably won't be able to benefit next summer.
"This was funding given specifically for this, so we probably won't be able to do this next year," he said.
Early testing is vital
For parents concerned about their children's development, there are services in Windsor-Essex able to conduct early childhood psychological assessments.
Lori Kempe is the executive director of Children First. Her organization works with families with children up to the age of six to aid in childhood development.
"We start and work with the family where they have identified the need, and through that process, you might have a developmental assessment, you might have a speech and language assessment, occupational therapy assessment," Kempe said. "And at the end of the day, if we're still struggling we would bring in the consultation of our psychologist."
Children First receives funding from the City of Windsor, as well as the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and the Ministry of Health.
This allows Children First to offer its services for free.
Kempe said it's important to assess children at an early age, "when the child's brain is more adaptable and easier to make changes."
However, Children First doesn't conduct front-door assessments.
Instead, staff work with parents and children to determine individual needs — including a psychological assessment, if necessary.