MY GUIDE Concerned > Special Education: The Referral and Evaluation Process

KEYWORDS: age 3 through 5Concernedschool basedservices and transitions

Understand the process

At first, the process of obtaining special education services for your child can seem complicated and confusing. Every parent feels a little overwhelmed. Don’t worry—we’ll help you understand the process and point you to other helpful information and resources. As always, connecting with other parents who have been through it is a great source of advice and support. Remember, if they got through it, so can you.

The initial referral and review

If your child is between the ages of three- to five-years-old, and you suspect he needs special education services, your first step will be to contact your school district and request an evaluation in writing. When you request that your child be evaluated for special education this is called a referral.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires local public school districts to “identify, locate, and evaluate every child who may have a disability requiring special education services.” This is called “Child Find.” When calling the district you should ask for the person responsible for “Child Find” and tell them you are interested in a special education evaluation for your child. The Child Find coordinator will answer your questions and tell you which school to make your referral to.

The school will review the information you give them about your child and respond in one of three ways:

●     Decline to do an evaluation

●     Recommend that your child be screened to see if they should do a full evaluation

●     Proceed to a Full and Individual Initial Evaluation (FIIE)


You should make your referral request in writing, sign it, and make a copy for your files.  The Center for Parent Information and Resources has additional resources and a sample referral letter. 

The evaluation

Before the evaluation can take place, the school district must have your written consent to proceed. Before signing this consent, the district evaluator should review the Procedural Safeguards with you and give you a copy of the ARD Guide. Be sure to sign and return all paperwork in a timely manner to keep the process moving. 

The role of the evaluator is to determine if a disability is present and to write a report explaining what your child can do and what your child needs help doing. This is the first step in the process of determining if your child needs special education services.

Both you and your child should be at the evaluation appointment unless you are told otherwise. There may be one or more evaluators at the appointment. The evaluator(s) will perform a variety of tasks with your child to help them determine if your child has a disability.

If your child’s evaluation reveals a disability, the next step is to have a meeting with school district representatives. The purpose of this meeting is to determine if the disability causes your child to need special services to be successful in school. In other words, if he is eligible for special education services. If the answer is “yes,” you will go on to the ARD Committee meeting to develop your child’s IEP (see next section). If the answer is “no,” you have other options. 

The ARD Committee and the IEP

“ARD” and “IEP” are two acronyms you will see a lot. ARD stands for Admissions, Review and Dismissal. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program.

Basically, the ARD committee, which includes you, the parent, as well as school district personnel, is created to write the IEP for your child. The IEP document is a blueprint for the special education services your child will receive. The IEP is revisited and adjusted regularly to make sure it continues to meet your child’s needs for as long as he receives special education services. You are the most important member of your child’s ARD committee and get to help create the IEP to address your child’s educational needs. 

You and your child's ARD committee will look at your child’s needs and determine which teachers, therapists and other special education professionals will work best with your child. Once the IEP is created, it is an official document that guarantees your child will receive the services and supports in the plan, if you go ahead and enroll him in public school.

The only way these services can be changed is if the team meets and agrees on changes. The team must meet every year to review the IEP, discuss how your child is doing on the IEP goals and make changes that will help your child.

Other considerations

If your child received ECI services, the supports and services in the IEP must begin on your child’s third birthday or a mutually agreed upon date. If your child did not receive ECI services, the IEP will show the date services will begin.

Also see HHS Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) Services.

In some cases the evaluation may show that there is a disability, but the ARD committee does not feel that the disability causes your child to need specialized services or supports in school. Since you are a member of this committee, you have a say in this and certain rights of recourse. 

If your child qualifies and you choose not to enroll him in your local public school, you will not receive the services specified in your child’s IEP paperwork, but there are other options to consider, such as home schooling your child, or enrolling him in a private preschool or a charter school.