Special Education Referrals: Part 1: Demystifying the Pre-Referral Process


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Pre-referral Questions Courtesy of: Colin_K

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the referral process for special education, you are not alone! After experiencing pre-referral team meetings, multidisciplinary team meetings, enough paperwork to wallpaper a large home, and forms that are sent around and around the table at a dizzying rate for signatures, it is no wonder that you may leave these meetings not quite sure about what actually happened. Hopefully, this series of articles will help to clarify the process and provide an in-depth framework for understanding special education referrals.

What is a pre-referral team?

If a teacher or parent has a concern regarding a student’s progress, schools generally have an initial team that meets to review the concern and offers suggestions for interventions. School districts have their own acronyms for this pre-referral team. I have heard it referred to as SST (Student Study Team), TAT (Teams Assisting Teachers), CST (Child Study Team), and the list goes on. Whatever the name of the team, the function remains the same. These teams provide support to teachers and gather data prior to determining the need for an evaluation. Interventions prior to an evaluation are not just a good idea; they are mandated by IDEA (2004), the federal regulations that govern special education (34 CFR §300.304 through 300.306). The law does not specify how long interventions need to be implemented, just that enough data needs to be collected to determine that a child’s difficulty learning is not due to a lack of appropriate instruction.

Who is on the pre-referral team?

Members of the pre-referral team may include your child’s teacher, the special education teacher, the school counselor, administrators, and other school staff who may have information to add to the discussion. Sometimes these teams will include the school psychologist. However, unless the parent or other member of the team has requested my attendance, I rarely participate in pre-referral meetings. I typically do not get involved until after the pre-referral team has determined that the student is a candidate for a special education evaluation.

Why does it take so long?

Sometimes parents and teachers feel frustrated at the speed, or lack thereof, of the pre-referral process. It is generally recommended that interventions be tried for approximately 6-8 weeks to determine the impact of the interventions on a student’s learning. While the pre-referral process takes time, it is necessary in order to make sure that your child has been provided with appropriate interventions. If students respond to interventions, special education is not needed. Making sure that the right services are put in place for your child is the purpose of the pre-referral process. Should your child require an evaluation, data collected during the pre-referral process can be used as a review of existing data to speed up the evaluation process later.

Can’t I just request a special education evaluation?

Parents have the right to request an evaluation for special education at any time (34 CFR §300.301(b)). However, a request for an evaluation does not necessarily mean that the school must complete the evaluation. Federal regulations indicate that the school must review the parent’s request and provide written notice if the decision is made not to evaluate (34 CFR §300.503(a)(2)). You should generally receive contact from the school within 10 days after making the request. However, this timeline is not specified in the federal regulations. The regulations state that a response must be given within a reasonable amount of time. Some schools require students to go through the pre-referral process prior to an evaluation for special education. This data can be very helpful in directing the evaluation team.


The pre-referral process serves a valuable purpose. It allows teachers to receive support and students the opportunity to access interventions that may help alleviate the reason for the referral. Be assured that during the time needed to collect data, students in the process are not “falling through the cracks.” They are receiving tailored interventions and their progress is being closely monitored by the team.

Special education can provide wonderful services for students with disabilities. However, if a student is able to succeed in the general education classroom with minor interventions available to all children, all the better!


Visit http://idea.ed.gov/explore/home for more detailed information on federal regulations governing special education.

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