Special Education Referrals: A Guide for Fathers

Your child is the most important person—aside from your spouse—in your life. You take great pride in each achievement as if it were your own. You cheer at every little league game, clap at every recital, and console at every disappointment—great or perceived. So when you get the notice that your child’s school wants to test for special education services you can’t help but feel a swell of mixed emotions. “What does this mean?” “This must be a mistake!” “Not my kid! No way!” As men, we tend to beat our chests and grunt like cave men. “My child fine. I fix it. See, my child good. You crazy!”

You are not alone in receiving news of special education testing or going through these emotions. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that—as of the 2015-16 school year—13 percent of students in the public school system receive special education services. Of that 13 percent, 34% qualify under Specific Learning Disability (SLD), 20% Speech or Language Impairment (SLI), 14% Other Health Impairment (OHI), and 9% Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Most of us have heard of ADHD (which falls under OHI), autism, and speech impairments (like having trouble with your “R’s”). SLD is a little more misunderstood.

SLD is not the same as Intellectual Disability (approximately 6% were qualified as ID in 2015-16). SLD means that your child has some cognitive weakness(es) that impede the learning processes in either reading comprehension, reading fluency, written expression, math computation, and/or applied math skills. Your child may struggle with remembering what they have read, answering questions or providing details of what was read, putting thoughts and ideas down on paper versus spitting them out immediately after forming them in the brain, remembering math facts, solving math word problems, and so on.

Many men feel deflated after getting word that their child needs to be tested because they do not have the information above or the information yet to be provided. Often, they jump to one of two mentalities: 1. “That’s it; the life I had envisioned for my child is over.” Or 2. “Nope. Not my kid. No way. My kid is fine and you are not testing him you [insert favorite expletives].” It doesn’t have to be that way. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.

Many famous actors and scientists have been rumored to have various types of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or other reading difficulties. Temple Grandin—a world renown animal scientist—has autism. Famous actors and comedians, such as Tom Cruise, Jay Leno, and Keira Knightly, are said to have dyslexia. Many “regular” people live great lives with great careers even though they have disabilities and have spent time in special education. Some of these “regular” people are quite smart (like one of my former students, who was wickedly fast at solving any type of Rubik’s Cube you gave him).

There are proper ways to handle this shock and situation as real men; as real fathers. Making sense of the assessment, process, however, can be difficult in more ways than one. Let me explain the process, while clearing up some misconceptions.

What the Initial Referral Means

The federal government has established what it calls “child find” procedures to make sure students with disabilities do not fall through the cracks in the public education system. This means that teachers—especially elementary school teachers—carefully look at student progress on class work and district/state wide assessments (similar things happened in various countries all over the world). When a problem is suspected, a referral is made to the school’s principal—also known as the “local education agent” or LEA. The principal directs further data collection on the problem before making the decision to send home a notice to you—the parent—requesting permission to test for disability.

Teacher-collected data is not a fancy way of testing your child without permission (in fact, you will most likely be made aware of teacher data and issues from parent-teacher conferences and report cards). The teacher does not conduct any assessments of your child that aren’t already being done for the rest of the students in the class. What is happening is the teacher is trying different instructional strategies to see if the instruction is what is causing the problem versus the content itself causing the issue(s). Teachers may also change the type of response required—whether that be answering orally versus on paper, multiple choice versus short answer, or limiting answer choices. These different “interventions”, coupled with the response data, are used to determine if formal testing is needed.

Now that interventions have been tried—with minimal or no success—the principal will send home a formal permission for you to sign and return. The school has 45 days to complete all tests (and yes, you have to sign off on each type of test administered) and then meet with you to discuss the results. Here is where some confusion and anxieties come into play. Many parents believe that this formal assessment means their child will be diagnosed with a disability and forever be stuck in special education, thereby labeled a “retard” and have doors closed off for the rest of his/her life.

First, schools DO NOT diagnose. Some teachers and related service providers (e.g., school psychologists, speech pathologists) are able to conduct assessments that you can give to your doctor to aid in the diagnostic process (such as ADHD questionnaires, and autism screeners and diagnostic tools); however, they themselves can never diagnose your child with a disability. Schools qualify students for services only—based on the assessment data they have collected.

Second, your child is not stuck in special education for the rest of public school. The goal in many school districts is to sufficiently catch your child up with his/her peers, while teaching the necessary strategies to be independent, within a three-year time frame. Many students achieve this goal; others take a little longer; others, unfortunately, do need to spend some amount of time in special education class(es) or services all through public school.

Third, well, that is a tricky one. I will tackle the third point another time, where more can be discussed about the damage of the use of the word “retard” and the potential and quality of life for individuals with disabilities.

What Happens During the Assessment Process

Contrary to what your paranoid mind might be trying to convince you of, your child does not have electrodes strapped to the head with a shock buzzer or anything of the sort. Your child will be assessed by a team of professionals, depending on the suspected problem(s). If the suspected issue is speech or language related, then a speech-language pathologist will get involved. If there are physical mobility issues, then an occupational therapist or physical therapist may be called. Almost always, the school is going to have the special education teacher do an “academic” assessment and the school psychologist do a “cognitive” assessment. The school will also ask for you input. What have you noticed—if anything—at home? Is there an area you would like assessed or do not want assessed (don’t be that guy)?

