How to Refer Your Child for Special Education Testing

Teacher Listening to her Student in the Classroom
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Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all public schools are required to identify and evaluate students with disabilities, including learning disabilities. Schools identify these children in a number of ways, including referrals from parents who are concerned about their child's educational progress. 

Making a referral is the first important step in having your child assessed to diagnose a learning disability. Learn what you need to know to make a referral for your child.

What Is a Referral?

If you suspect your child is in need of special learning services, you can request an evaluation. This request is called a referral. Your referral lets school officials know that you are concerned and wish to have your child assessed by the Individual Education Program (IEP) team and/or school psychologist to determine if intervention is necessary.

Referrals are generally made in writing, either via a school-provided form or a formal letter. Though the federal government requires school officials to consider all referrals, if they do not think your child needs an evaluation, your request may be denied.

If school administrators accept your referral, they will either schedule a screening to determine whether full testing is necessary or schedule complete testing, called a Full and Individual Initial Evaluation.

Who Can Make a Referral?

Parents, guardians, custodial grandparents, teachers, counselors, or other school staff members who suspect a child is showing signs of learning disabilities may make a referral. Doctors, nurses, and social workers also have a legal requirement to make referrals for any school-aged children they feel qualify for special services.

Referrals are not limited to children enrolled in public schools. Homeschooled students and students enrolled in private schools are also eligible for evaluation and services.

When Can Students Be Referred?

School-aged children can be assessed at any grade level, but they are most often identified and diagnosed with learning disabilities in the early elementary years. You don’t have to wait until your child is enrolled in school. You can refer a child as young as three years old through your school district.

If your child is under three years old, you can request services directly from your state via the Early Intervention program. Early Intervention is another aspect of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that provides services for infants and toddlers with disabilities or developmental delays.

To contact an Early Intervention specialist in your area, speak to your child's pediatrician or contact your school district for contact information.

How to Write a Letter of Referral

Some school districts provide forms for referrals, but many do not. Contact your child's principal or counselor to find out if a form is provided and where to find it.

If your school district does not have a standardized form, submit a formal, business-style letter to your school’s administrators. Be sure to confirm the name and mailing address of the school administrator responsible for receiving referrals and clarify any other details you might be concerned about before mailing your referral letter.

What You'll Need

  • Materials for writing a letter by hand or computer
  • The name and mailing address of your child's school principal or counselor
  • Samples of your child's work, test results, or other progress data

What to Include

It may be tempting to write a lengthy and detailed letter, outlining all aspects of your child's struggle, but referral letters should be kept concise and straightforward. Your referral letter should include:

  • Your mailing address, daytime and evening telephone numbers
  • Your child's name, birth date, school, and grade
  • A description of your child's learning problems and any interventions you've attempted
  • A statement that you are making a referral for evaluation and are requesting an Individual Education Program team meeting to discuss the referral
  • Several dates and times you can be available to meet with school staff 

What to Avoid

Keep your letter professional and brief. It should be under two pages, double-spaced. Focus on your child's learning needs. If there are other matters affecting your child, such as a recent divorce or death in the family, you will have the opportunity to share them with the IEP team, counselor, or school psychologist in person.

Keep your language neutral and refrain from expressing anger or making accusations. Although you may have struggled with school staff because of their child's learning problems, avoid thinking about and mentioning those incidents when writing your letter. The tone of your letter should be professional.

How to Deliver the Referral

Generally, it is best to mail your referral. This increases the chance that the school administrator will read it when they can focus on its content. Send the letter via certified mail if you are concerned it could be lost.

Alternatively, if you deliver the letter by hand to the school's office, ask the secretary to stamp it with the date and give you a copy. Be prepared to pay a reasonable fee for the copy of approximately five to ten cents per page.

What Happens Next

Once you've mailed the letter, allow adequate time for delivery and for the school staff to process your request. If you do not hear from them within a week of mailing the letter, contact the administrator to ensure it was received.

In response, school administrators will either schedule a screening or a full test. Or they may decide to decline the referral if, after investigation, they do not think the child meets the necessary criteria. They must explain their reasons in writing. If you disagree, you can ask for an independent evaluation (although you will likely have to pay for it).

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By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.