Special Education Referral Process


Education is a great gift. Every child should have an equal chance to learn, grow and benefit from their years of education. In the past many students were disadvantaged when it came to equal opportunities to learn due to undiagnosed disabilities or simply by not being provided with the help that they needed to learn and thrive along with their peers. Nowadays in the United States special education is widely utilized and accepted among educators. 

Over the past two weeks I have looked into the process of referring students to receiving special education. I conducted two interviews, one with Tanya Carrelle, Director of Special Education at Wallenpaupack area school district, and Craig McSparren, a middle and high school history teacher at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy (CVCA). They both provided me with valuable real-life insights into this process. 

According to Project IDEAL, there are 8 phases in the special education process, starting on the basis of recognizing that there is an issue. and the pre-referral process. Addressing the first three phases outlined by Project IDEAL, Carrelle explained that recognition, pre-referral and referral for special education can be done either when a parent voices a concern or when a teacher has noticed and documented patterns of behavior that are not congruent with his or her peers.

If a parent voices a concern, then the student goes right into the process of testing for special education, whereas if a teacher presents a case, they go through other steps including meeting with the SAP (student assistant program) and classroom interventions. The SAP and teacher  meet on a weekly basis to identify if/how the student is struggling. Then the teacher, SAP team and school psychologist discuss interventions, evaluate if they are working or not and if they are not,  they look toward special education testing and design an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). Carrelle told me that she considers the evaluation process in her district to be outstanding in that they have a psychologist who is involved in every special education case. She believes that this is the best way to serve her students. 

When asked what the school directive was with regard to special education she said, “To provide support to students in the least restrictive environment and help them be successful.” She also told me that diagnosis begins even before kids are of schooling age and that they have a high level of parental involvement at the IEP meetings. Testing is done by the school psychologist and various other specialists as needed (such as occupational or speech therapists). The IEP is revised yearly and modifications are made based on goals achieved and progress made as evidenced by data that is collected throughout the school year. 

McSparren’s perspective was quite different. He is a middle and high school teacher at a private school. He told me that at this level most special ed cases and IEPs have already been drawn up in elementary school or students are requested to have assistance by their parents. He is then informed by the Academic Support Team (AST) that this child has special needs. This team is comprised of four special education instructors and is divided into middle and high school branches. The AST is in good communication with all teachers who have students who need special help and provides services such as extended test taking time and tutoring. McSparren indicated that his school is a “private college prep school”, and therefore not state funded. Due to the lack of funding and enrollment process for the private school, they are able to “filter” out students that have severe special educational needs and do not accept those students whose needs are greater than CVCA’s capacity to assist them.

McSparren told me that the most frequent type of disability he encounters is concussions. Students sustain a concussion(s) and then needs to have assistance in recovering from that incident. He often allows extra test taking time or gives only the multiple choice portion in his class, while the essay portion is proctored by the AST.

One noteworthy student he had was a 10th grader diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This student needed extreme amounts of assistance but it essentially boiled down to “what medication they were trying him on.” If he was on a medication that worked well, he was able to participate in class, if it didn’t work well, the boy was essentially “catatonic and ‘not there’ ” for chunks of time.

Overall McSparren was satisfied with the AST and their methods of assisting students, which in addition to longer test times and splitting the tests utilized peer tutoring and a special study hall designed to help struggling students. 

The thing he would like to see change at his school is to have more “enrichment” programs for those students who are extra bright. He insisted that special education should make provisions for these students as well and not only focus on those with disabilities.

Through this process I have learned a lot about the details that run the special education program as well as how different each special ed program can look depending on the school. I hope that as I continue to grow as an educator I will be able to use this knowledge and help those who are struggling to achieve their potential.  


Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities. (2013). Special education referral process – Project IDEAL. Retrieved May 26, 2016, from http://www.projectidealonline.org/special-education-referral-process.php


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