The academic assessment looks a number of skills, such as reading comprehension, spelling, letter and word recognition, math computation, and others. The special education teacher sits opposite of your child and gives directions prior to each section. Some sections use a flip board, while others use a work book or has your child listen to a recording before answering. The special education teacher will spend some time with your child before the assessment to get to know each other and reduce test anxiety. This assessment can be finished in a day, or multiple days, depending on your child’s needs. A classroom observation will also take place. This allows someone other than your child’s teacher to see what struggles may be happening in the classroom, and if behavior, class dynamics, or other circumstances may contribute to the problems listed in the referral.

The cognitive tests are similar to the academic ones. The psychologist gets to know your student before administering the test, and testing procedures are basically the same. Unlike the academic assessment, the cognitive ones look at skills such as verbal comprehension, visual spatial skills, working memory, long term retrieval, fluid reasoning, auditory processing, etc. These tests—added together—are more commonly known as an IQ test (a real one, not the five minute one you take after clicking a link on Facebook). A common misconception is that if the IQ test results in an overall average score (range of 85-115) that your child—the student—is fine. While a score in the average range is great, it does not mean that there isn’t a problem. Your child could have significant deficits in one or more of the subtests that indicate the presence of a disability, even though his/her overall IQ is average or above average. Also, don’t let the title of “psychologist” fool you. These professionals do not sit and psycho-analyze your child during an assessment. School psychologists do provide therapy and assessments for students who have been identified as having emotional disturbance, high anxiety and/or depression, and anger issues. However, that is not their role here in this assessment (unless those above mentioned issues were part of the initial referral).

The Results are In; What Now?

Once the testing is completed, the school will schedule a meeting with you to go over the assessment results. No determination or interpretation of data can be settled until this meeting takes places; therefore, asking over the phone if your child needs special education services or not is a pointless exercise. The school meeting will consist of the LEA—the principal, assistant principal, or someone the principal appoints to represent the school—your child’s teacher, the special education teacher, the school psychologist, any related service providers (e.g., speech pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist), you and your child (though you may excuse your child from the meeting if you wish).

The individualized education plan (IEP) team meeting will begin with introductions, followed by each individual discussing the role he/she played in the assessment process. Team members will ask if you have any clarifying questions, and ask you for your input. They want to know what you have seen at home. Have you noticed any improvement with homework, or attitude towards school?

After discussing all the data and the meaning behind it, team members will give their recommendation for or against services—this includes you. It is important to note here that there isn’t a set numerical threshold that says “yes, this child qualifies for special education” or “no, this student does not qualify for special education.” The numbers are just numbers. It is the team that decides placement (and please, listen meekly to the other professionals on the team).

This is the point of the meeting where you have a difficult decision to make. You can accept services if they are offered, or you can reject them. Please, do not reject services if they are offered (at least not at this point; more on that in a later post). Agree to services and start working with the other members of the team to decide how service will be conducted, how much time out of the day, etc.




The Art of Manliness has taught you how to do many things over the years. It has taught you how to work well with others; how to be a better husband and father; how to be humble, but not weak; how to be meek, but not be walked over; how to be a better man. Now is the time to put all of those lessons into practice.

First, listen. The only extra funding schools get for special education numbers is for students with severe disabilities that need to be in a self-contained classroom (separate from their peers)—which most are identified before ever entering school. That funding goes towards teachers, programs, and specialty services—not to help the principal or general education classes. This means there is no collusion to identify your child just so the school can get a few extra dollars. The school, teachers, and specialists truly have your child’s best interest in mind; if they didn’t, they would drag their feet in looking to qualify your child (more on that later).

Second, work with the IEP team; not against it. Now is not the time to beat your chest and show everyone that you are “The Man” and know/do everything. Collaborate; share ideas. Find solutions instead of bickering about problems or debating results of tests.

Know your rights as a parent. The school will give you a copy of procedural safeguards to look over. If you have not had time to view it before the IEP meeting, ask for some time to review it before you make any decisions (if you feel it is needed). Talk to a disability/special education consultant if you need help understanding anything in the safeguards.

The last thing you want to do is bring in a lawyer. Not only is this a weak move as a man (shows you are a difficult person to work with straight out the gate), but it sets the wrong tone with teachers and professionals (it becomes hard to like a student whose parent involves legal help right from the start, trust me).

Last, and most important, ask for help. It is perfectly acceptable to not know how to feel when your only son or daughter is wanted for special education testing. Asking others who have gone through the experience, or asking qualified professionals, to help you navigate this process is a great way to ease into the world of special education. A quick Google search can provide you with many resources in your area—along with various blogs and advocacy groups.

Stay calm; stay collected; do your research; and all will be fine in the end.

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