What are the Steps for Referring a Student for a Special Education Evaluation?

The Special Education Process

The Special Education Process is sometimes known as the Special Education Referral Process. This is really a misnomer, as the referral actually happens right at the beginning. When students are not able to meet expectations in school, special education law evokes a 10 stage process, based on the principles set out by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, revised in 2004.

What Are the Steps for Referring a Student for Special Education Evaluation?

1. Child is identified as possibly needing special education and related services.

Parents or teachers may be concerned about a child’s academic performance, emotional issues, social development, challenging behavior or physical difficulties. When an issue is raised about an individual, the special education process may begin.

2. Child is evaluated.

Before engaging the child in evaluation, school staff must notify parents in writing. Initial evaluation will then occur within 60 days of receiving written consent from the family. At the beginning stages, a team will gather information about the student’s functional, developmental and academic level of functioning. The team may include school staff, professionals from the district and other professionals deemed appropriate. They may review the student’s files, collect observations from teachers and conduct assessments, to help them form a picture of the student’s current strengths and needs.

3. Eligibility is decided.

IDEA guidelines provide the following categories of disability:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Mental retardation
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment
  • Developmental delay (This category is optional and only used in some states)

If the special education team, including parents, determines the student to have a disability, according to the IDEA categories, he or she will proceed to the next stage of the process.

4. Child is found eligible for services.

If the child is found to have a disability, and the difficulties are not caused by lack of appropriate instruction or lack of English language proficiency, special education services will be provided. If not, parents will have an opportunity to appeal.

5. IEP Meeting is scheduled.

If everyone is in agreement regarding eligibility, an IEP (Individual Education Program) meeting will be scheduled within 30 days. Parents must be notified in writing and given the opportunity to attend and contribute to the IEP.

6. IEP Meeting is held and the IEP is written.

An IEP team is formed at this stage. The team may or may not have the same members as the team that decided eligibility. Ideally, the team will include parents, at least one regular education teacher and a special education teacher, and other professionals with expertise in the child’s area of concern. A student’s IEP will contain information about the student’s strengths and needs, current level of functioning, individualized goals, and information about accommodations and services to be provided.

7. Services are provided.

Services should begin as soon as possible, after the IEP is written. Special education and related services may include special education teacher and/or paraprofessional support, in-school medical care, specialized transportation, specialized equipment and assistive technology. Parents, school staff and other service providers must receive copies or have access to the IEP and understand their role in delivering services.

8. Progress is measured and reported to parents.

Progress must be reported regularly, giving everyone a chance to review and adjust IEP goals as necessary. Timelines are determined by states and school districts and should be stated in the IEP itself.

9. IEP is reviewed.

The IEP should be reviewed, annually, to ensure that goals are still relevant and to make revisions if students are having difficulty achieving the goals that were set out. Changes can be made more often, if necessary.

10. Child is reevaluated.

Students will usually be reevaluated between one and three years after the initial referral. This can happen sooner if a teacher or parent makes a request.

Clear as Mud?

Referring a student for special education services is a lengthy process and can sometimes be quite confusing. For those who have never gone through it before, many questions may arise. It is, however, a valuable practice that serves to bring many minds together, with a common vision, to meet the needs of a student with a disability.


National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 Training Curriculum, https://www.nichcy.org/Laws/IDEA/Documents/Training_Curriculum/1-trainerguide.pdf