The Special Education Referral Process

Luke Bonham                                                                                                                        March 20, 2017

The Special Education Referral Process

This week we were required to interview a few general education teachers and a special education teacher about the special education referral process.  I interviewed two general education teachers from New Brunswick, Canada, and one special education teacher from Ontario, Canada.  My questions and the teacher’s responses can be seen below the summarized general sentiments.

Key Points

It seems that though, that both New Brunswick and Ontario, Canada have similar special education referral processes to that of America.  The referral process can be viewed in figure 1 (Office of Special Education Programs U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

Steps in the Special Ed process

Fig. 1. Steps in the Special Ed Process, Retrieved from http://nhspecialed.org/special-ed-process/

All three of the interviewees revealed that the process of the process begins with a referral for assessment from a parent or a teacher.  A team composed of parents, teachers, special education teachers, welfare services, or others as appropriate, (Office of Special Education Services U.S. Department of Education, 2015), meet and determine whether or not there is enough information to decide on the next steps.  If there is not enough information, the child can then be evaluated for the suspected disabilities by certified professionals (Office of Special Education U.S. Department of Education, 2015).  After assessment, and if the student is eligible for special education services, the team meets to develop an Independent Education Plan (IEP), which is then implemented in the classroom.  The team meets at least once a year to review the student’s progress, and makes modifications if necessary (Office of Special Education Services U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

General Sentiment

The former special education teacher that I interviewed was quite positive about the referral process, and felt that the staff within her school did a great job collaborating, although that time was not built into their schedules.  She remarked that, at her school, special education is sometimes a temporary measure, and that sometimes students reach a point where they no longer need to use special education services.  This was not a feeling that was shared by the two general classroom teachers that I interviewed.  They felt that it was a rarity for students to no longer need special education services once their education plans had been modified.

In New Brunswick, it was revealed that there is very little funding for assessments, and also for purchasing assistive technology that may aid the students who are identified as needing special education services.  The lack of available funding leads to long waits for assessments, with one teacher remarking that she had waited for over a year in order to have a child assessed by an educational psychologist.  She stated that the wait was far too long for the assessments of children with learning disabilities, and that children often end up being passed onto the next grade and feeling even more overwhelmed, or they have to repeat the grade while waiting for assessment.  In the end, both felt that the services of special education were necessary and beneficial, but that they were far too slow at being implemented.

The two general education teachers felt that there was sufficient time for professional development (PD) related to identifying children who need special education services, but again reiterated the fact that there was little funding for supplies, assessment and support staff.  This has caused teachers a lot of frustration and has intensified their need to differentiate instruction in order to try and prevent students from becoming behavioral or academic referrals, since they felt that the service was far too slow.

The two teachers from New Brunswick clearly felt that the referral process was easy and straightforward, but felt that the effectiveness would be greatly improved if it was sped up.  The special education teacher expressed a desire for more collaboration time to be built into schedules, and would like some PD courses that are specific to First Nations Children to be introduced.  She also thought that it would be a great idea to have the students take an active role in their program development.  The special education teacher also suggested that support and educational programs which are designed for families would greatly help them take an active role in the decision-making process relating to their children.

All three of these teachers are at unique teaching locations, with the two from New Brunswick working with students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and the special education teacher working at small high schools on First Nation’s reserves in Northern Canada.  I am sure that some of the issues that they have identified are intensified by location and atmosphere, but I am also certain that there are many schools in Canada who experience similar issues.  Special education is an essential service for so many students.  Let’s hope that there is more funding supplied for these services in the near future.

Ruth Stadelmayer – High School Guidance Counselor, Former Special Education Teacher (Kashechewan, ON, Canada)

How is a student identified for special education referral?

