The Special Education Referral Process

What is the Purpose of the Referral Process?

The Special Education referral process helps aid public school districts in fulfilling their obligations to identify children from early childhood to high school in their community for special education services. This process is an integral part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) child find requirements.

Overview of the Referral Process

The referral process can be initiated by the school district (also known as the agency) or parents. In both situations, the referring party must provide data and information to support their request. In addition to this data presented with the referral, a school representative will collect school records and data. Usually a team of school personnel (i.e. school psychologist, process coordinator, administrator, etc.) will review the data to determine if a disability as defined by IDEA is suspected. If so, a special education evaluation is warranted.

In Special Education the term “referral” is utilized to describe the entire referral process and/or simply portions of the process such as “the initial referral”; “the parent’s referral”; “the district’s referral; or even “the completed referral”.     


When a referral is made, the Local Education Agency (LEA), is obligated to consider the request for evaluation. Within the child find section of IDEA it specifically states that the LEA must have a process in place to identify “(1) Children who are suspected of being a child with a disability under §300.8 and in need of special education, even though they are advancing from grade to grade…”

There are several pieces of information that may lead to a suspicion of a disability, including but not limited to:

  • Poor academic performance, when compared to similar-aged peers
  • Behaviors that impede learning or the learning of others
  • Medical conditions that impede learning or negatively impact educational performance

Who can make a referral?

Anyone who has knowledge of the child and their educational struggles or performance can make a referral; however, a referral is usually made by an agency or parent/guardian.

Agency Referrals

When the agency makes a referral it is up to the school team to have a process in place to review data regularly and use that data to make informed decisions. In some school districts this may look like data teams or a Child Support Team (CST). These teams, which often include general education teachers, administrators, school psychologists, related service providers and social workers, must meet regularly to discuss student performance and determine needs.

School with robust Response to Intervention (RTI) Programs or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) will often have Child Support Teams (CST) built into the programs.

When these teams meet, they are determining pre-referral interventions or an education plan to mitigate the need for special education services. When those interventions fail to provide remediation to the student, then they may have a suspected disability.

If the child is thought to have a suspected disability, the child’s teacher or another staff member makes a referral to the special education team, likely a school psychologist or process coordinator. The information is reviewed, which may include a need for additional data.

When the initial referral is complete, the LEA will send the parents a letter or notification that a referral has been made, which will be accompanied by procedural safeguards (a pamphlet of parental rights).

After this information is sent to the parents, the school staff will complete a review of existing data (RED) which includes all pertinent information and schedule a time to review this information with the parent (this generally occurs within 30 calendar days of the initial referral).

One thing to note about the RED is that it can be completed as a meeting or be conferred. Either way, every effort should be made to include parental concerns in the process to ensure all areas of concern are addressed or assessed.

After the RED has been reviewed by the parent, school staff will gain parental consent on a prior written notice to complete the initial evaluation. The evaluation, which can take up to 60 calendar days to complete, will lead to an eligibility for special education determination. If the child is found to have a disability, then the team has another 30 calendar days to hold an IEP meeting to develop an individualized education program (IEP).

Parent/Guardian Referrals

A child’s parent or guardians may also make referrals. The state will likely have a process in place for this. Texas, for instance, requires a written request whereas Missouri allows written and verbal. Either way the LEA must respond within an appropriate amount of time and provide procedural safeguards. This timeline is also dictated by the state process requirements (in Missouri it is five school days, in Texas it is 15).

After the parent referral is sent to school staff, they begin collecting as much data as they can to determine their next step. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Teacher records and reports
  • Attendance reports
  • State and district assessment data
  • Vision and hearing screening information
  • Medical records
  • Parent concerns

After this information is collected and analyzed, the school team must determine the presence of a suspected disability. If a disability under IDEA is not suspected, the LEA will notify the parent using a prior written notice that a disability is not suspected, and an initial evaluation is not warranted. If the student’s parent disagrees, they have the right to file a complaint and request a due process hearing as detailed in the state’s procedural safeguards document.

If a disability, as defined by IDEA is suspected, then an initial evaluation will be recommended through the RED process and written consent will be obtained from the student’s parent. When the child’s evaluation has concluded, an eligibility for special education determination is made. This follows the same process as outlined in the agency referral section above.

Considerations of Request

Each state’s department of education has its own referral process, but they all follow a similar pattern. A request is made by the agency or parent and that request is considered. The referral paperwork may be an internal document or it may be published on a state’s website, like Missouri.

Each state’s department of education has their own referral forms, but the referral process is similar from state to state. A request is made by the agency or parent and that request is considered. After this, procedural safeguards are sent to the parent within a specific amount of time after the request is made.

