The Five Most Common Reasons for SPED Referral

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

hands filing

Over the years, the labels we use to describe special education students have changed. When I was in Special Education 101 (I’m really dating myself), we used to call developmentally disabled children retarded. Even worse, we split the kids into Mild, Moderate, and Severe categories. This was happening at the same time as “mainstreaming”. We understood that the least restrictive environment for all children was the way to go, but we muddied the issue by splitting kids into groups.

To some extent, we still do that. It’s important to be able find language to describe our children. We can’t provide special assistance if we can’t inform people about why it’s needed.

We’ve found there are five types of learning problems that students have that cause us to take a second look and refer them for special education assessment.

  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Autism
  • Disorders of Hearing, Sight and Physical Disability
  • Emotional Disturbance

I am guessing at the order, there are probably numbers to tell us which of these is the most common, but I don’t have them handy. It really doesn’t matter; these areas of concern have created a bureaucracy of support for special education that is costly and complex. The bureaucracy has developed because of Public Law 94-142, the legislation mandating the least restrictive environment for educational services.

Today, most disabled students can be helped in resource rooms, or classrooms that pull students out for a period during the day for special education. There are however, substantially separate classrooms for students with severe problems. These are the students who have a one on one aide that help them with toileting, physical therapy, and other services we must provide by law.

School Committees all over the country bemoan the cost of these provisions, but at the end of the day, it’s an investment in our future. All students need the best we can give, regardless of cost.

Another part of the law is the requirement that parents be part of the team that outlines the type and duration of any services their children will receive. Schools may have different names for the teams, but it’s usually called the Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized in 2004, there were changes regarding IEP team members. Parents must be included, but there are others invited to team meetings including the classroom teacher, district administrators and others who are charged with providing services. Meetings occur two times each year, and amendments are made to treatment plans (individual education plans). For instance, parents can request that their children have special equipment. A tool called “Kurzweill” is commonly requested. This software reads aloud for the student and assists struggling readers. Students may also have readers during testing.

I’ve talked a lot about behaviors in classrooms and the costs we incur in our efforts to help at risk students. We can’t forget about the students with the most serious disabilities. Even though we may have substantially separate classrooms for some, this does not mean marginalization. In modern schools, every attempt is made to pull these children into everyday activities in the community at large.

Do you have questions for me? My readers answer more questions than they pose, but I welcome your involvement in this blog.


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Funded By: United States Tennis Association (USTA)

Description: Awarded to nonprofit organizations that support efforts in tennis and education to help disadvantaged, at-risk youth and people with disabilities. To qualify for a USTA Serves Grant, your organization must: Provide tennis programs for underserved youth, ages 5-18, with an educational* component OR Provide tennis programs for people with disabilities (all ages) with a life skills component for Adaptive Tennis programs.

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Discipline and Special Education Students

in trouble cartoon

People have many misconceptions about special education programs and students. There is even a hint of fear in the faces of visitors to schools with active special education programs. People aren’t mean, just ill-informed. It’s true that many special education children need extra discipline to thrive. Structure seems to be so very important to many children. Structure gives kids a sense of security; it’s always good to know what’s expected of you. This is the crux of any classroom management program, carefully defined and communicated expectations.

It’s not surprising that student discipline is a major issue when discussing special education.  Discipline is a hot button for many parents.  They want to be very sure their children are treated fairly when any type of punishment is administered.  Special education students have all the rights of due process that any other student may have, but they are also protected further by their IEP’s.

In school, students are generally expected to follow a set code of conduct.  That conduct is interpreted throughout the school by both teachers and administrators.  In individual classrooms the teacher is responsible for keeping order but has some fairly wide latitude in most schools about what will be allowed and what will not. A school with great leadership will have a consistent and fair set of codes of conduct for all children, but special education teachers are brought into the planning of the expectations early in the process.

The committee that meets to develop each IEP must determine if a student’s disability is defined by particular types of misbehavior.  In other words, a typical student who curses aloud in class would be punished for disrupting the class and making poor choices.  But a special education student that has been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome would be doing no more than exhibiting a characteristic of his/her disability.  To punish that person would be like punishing another student whose temperature went up because he had the flu.

Similarly, students with AD/HD may call out more often than other students.  They will also wiggle more and get up and move around the class.  These are not behaviors the teacher wants to ignore, but the key is to continually remind students of what appropriate behavior looks like in your school.

Most IEP’s include a discipline plan so that special education students face certain consequences for their inappropriate behavior. Many districts in the country are working on professional development programs with a protocol called RTI (Response to Intervention). It’s a leveled set of guidelines that define how a student will learn and behave. Teachers are being trained to use it to provide additional structure and support in the classroom.

It’s also a way to prevent unnecessary referrals to special education classrooms by teachers who are struggling with classroom management issues. With this program, it is carefully spelled out what is expected, and it provides ways for teachers to intervene on behalf of a student who is taking longer to adapt to the classroom rules than others.

Parents need to understand the programs schools have adopted for classroom management and discipline. This high level of understanding helps them become better partners in the education of the children.

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Funded By:  Standard Charitable Foundation

P: 971.321.3162
F: 971.321.5243

The Standard
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1100 SW 6th Ave
Portland OR 97204

Description:  Areas of funding interest include Community Development, Education Effectiveness, Disability and Health.

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Average Amount:  varies

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