-teachers may refer a student if they are struggling in class or teacher has concerns about physical/mental/emotional wellness

-parents may refer their children if they have similar concerns

-the school’s spec ed/support team may refer a child to have psychological-education testing done

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

-Before the referral…usually teacher, spec ed/guidance/admin and parents

-After the referral…a team specially designed to meet the needs of the students (collection of parents, teacher, teaching assistants, admin, guidance, spec ed, counselors, psychologists, child welfare services)

What provisions are made for students identified for special education? Who is responsible for creating IEPs? Is it a joint effort between special education teachers and regular classroom teachers?

-Provisions could include: physical accommodations (spaces, medical exams, wheelchair access), academic support (time, manipulatives, scribes, computer programs for speech to text/text to speech, etc.) and mental health/emotional support (counselling referrals, psychologists, etc.)

-IEPs are created under the lead of the spec. ed. teacher, in joint effort with classroom teacher/assistants, parents, admin, guidance, psychologist, and any other invested parties

-spec.ed teacher is responsible for recording updates and monitoring progress

-teachers are responsible for following the IEPs and updating the IEP as needed

Do you feel that there is enough collaboration between special education teachers, regular classroom teachers and administration?

-I’ve worked mostly in smaller schools and feel that the teams have worked well and closely together…I imagine in larger schools this would be more challenging

What is the level of parental involvement in the referral process?

-Parents may either refer their child to spec ed themselves or they would be brought into the meeting/team to discuss and create the IEP. They would also be consulted with additions or concerns as the program was being implemented.

What are some important skills for a special education teacher to possess?

-I believe a special education teacher should: be knowledgeable of resources/services/accommodations/modifications available, have knowledge of Ministry policies, work holistically in serving the needs of a student, be caring, have effective communication skills with families, community services, staff and students.

Is there enough opportunity within a school for special education teachers and regular classroom teachers to keep up to date with developments in the field?

-There is not a lot of time for teachers and spec ed staff to connect, review IEPs and programming or for PD…this could definitely be an area where it would be valuable to create some time in schedules! *Especially in our school and other on-reserve First nation schools, where many of our students are on IEPs, where we are looking at creating alternative and more holistic/supportive environments, and where the majority of our students need to be taught and supported in varying ways! It would also be very beneficial to have PD and Ministry development of Special Education for First Nations children. 

Is special education something that is only needed temporarily in some cases?  What are some common examples of cases where the uses of special education services would be used temporarily? 

Yes, sometimes students need special education services temporarily. An example might be using the resource room as an alternate room for writing tests or completing assignments. Another example might be for behavioral support, where one year/period of time a student is needing behavioral support/alternative education, and then transitions to regular programming due to growth/maturity, change in personal life, supports at home/in community. 

Finally, are there any ways that you can think to improve the referral process and its implementation? 

In our smaller school, I believe we do a good job at identifying and creating effective programming for all students requiring extra supports. But implementation could be improved by more regular meetings with the support/spec ed team, having the students take an active role in their programming, and developing support/education programs for parents/families so they are more informed and able to take an active role in the decision-making.

C. Sam Saunders – Kindergarten Teacher (New Brunswick, ON, Canada)

How can differentiated instruction be used to assist students who are struggling?

Differentiated instruction came about when it was discovered that children learn in different ways. Teachers can no longer expect children to just sit in rows and watch and listen to the teacher. That’s fine if you learn through auditory and visual methods. We now know children learn through physical and tactile as well. Quite often I find those children that struggle in my kindergarten class are not the children that can sit and listen but would rather prefer to move around and touch things. At the beginning of the year it is my first job to watch and learn how my children learn. Then I need to adapt my lessons to accommodate as many children as I can. In New Brunswick we do not have special education classes that are separate, as all children are included in every classroom. It is my responsibility to provide the instruction to all the students. However if I require help I can turn to a Resource Teacher for advice to help with a certain student.