There are times when a parent may request a referral near the end of the school year. While this can be difficult on the staff, the process must be followed to complete the evaluation within the given amount of time, even if it is paused for summer break and resumed the following fall.

Gather Data

In the time between the request for referral and the review of existing data, school personnel use data collection to determine the next steps in the evaluation process. This data collection endeavor ultimately includes information from all adults that work with the child, including their parents. The information collected needs to address all areas that are identified as a concern so the special education diagnostic team or providers can determine the appropriate assessments to use for the evaluation.

Suspicion of a Disability

When the data is collected and analyzed, it may be compared to the state’s interpretation of IDEA’s definitions of a disability. These are usually known as eligibility criteria and each state’s department of education has their own set (i.e. Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois). When the data and criteria are compared, a suspected disability may be revealed, and an evaluation warranted.

In the end, this information will help target specific areas that require additional assessment. Furthermore, the data will help to determine the assessment instrument used by the school district. If the data collected in the referral process is accurate, then evaluation will likely end with eligibility determined and the development of the child’s individualized education program.

Examples of Student Referrals to Special Education

Student with an Other Health Impairment

Jenny has missed 16 days of school due to medical appointments in the first semester of her fourth-grade year. In third grade, her general education teacher had an increasing concern with her attention in class which was negatively impacting her learning. Jenny especially struggled with reading comprehension and math problem-solving.

At the end of her third-grade year, Jenny’s general education teacher talked to her parents about her attention issues. Jenny’s parents took this information to her pediatrician, who then referred Jenny to a specialist. The neurologist determined that Jenny was having absence seizures.

A referral was made for special education by her parents. They provided all the medical information to school staff. Jenny’s school records showed a steady decline in academic achievement since second grade, despite appropriate instruction and interventions. The team determined additional information was needed and it is likely that Jenny has an Other Health Impairment due to her seizure disorder.

Student with Academic Troubles

Mark is a sixth-grade student who recently transferred to Benjamin Franklin Middle School from another middle school in the metropolitan area. The previous school sent information about Mark’s reading that indicated he was receiving Tier 2 reading interventions but showed that he was making progress toward his goals.

Upon receiving this information, his ELA teacher started pulling him for intervention group. Initial data collection from this group showed that Mark was making steady progress toward his goal, especially when using a multi-sensory approach to reading.

Unhappy with the speed of his progress, Mark’s parents requested an evaluation for special education. They stated that he likely has dyslexia, which is why he is not reading as well as his peers and want him tested.

The school collects all relevant information including attendance, discipline, and academic records. The data from the records show that Mark is making steady progress toward his reading goals and will likely be on grade level by the end of the third term. The LEA declines Mark’s parent’s request for a special education evaluation.

While it may seem like all parent requests should just be granted, there are times that it makes sense to decline. Since the student is making adequate progress and is projected to be on grade level before the end of the year with an intensive intervention strategy, the request was denied.

Student With a History of Mental Health Concerns

Jared is a sophomore at Garfield High School. In the past Jared has been a typical student and performed at a level that was at or above his peers. This year, Jared has had an increase in absences over the last semester and when he is at school, he often feels overwhelmed.

These feelings result in outbursts of verbally aggressive statements. His statements have been severe enough that school administration have given Jared a total of seven days of out-of-school suspension. Last week his parents saw signs that he was harming himself and admitted him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation and monitoring. After Jared’s hospital stay, the school was notified that he has severe depression and an anxiety disorder. Jared is failing six of his seven classes because of his absences, suspensions, and hospitalization.

The school counselor made a referral based on the new medical information and Jared’s academic performance, which has been negatively impacted by his absences. The absences, in the counselor’s opinion, were directly related to his depression and anxiety. The data collected from relevant parties all point toward the suspicion that Jared has an emotional disturbance and that an evaluation is warranted. Remember it is important to consider all of the information and how the pieces fit together.

Manage your referral process and timelines with SpedTrack

Referrals are a timeline-driven special education process. SpedTrack takes the guessing out of the equation and provides you the tools to stay on track and compliant with your state’s regulations.

The built-in referral forms and digital signature capabilities make short work of getting the information you need to seamlessly complete the evaluation process.

Schedule a demo today to learn more about how we can help you.

Jake Boswell

Dr. Boswell started his career in special education in 2008. He has taught in a residential treatment center and public schools around the Kansas City Area. He has held positions as a special education teacher, process coordinator, and currently serves as the Director of Special Education for the KC International Academy. He enjoys outdoor activities, spending time with his wife and two sons.