If you are really concerned about your child in school, it might be time to make a referral to special education. This doesn’t mean that he or she will automatically be in special education, but if a child is having difficulty, a referral begins the process of finding out if special ed is necessary.
According to the law, anyone can make a referral for special education services. Before children enter school, pediatricians are often the ones who catch children who are not meeting appropriate developmental guidelines; however, parents spend the most time with their children, and, therefore, it is helpful to be aware of these guidelines. Because it is best for children to receive services early, each state is required to have early intervention programs, which provide services for children from birth to age three. For a list of each state’s contact for this program, see www.nectac.org/contact/ptccoord.asp. Each state has specific criteria in order to qualify for services, which are often provided either free of charge or at a sliding scale rate.
Once your child is three years old, he or she falls under the jurisdiction of the public school system. Therefore, in order to make a referral, you need to contact the school system in your town. Most school systems have a program specifically set up for students who qualify, but you may also make requests for some services to be provided in a private preschool.
Interestingly, many referrals for special education happen in third grade. This is not coincidental. There is a huge shift in the expectations between second and third grade–educators talk about the change from “teaching to read” to “reading to teach.” All of a sudden, instead of just reading, children are expected to use the reading that they do in order to create knowledge–a much harder task. That is why problems surface at this time.
No matter when your child is referred, the process remains the same: 1) a written referral starts a time clock during which a team of professionals meets with you, the parents, to discuss whether or not an evaluation is needed, 2) an evaluation is completed, 3) the team meets again in order to discuss eligibility, and 4) if eligible, the team creates an individual educational plan (IEP) for your child. Parents have several important rights throughout this process, of which many people are not aware. First, if they disagree with the determination of the school district, they can request an independent evaluation at public expense. Second, they are members of any decision-making meeting regarding their child. In these meetings, they can, and should, question decisions. Let’s face it, although most educators really want to do what is best for our children (I really believe that!!), school districts are working with limited resources (both time and money) and they do not have enough of them. Therefore, parents need to be VERY involved in pushing to make sure that their child gets what he or she needs. However, it is also important to keep in mind that ever-important word: appropriate. You are promised an appropriate education, not an optimal one.