My knowledge of the referral process for special education is extremely limited, but some educator friends were willing to lend their experience.
One friend works at international schools, privately run institutions that use a U.S. curriculum but operate within the confines of the host country. Her assessments of students have to be done with consideration of the multitude of cultures that are represented in international schools, as it is as important there to have the parents’ involvement in the process as it is in America. It usually begins, though, with the student’s teacher. Students are often identified early in elementary school, and it is not unusual, through casual teacher interaction, for a special education counselor to know to have an eye on students from as young as 5. She said that the different schools she has worked at have provided varying amounts of support from the administration staff, but that classroom teachers are typically very involved with each student who needs a personalized learning plan. The classroom teachers, after all, are the ones who have the most contact and trust with not only the students, but also the parents. In these private schools, it is often the case that parents are already very involved, and little is done before parents are called into the conversation.
Another friend who teaches high school English and history at a private school in northern California added from her perspective. She describes many of her students as “delightfully odd” to begin with, which reflects the culture of the community the school draws from. It was rare for her to have to refer any of her students for special education, but she did on occasion have to address learning disorders, including ADHD. These were students struggling beyond simply not “getting it.” In those situations, at the high school level, her first conversation was always with the student. If appropriate, she would consult with colleagues who also had the student in question to see if the student were similarly struggling in their subjects. A coordinated effort by her, the special education counselor, and a school administrator would bring the parents and student together into the conversation about next steps. For the level of personalized education her students have needed, the answer was typically a dedicated tutor or helper for the student.
More often, my high school teacher friend worked with student who already had identified learning disorders or special education needs. Those students were supported by tutors or aides as dictated by their individualized learning plans. Midyear, she was able to keep students on track with regular conversations and check-ins with their tutors. She was fortunate to have never had to remove a student from her class because of special education needs. That is likely because she taught older students, and those with more severe needs did not end up in her advanced classes.
Both of my friends were privileged to be working in private school systems with the resources to provide for students with special needs. Everything about their schools made the referral process easier than it would typically be in a public school. Parents are almost always more involved with their student’s education from the beginning, so when a problem arises, there is already a conversation going on with the family. Teachers in private schools also have fewer students in their class, so mainstreaming a student with special needs is an easier task, as all students are already receiving more individual attention from the teacher. And very tangible resources are easier to come by in the private schools, so more students can have greater access to technology that can be a wonderful tool in a student’s individualized education plan.
It is very clear that things are moving in the right direction for students with special needs. Students in America have legislation that give them resources they need to be best set up for success. They are kept in classrooms whenever possible; consider the practice of institutionalizing people with special needs that still happens in many countries around the world, and happened here in the last century. We understand more and more how much students with learning disorders can be helped with just a little personalized attention and how successful they can be.