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.

Grant Name: Serves Grants

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.

Program Areas: Public School, Private School, Other

Eligibility: Disabilities, Health/PE

Proposal Deadline: 10/18/2014

Address: 70 West Red Oak Lane White Plains, NY 10604

Telephone: 914-696-7175


Website: United States Tennis Association

Availability: All States

School’s Started, Time to Focus on What’s Important

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

girl classroom

You were probably in your classroom a few times this summer. You wanted to assess things like seating plan, ready to use supplies, classroom library, and to let the custodian know if there were any maintenance issues. There is nothing worse than starting up in the fall with chewing gum blobs under the desks. Ick!

You will be working with the minds of students with learning disabilities and with challenging behaviors. Having the right tools is important. A concept that might take days for a student to grasp can sometimes be understood in minutes if you’re using the right materials. There is also no escaping the fact that technology is rapidly revolutionizing the way we assess and work with our kids. You want to make sure your professional development calendar has technology seminars included. You want to know what’s new, affordable and available to bring you up to speed.

Let’s say you’re teaching an LD reading class with 12 students. Only 5 of those students are on the same level.  You may need books and materials on 7 different levels.  Some students may require large-print books. One needs an audio book. Will there be a PC for every student? Or a tablet or other mobile device? Check in with your building or district IT person to make sure your network connection is the best it can be, he or she may be able to upgrade your wireless connection. Sometimes special education classrooms are left out of technology upgrades in schools. It’s not deliberate, it’s possible the technology folks think you don’t need the hardware. Be proactive and make sure you’re on the updater list.

Check with your Library Media Specialist to see if she has leveled libraries set up for guided reading. If not, work with her to create reading lists using existing collections so you can save time when you stop in to pick up baskets of books for your students. I just have to share this website with you, a teacher has created the ultimate guided reading library right in her own classroom. Wow is it ever great! Be sure your LMS bookmarks it on her teacher terminals. Keep track of what’s new in professional development for  teachers for RTI.  Response to Intervention is becoming the accepted protocol for schools throughout the country. If it is properly implemented it will benefit you immensely. At the very least it should cut down on unnecessary SPED referrals.

You may be teaching one 4th grade LD reading class, but essentially you need the right tools for seven different grades. Do you have the tools you need to teach your students the skills they need? A resource for purchasing the best of the things you need can be found at

I’ve spent some time studying the various types of materials and tools available to special education teachers. Proper tools are available to teach almost any skill at any level. Your most important resource, your own experience, needs to be upgraded along with your supplies and technologies.

Does your budget allow you to purchase all the tools you need for your classroom? I  include a grant opportunity each time I write this blog. Some will apply to your school and your situation. Others will not.  You should always take a look at the grant, however, to see if your situation is a fit. You can also find a free grants database to help you in your search for just the right funding opportunity for your needs.

Let a smile be your best tool for behavior management this year, it’s amazing how many unpleasant situations it can disarm. Good luck in 2013-14. Stay tuned to this blog for more great ideas and pep talks.


Grant Name:  Serves Grants

Funded By:  United States Tennis Association (USTA)

Description:  Grants are 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.

Program Area:   Disabilities, Health/PE

Recipients:  Public School, Private School, Other

Proposal Deadline:  10/18/2013

Annual Total Amount:  $800,000.00

Telephone:  914-696-7175



Availability:  All States