Skip to content

Q&A: A Few Minutes With Jessica Black

Graduate School of Social Work Assistant Professor Jessica Black (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Dec. 15, 2011

It might seem unusual for a faculty member in social work to be involved in research that has to do with brain imaging and neural systems, but for the past several years, Graduate School of Social Work Assistant Professor Jessica Black has taken part in studies of dyslexia in early childhood through adolescence. Black discussed her research interests, and their potential application in social work, with Sean Smith of the Chronicle.

The most recent work you’ve done focuses on the role of IQ tests. Talk about the controversy over the use of these tests in determining whether or not a child has dyslexia or other reading disabilities.

Historically, schools and psychologists have relied on IQ to both define and diagnose dyslexia. If a child’s reading achievement is below what is expected based on IQ, he or she could meet the criteria for dyslexia. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandated that states no longer require school districts to use IQ tests in the identification of children with learning disabilities like dyslexia.  What has been established in research and what continues to happen in practice appears dissociated, as many US schools still use the discrepancy model to define and diagnose dyslexia.
Dyslexia affects between 5 to 17 percent of US children, and the use of IQ to diagnose the condition has real implications for poor readers who do not meet the definition based on IQ-achievement discrepancy. If the child was not diagnosed with dyslexia, then he or she would not qualify for services that a child with dyslexia does. Our neurobiological findings converge with extant psychological and educational evidence suggesting that the longstanding IQ-achievement discrepancy diagnosis is not supported.

What are the potential implications of this research for the social work profession?

Social work uses the biopsychosocial model to understand and advocate for equal access to opportunities to thrive, especially for populations marginalized historically. Specific to my work, research tells us that children with significant impairments in reading may face deleterious effects (including lowered self-worth, impaired peer relationships, and greater chances of dropping out of school) secondary to the primary effects of deficits in content knowledge and vocabulary growth.  

I believe that through increased opportunities we can improve children’s chances to succeed academically (which carries with it implications for social, emotional and cognitive well-being). One way to increase opportunity is to revise the traditional discrepancy model. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is currently being revised, and there is a proposal to change the diagnosis of dyslexia so IQ would not be taken into consideration. We provide the first neurobiological support for this change.

It’s fair to say that special education has become a hot-button issue in many school communities. Does social work have a part to play in offering potential solutions?

I believe so. Social workers have unique and important training, and subsequent careers considering human development through the biopsychosocial model relying on both a clinical (micro) and a policy-oriented (macro) lens. In essence, social work considers the complex and very much interwoven layers of individual development, from early relationships to broader community, policy and history. It seems such a perspective is needed as we consider ways we may improve opportunities within schools.

How did you wind up participating in this project?

In 2003, early in my doctoral career in Educational Psychology at Stanford University, I joined the cognitive neuroscience laboratory headed by Dr. John Gabrieli (now at MIT). The projects examined neural correlates of developmental dyslexia in middle childhood and adolescence. I joined the team because of my experience with schools, past teaching of children with learning differences, and knowledge of behavioral measures assessing achievement motivation. At the time I was the only graduate student in the School of Education pursuing neuroimaging research. In 2008, I became a Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research (CIBSR) in Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Medicine at Stanford University. There I continued to work on the developmental dyslexia projects under Dr. Fumiko Hoeft and began a new project on the neurodevelopment of humor in children (focused on resilience outcomes) with CIBSR Director Dr. Allan Reiss. The postdoc position allowed me to gain greater expertise in Educational Neuroscience, an emerging field, and behavioral genetics research. Dr. Hoeft is the PI of the study highlighted in the following questions.