Special Education Referral Process

What is Special Education?

According to IDEA, there are 14 categories of special education. To receive the services prescribed in IDEA a child must be identified with one of them and have it aversely affecting their educational abilities. When a child is identified with special needs they are entitled to free and appropriate education, LRE, supplementary aids and services, assessments, and an annually written IEP based on their specific learning needs.

Do We Need Special Education?

In her preface, Irina Bokova, Director-general of UNESCO, states that, “Approximately 15% of the world’s population live with some sort of disability,” and that “80% of those people live in developing countries”.

What does this tell us? It makes it perfectly clear that there are changes that need to made to educational systems worldwide.

According to the UNESCO report, “Disability is one of the least visible but most potent factors in education marginalization. Beyond the immediate health-related effects, physical and mental impairment carries a stigma that is often a basis for exclusion from society in general and the education system in particular”.  

What is an IEP

For a great description take a look at this informative video clip.

Now that we know what it is we need to know how it works.

There are 5 Steps to the Special Needs Referral Process

(For more information on the referral process take a look at this website)

Referral for a Special Education Evaluation 

The Evaluation

Determining Eligibility

Writing the Individual Education Program

5. The IEP Meeting


While this information is extremely helpful and informative, I wanted to get a personal look at the Special Needs Referral Process.

I interviewed three individuals with an educational background to get a closer look at this process. One middle school math teacher, one high school teacher, and one educational consultant who used to be an elementary teacher. All three answered a few questions concerning their experiences with special needs referrals.

(I provided them with a list of questions, but as people are very busy and on summer holiday right now I let them choose which questions they wanted to answer.)

  • Middle school teacher
  • High school teacher

For the sake of brevity I have tried to summarized their responses.

How do you identify a student for special education?

  • Both middle school and high school teachers said the majority of students are identified before they reach, meaning in elementary school. Therefore, some students come to them with an IEP already in place.
  • If the student appears to be struggling academically, behaviorally or socially, the teacher will first try to accommodate and work with a school counselor, by implementing preferential seating, typed or handwritten notes, extra time on tests, etc.
  • If there are still concerns, the student’s name is submitted to a team of administrators in our school called the Student Concerns Team. This can include several personnel from the school.
  • This team will discuss the student and whether or not they should be referred for special education testing.
  • Written permission from a parent is needed before we can test a student. If a parent agrees, the student meets with several special education teachers to be tested in the areas where we are seeing concern.
  • The case manager is then in charge of the necessary paperwork for creating an IEP.

What are the signs of a struggling student?

  • Academic: student is not performing at grade level
  • Social: student is having a hard time connecting or getting along with his or her peers
  • Behavioral: students acting out as a way to cope with a disability that hasn’t been identified

Are there alternate methods of instruction tried out before referring the student for special education? If yes, what are they?

  • Multiple teaching instructions are used by presenting material verbally, visually as well as in auditory form
  • after school help for struggling students to meet one-on-one
  • reach out to parents very early on to see how we can partner with the instruction
  • provide that student with written notes


Interview with a Previous Elementary school teacher/educational consultant

I chose to interview this person because she was an elementary teacher back in the 1970’s, then became an educational consultant to help parents with their struggling children whose needs were not being met by the school system. I thought it would be interesting to get her point of view from how things were dealt with 40 years ago.

It is interesting to note that this person left the public school teaching field after five years from what she describes as “burn out”.

I included her entire response to my questions as I found them so fascinating.

How is a student identified for special education referral?

 In my day, after exhausting all ideas & resources available to me I had to fill out request form for an individual child to be tested. They were usually given a battery of tests to determine their level of learning in relationship to their age and grade. They were also given an IQ test. In my Learning Style testing I have the parents, the student and their classroom teacher fill out questionnaires, checklists and assessments before I actually administer the actual tests. Then after the actual testing appointment I would meet with the parents to give them my recommendations. If I felt the child could benefit from Special Education services I would advise the parents to contact their local school district.

Who takes responsibility for the progress of the child before and after the referral?  

The progress of the child was up to me, the classroom teacher, until the testing process was completed which usually took 3 – 4 months. Then there would be a large meeting of specialists, the principal, the school psychologist, etc. to hear the test results and recommendations. They did this to see if the child was actually eligible for Special Ed services. I’m sure the laws have changed but in order for my 4th grader to get help s/he had to be 1 year behind in reading/math etc. I had a 5th grader one year who didn’t qualify for help because he was only 1 1/2 years behind instead of the required 2. I almost lost it in this meeting! The classroom teacher is responsible for the student until the testing and the actual services are provided.

The differences in their answers are very telling of how far special needs education has come.

For a student to have to be 2 years behind their peers before being allowed special help is unbelievable. While our education system is far from perfect, IDEA and other laws and organizations are working hard to advocate for our special needs children.

What is personalized learning?

According to the National Center For Learning Disabilities, “When learning is personalized, students receive a customized learning experience. Students learn at their own pace with structure and support in challenging areas. Learning aligns with interests, needs and skills, and takes place in an engaging environment where students gain a better understanding of their strengths.”

For personalized learning to be effective EVERYONE involved needs to be supported. One of the reasons my third interview suffered from teacher burnout was a lack of support and collaboration. It is because of laws like IDEA that the other teachers I interviewed are able to have the support of a Student Concerns Team.

Thankfully, organizations like National Center For Learning Disabilities, are working hard with students, parents, educators, lawmakers, and school districts to provide help and encouragement as personalized learning is a new and growing philosophy.

How can we improve the special needs referral process?

At this point special needs students are being served better than they have been in the past, but this doesn’t mean that improvements can’t be made. The most helpful improvements would be preventative ones. They could include:

  • Professional development for teachers: offer more time and training in alternative teaching strategies that offer enough support to some students that might prevent them from a later special needs referral.
  • Inclusion and awareness: create school initiatives that promote awareness and acceptance of special needs students.
  • School can adopt philosophies similar to Finland, or The School of One, where everyone is receiving special, personalized learning.


Personalized learning programs and philosophies can only help students with special needs, by offering them the support they need.

However, I think the philosophies of The School of One, Mesquite Elementary, and Finland’s education system show us that ALL students can and will benefit from personalized learning programs.

We are a diverse species, and it is a logical conclusion that our learning needs will be equally diverse. If this became the normal mindset, then perhaps some of the prevalent barriers and obstacles to providing education to persons with disabilities and learning difficulties would be broken down. We can only hope that some of the effective “alternative education” programs become the norm instead of the alternative.



Understanding Special Education: A Parent Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.understandingspecialeducation.com/
What Is Personalized Learning and What Does it Mean for Kids With Disabilities? – NCLD. (n.d.). Retrieved July 14, 2016, fromhttp://www.ncld.org/archives/action-center/what-we-ve-done/what-is-personalized-learning-and-what-does-it-mean-for-kids-with-disabilities

(2011). Reteach and Enrich: How to Make Time for Every Student. Retrieved July 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8DQugVxHv0

S. (2010). SCHOOL OF ONE. Retrieved July 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSTrI6nj5xU

E. (2012). Finland’s Formula for School Success (Education Everywhere Series). Retrieved July 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsdFi8zMrYI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s