Working with a Bilingual School Psychologist: An Interview with Diane Di Bari

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I recently interviewed Diane Di Bari who has been in the school psychology field for thirty years and asked her six questions. Read on to see her answers and some incredibly useful information. You are also cordially invited to send your comments directly to Diane at

1. What was it like to be a bilingual psychologist 30 years ago and how has the aspect of bilingualism evolved within the profession and the training of new professionals?

When I completed my graduate training, which was in California, I had no preparation to work with children whose primary language was other than English!! There was no notion that we had to  “give it a thought.” In a way, it was a “ scary experience.” We always had children who came from other backgrounds but no one thought about the impact of testing these children in English only, which they did not know well at all.

As I was training to become a school psychologist,  the Larry P. case was brought about in the early 1970’s because an African-American student had been inappropriately placed in a special class based solely on results of an IQ test. The process at the time did not consider what I call “ecological validity.” It relied solely on numbers based on an IQ test that was formed on primarily the mainstream English-speaking populations.  No one really thought of how the results of testing matched the child’s “real” skills. This is also the time when Jane Mercer from UC. Riverside devised the SOMPA (System of Multicultural Pluralistic Assessment), which precisely took into account ecologically- based variables. Cases such as the Diana case, where a Spanish-speaking child was inappropriately placed in a special education class due to lack of appropriate English skills were instrumental in creating laws that require that non-native English speaking children be assessed in their dominant language. In the 1970’s we had very few materials in other languages:” I could fit it all in a small case. Now I drive with a trunk-full of equipment and materials”

What I have seen in the last thirty years is that our profession has evolved in trying to tease out how the child learns taking into account both linguistic and cultural variables.

2. How have your assessment strategies evolved in the last 30 years?

I firmly believe that anyone can be trained to give a test but not everyone is ready to provide appropriate interpretations of what they find. This takes time, seeing a lot of children and how they respond to a particular item. There are so many ways in which children “attack” a situation. I was in an assignment where I had to see many Spanish-speaking children and I also performed private after-school assessments where I worked with the children in their homes. I was enriched by observing how these children learned in the context of their home environment. Meeting their parents and finding out the parents’ own experiences was very rewarding. “ It all opened a whole new world to me which I would not have seen, would I have confined myself to a sterile little office.”

3. Given time constraints, how can one accomplish these same goals in a school-based setting without being able to visit families?

I have learned to ask some key questions. “What language do you speak when you talk to your mom.” with your siblings? …with the kids in the neighborhood?

“What language do you watch TV in? “ and “What do you and your parents do together?”
However, if your student is younger than 5 years old, one session should be conducted at home. I have observed that even at that young age, parent-child relationships are different across cultures. As I have worked extensively in a bilingual community, I have observed that English-speaking parents tend to push their young children’s independence and thrive on this, contrary to the Spanish-speaking parents who promote more parental guidance in their children as they are acquiring different skills.

4. How are your services any different from that of a monolingual psychologist aside from the fact that you are bilingual?

My job as a bilingual psychologist makes me more aware of the cultural underpinnings of a child’s responses to the various activities that I engage them during my assessments. I spend time interviewing parents about their child’s experiences both at school and, if relevant, at home as well.

When I don’t know the child’s language and feel that I need additional information on their skills, I work with interpreters. We need to be aware of international happenings because many of the children whom we see have immigrated for economic and also political reasons. Furthermore, the concept of “learning disabilities.” is different in different cultures. For example, I recently assessed the child of a middle-class family who emigrated from Japan and who had learning disabilities. There are no specific programs to work with these children in Japan and parents have to find their own ways to assist those children. I had to explain to the parents why the child had difficulties and insist that it was not because “she did not get reading glasses” soon enough. The parents needed to understand that it would take time to realize the types of difficulty their child was having. I recently purchased a book called the International Book of Dyslexia edited by Smythe, Evertt, and Salter. It includes interpretations of the word dyslexia in several countries in the world and, interestingly, Mexico is not included, so you and I have to write to the publisher about this gap.

In sum, no matter what your role is in a school system you need to be a “culturally competent educator.” And if you don’t know, you need to seek advice. One needs to think:“ What I see in working with that student, I need to see similar behaviors in the community. the classroom, or at home.” This is what I had referred to in the beginning as “ecological validity”. In addition, we have to take a careful history,  linguistic, education, etc.. because “things don’t happen suddenly.”

5. What is your response to the new movement of Response to Intervention (RtI)  as a way to decide special educational placements?

I think we created this model because the Discrepancy Model did not provide us with a true understanding of which child had a real problem as opposed to experiencing some learning difficulties. My role as a psychologist has been to find a reason that may predict a possible failure in their student’s acquisition of skills to succeed academically. In the past, by not qualifying children based on the Discrepancy Model, we delayed intervention for a real learning problem or we qualified children who did not really need the services from special education programs, but perhaps only modifications. Finding a reason for not being able to learn is not always what other people want to see, “ they want numbers.” In California, we use the Discrepancy Model but also depend on a “Processing Model.” Other states tend to qualify children based on the Discrepancy Model solely.

RtI sounds like a good concept but I worry because it will fall into the lap of general education. Teachers are already under tremendous pressure.

6. Finally, how does the additional information provided by a bilingual SLP help you find the “reason” for a child’s difficulty in learning?

My training does not take me to the depths of all the nuances of learning languages, all the ways in which vocabulary is encoded and the different kinds vocabulary. The training we get in language as school psychologists is cursory because cognition is so broad. I can detect that a child might have a language weakness but I can’t always figure out all of it, I don’t know if it is really a true receptive, expressive,  or oral motor planning.

We need to work together to discern if it is a language disorder vs. learning difference, which is difficult to tease it out. The more we work together the better we will be able to plan more appropriate interventions for the students as a team. One of the more recent questions posed in neuropsychology, is not only input aspects but also output. We are very much driven by curricular demands, which make it difficult for children to demonstrate their skills.

  • Crawford, J. (2004).Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the classroom. Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Education Services, Inc.
  • Smythe, I., Everatt, J., & Salter, R. (2004). International book of dyslexia: A cross-language comparison and practice guide. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley

Coming up in AUGUST 2006
Meeting the Needs of Older CLD Clients

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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