Special Education Referral Process

While I was unable to interview any teacher or councilor in person, I was able to complete e-mail exchanges with two teachers and a school councilor. One of the teachers is a high school teacher at an alternative education school near Modesto, CA. The other is a first grade teacher in Santa Barbara, CA. The school councilor works at one of the combination middle/high arts school in Denver, CO. The high school teacher in Modesto and I had the most extensive conversation and much of this post is comprised of her responses to my questions.

The school councilor provided me with the basic outline of how they proceed with special education referrals. She noted that the school uses RTI (Response to Intervention) and that there are several steps before a formal referral occurs. She notes that all of the IEPs are individualized and that provisions provided for students vary over the referred population. Parent involvement is equally variable with some parents playing a very active role and some not very involved at all in the process. This was useful to know, but did not provide more insight than materials available at special education specific sites on the internet.

My conversation with the first grade teacher amounted to a case study of a 1st grade boy she has been working with. The boy has frequent disruptive behavior, is attention seeking, walks on his toes, is generally destructive, rolls on the ground and does not follow directions. The frequencies of these behaviors were high enough for her to contact the principal, who had a psychologist observe him in the classroom. After the observation the psychologist gave her a few ideas for coping with the boy’s behavior. They are going to see if these methods work before furthering the special education referral process. They suspect the student has a combination of ADHD and Autism. If more intervention is needed, the teacher would love to have a special education specialist in the classroom providing extra help. The school, however, does have separate classes for emotionally disturbed and moderate special education students. Students with other disabilities are generally included in the regular classroom.

The high school teacher I corresponded with works in an alterative education high school. Her number one priority is keeping kids in school and helping them finish their education. This philosophy greatly shapes her approach to special education referrals.

When she identifies a student for a special education referral, she pays careful attention to the gaps in their work. If something is consistently off they are a likely candidate for referral. Signs of a struggling student include agitation, frequent bathroom breaks, work avoidance, bad attitude, and refusal to accept help. She makes sure to note that there is a difference between a struggling student actively seeking help and one avoiding help. Failing some tests isn’t a sign that a student needs a special education referral; they are simply working through the material.  If they are consistently failing and will not accept help, then they are struggling and may need a referral.

She believes in trying as many alterative methods as possible before referring a student. She believes they need to learn strategies to help them cope both inside and outside the classroom, so it is best if they try many alterative methods. She uses visual options, technology, verbal, group work, solo work and one-on-one methods. Some students are allowed to choose locations to complete work if that helps. If these strategies don’t work, then it is finally time to call in the special education specialists.

If the alternative strategies are partially successful, she checks to see if the student and/or parent still wants a special education referral. In cases where the referral would cause the student to drop out of school, she chooses not to continue the process with the hope that the alternative methods will be effective enough. As I stated before, she works with at-risk teens and staying in school is a large part of what she wants for each of her students.

I asked her about disruptive behavior and how well it correlates with the need for a referral. Since she works with at-risk youth, many of her students exhibit disruptive behavior. She pays attention to when the disruptive behavior occurs. If it always correlates to reading aloud or some other type of work avoidance, then it is a sign of a real problem. If the behavior is generally random, she understands her students are likely just being jerks

Full inclusion is her preference in the classroom. She has taught to classrooms with mostly deaf, legally bind, brain damaged and mental birth defect students. She admits each student was an individual challenge, but including them in the regular classroom was worth it.

She is very invested in special education students and has been on more than half the IEPs for her school since she has requested to be the teacher present in the IEP meetings. She notes that a large portion of the special education population in her school is composed of students who are minorities and were referred for “stupid” reasons. She wishes she could do something about that, but it hasn’t been within her power to change how other teachers treat those students.

I believe that teachers like her are the future of special education. She has put a lot of time into learning alternative techniques and fights for each of her students to remain in her classroom. Being as invested as she is can be exhausting (she can tell you all about that too), but we need educators like her as we move to include special education students in the classroom and remove the stigma of “special” education. I grew up in a school that believed in inclusion and it benefited not only the special education students, but also those of us with no major learning disabilities. We all live in this world together and the more we are exposed to people of different background and abilities, the better off we are.