The struggling children may be reached through movement games but still use the particular outcome that I would be teaching everyone. It’s a good idea to have all the children especially in a kindergarten class to be up and moving. I often will have all the children form a big circle and we throw a medium size ball across to another child as we practice counting to 20. A tactile learner typically likes Play-Doh or even sand. Today each child is given a bag of Play-Doh of their own that can be used to make letters, numbers, words and even shapes. The visual learners are usually captivated by the instruction done through my SmartBoard which provides a huge screen and things that move and music to go with it. We want all the children to be together and not isolated in another space unless necessary. As the class is working at their centers I can meet one-on-one with the struggling children to give extra practice or homework. Even if I can’t meet one-on-one I know I have used a variety of ways to teach a concept so everyone is learning. If learning can be adapted to be fun even the parents see homework in a better light and are more willing to try.

How do you determine if a student should be referred to special education services?

There are many reasons to refer a child to special education. We in NB refer to an Educational Student Services Team (ESST). We can refer for speech services, occupational therapy services, psychological assessment, attendance, behavior and academic.

In kindergarten we do not have many referrals on these children as they have just arrived in the school system. If children have been diagnosed Autistic then often they would come from an outside agency that would give us their progress up until the child leaves them. Sometimes they will give some ideas to help the transition. These children have already been identified at the Transition meetings. Many Autistic children will need special equipment such as a weighted vest, special chair or headphones for sound, and would be seen by an Occupational Therapist. Their names would be put into ESST upon arrival to school.

How long should a teacher observe a student before referring them to special education? Should they teach them one month, or most of the year?

If parents have taken their child to an EYE-DA (Early Years Evaluation-Diagnostic Assessment) testing before school entry then we would have that information, but it is brief and does not determine how a child may do.

Otherwise, the teacher will determine if a child should be referred to ESST through observation, approximately over the first month or so. (This answers question 3) Children that have hearing issues or speech problems will stand out. However if the speech problem is slight we may wait approximately 2 months to see if they grow out of it. Depending upon the severity a learning disability may not show until we have been teaching for a while. After some testing and more observations we would put a referral in for a psychological assessment for diagnosis.

If a child’s behavior does not change and is interrupting the learning environment we would observe, make calls to parents and refer them within a month. Often they just need to settle in as they have just left their home and family and can be scared or stubborn as they are accustomed to getting their way.

Academic referrals may take up to 2 months as so much time is spent just getting little children to adjust to their new environment. (getting in a line, rules, listening etc.) Unless something is very blatant I need to teach first. However all the while I am still observing and testing in small doses.

How many students with individualized education programs do you have in your classroom each year on average?

It is hard to say on average how many are on an IEP. This year I have 5 but last year I had 2. It is not something I keep track of but would make a guess of at least 2 a year. Each year feels like more. However our school has mainly children from a low socioeconomic background. What we put in place in school is not often adhered to at home. There is a lot of movement in our area as people move in and out frequently. I find speech issues are up each year. This year there are mainly behavior problems. It follows that those behavior issues also have academic problems.

When a student is identified as needing special education services, can that student ever stop needing those services? If so, what has to happen for that to occur?

Some children are taken off an IEP but that is rare. Academically they may improve but often are still slightly behind in their learning. With medication some children who are on a plan, do improve in their behavior and are taken off. As well, speech can improve with assistance, if it was not too severe to start. Autistic children will always need occupational therapy of one kind or another.

Do you normally observe great improvement in the students’ progress after being referred?

I would not say “great” improvement. Some children improve slightly. However any improvement is a celebration. It depends on the child as well. Without home support the child does not get the extra practice to catch up to the others. If a child in kindergarten is immature then they just don’t think learning is important and tend to have a “play brain” longer. Soon they become overwhelmed with the work and just shut down. Even if their IEP has cut their work load in half they will often struggle. In many situations we wait a long time for psych services to diagnose a child with a learning disability.

Are there any ways that you can think of to improve the referral process?

Our referral process has improved slightly over the years simply because it is done online, which speeds the input. However that does not get results faster. We still need more from psych services, speech and even occupational services. They are spread thin. It comes down to money of course. I have waited for over a year for a diagnoses and the child is now repeating the grade or on to the next grade where they are even more overwhelmed, before I see someone from psychological services.

Finally, in your eyes, are teachers provided with sufficient PD opportunities related to identifying students who need special education services and their management within the classroom?

That leads into your question about PD. I feel teachers are given enough opportunities for PD related to identifying children but there is just not enough support within the classroom. All too often the support has to be shared with the students so each child only gets a little support, when likely they need constant support. So that puts pressure on me as the teacher to provide extra. That’s where I do my best to differentiate lessons in the hope I can reach some children before they become behavior or academic referrals.

Lana Arsenault – Kindergarten Teacher (New Brunswick, ON, Canada)

How can differentiated instruction be used to assist students who are struggling?

Differentiated instruction benefits students who are struggling because their work is tailored to their specific needs. Some students have very specific goals and many have their curriculum outcomes altered or reduced by as much as 50%. This allows them to experience success at their level.
 

How do you determine if a student should be referred to special education services?

After a few weeks into the school year, it is generally pretty clear and obvious if a student needs a referral for special services. Some are easy to detect, like speech difficulties for example. Otherwise, some basic testing is done to determine if the student would benefit from a referral to our ESST team. Then the team meets and develops strategies that can be put in place to help the child.
 

How long should a teacher observe a student before referring them to special education? Should they teach them one month, or most of the year?

I think each case is different. Obviously some can be identified immediately as stated above, and others may take longer to detect. When detected, I personally feel that a referral should be made to get the ball rolling and get the child the help he/she needs as soon as possible. I see no real need or benefit to wait.
 

How many students with individualized education programs do you have in your classroom each year on average?

To be honest I have never had a child on an IEP and I have taught 27 years. I have however had many kids who have been given special accommodations over the years. Accommodations have in recent years become universal for all students so really all kids are on the same playing field.
 

When a student is identified as needing special education services, can that student ever stop needing those services? If so, what has to happen for that to occur?

It does happen on occasion but generally once a kid is “modified” it is difficult for them to get off it. They can graduate but do not get a diploma as their curriculum has been modified by 50%. Some kids in the past that have had “accommodations” may not always need them. for example one accommodation use to be that a kid was given more time to complete an average task. Now everyone get that accommodation.
 

Do you normally observe great improvement in the students’ progress after being referred?

Each referral is so unique so I may not notice it when I have that student but may hear about it the following year from their new teacher. Generally the progress is slow but hopefully steady.
 

Are there any ways that you can think of to improve the referral process?

The referral process is pretty easy, in our province anyway. You just log in, fill out some basic info, state the service required and then give a description of the issue. It is getting the service that is time consuming. There is a big need and not enough services. The system is over loaded. For a student to see psych. services, it is generally a two year wait. We always suggest to parents that if they have private coverage that would be the way to go.
 

Finally, in your eyes, are teachers provided with sufficient PD opportunities related to identifying students who need special education services and their management within the classroom?

Yes.. PD based on these issues are increasing over the years. The government had recognized the need and provide PD services. Unfortunately there is very little funding provided to purchase supplies that would be helpful in the classroom.
Works Cited
Office of Special Education Programs U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Evaluation. Retrieved from http://nhspecialed.org/special-ed-process/disposition-of-referral/
Office of Special Education Programs U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Disposition of the Referral. Retrieved from http://nhspecialed.org/special-ed-process/disposition-of-referral/
Office of Special Education Programs U.S. Department of Education. (Organization). (2015, 02). IEP Development and Approval. Retrieved from http://nhspecialed.org/special-ed-process/iep-development-approval/
Office of Special Education Programs U.S. Department of Education. (Organization). (2015, 02). Steps in the Special Ed Process. Retrieved from http://nhspecialed.org/special-ed-process/
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