When to Get a Child Evaluated — Special Education Podcast
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S1E2 Evaluations for special education: Deciding to get an evaluation

How do schools decide if a child needs an evaluation for special education? And what role do families play? This episode of Understood Explains focuses on the very beginning of the process — deciding if your child needs to get evaluated. 

Host Dr. Andy Kahn is a psychologist who has spent nearly 20 years evaluating kids for public and private schools. Andy’s first guest on this episode is educator Julian Saavedra. They’ll cover a few key areas:

  • Deciding if now is the right time to evaluate, or if you should wait

  • Addressing stigma, myths, and other common challenges that can get in the way

  • Finding an ally who can help you partner with your child’s school

Andy’s second guest is parenting expert Amanda Morin. They’ll give you some ideas on what to say to your child about deciding to get an evaluation — and what not to say.

Related resources

Episode transcript

Michele: My name is Michele, and I live in the Bronx, New York. I've been down this road three different times, three different sons. Now my youngest son, I will say, even though I sat down with him and discussed it with him when he was first evaluated, he was in eighth grade and he was very upset. He took it very hard. And he just felt that he was being, you know, viewed as being slow, or not smart, or crazy. And that means that conversation had to be a little different for him, because I wanted him to understand that it didn't mean that he was damaged or there was something wrong with him, it was I just see that he was struggling. 

Andy: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains." You're listening to Season 1, where we explain evaluations for special education. Over 10 episodes, we cover the ins and outs of the process that school districts use to evaluate children for special education services. My name is Andy Kahn, and I'm a licensed psychologist and an in-house expert at Understood.org. I've spent nearly 20 years evaluating kids for both public and private schools. I'll be your host.

Today's episode will focus on the very beginning of the evaluation process — deciding if your child needs to be evaluated. We're going to cover three key things: deciding if now's the right time to evaluate or if you should wait, addressing stigma and other challenges that can get in the way, and finding an ally who can help you partner with your child's school. We're also going to give you some ideas on what to say to your child about deciding to get an evaluation and what not to say. First, let's hear some more of Michele's story.

Michele: I never, at any time, go against what the school is asking. So when they asked for the child to be evaluated, I don't fight it, like, "Oh, not my child, he doesn't need to be evaluated." I say, "OK, great. If that's what you think, because he's in school, I don't know what's going on when he's there every day. Just explain to me what's going on. Yes, let's do it."

Andy: It's a big decision deciding if your child needs to be evaluated for special education services. It's a decision that families and schools need to make together. And it's very common to wonder if a child's struggles are serious enough or if the child might outgrow whatever the issue is. So how schools and families decide if a child needs to be evaluated is really important. And it's extremely important to know, "Should we evaluate them now?" My first guest today is going to help me unpack all this.

Julian Saavedra is an assistant principal at a Philadelphia high school. He's also a father of two and co-host of the Understood podcast "The Opportunity Gap," about kids of color who have ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences. So glad to have you here, Julian.

Julian: Hey!

Andy: So let's dive in. What are the common questions schools and families ask about whether or not to evaluate a child or to wait? And what are some of the biggest factors that come into play?

Julian: When I think about the types of questions that schools ask, it's really about the progression of the student's abilities. Like, how is the student doing in the regular education setting, and is that student progressing, and what are the factors that are impeding the progress? The same thing for families — a lot of times families might just be wondering, you know, what's going on with my child? How come they're not doing as well as some of their peers? And a lot of times we try to figure out what are the specific things that are impacting the student's learning? And the evaluation process hopefully is designed to uncover some of those specific things that are happening so that the student can best be served.

Andy: So a really common, you know, in my work life, where a family might have the conversation with me, and they come in and say, "You know, I really don't know — Johnny's, Johnny's struggling to do what he needs to do in math. And we're seeing that he's getting upset at home. And we're really not sure what to do. And here's some of the things we've tried." Those qualitative pieces are so helpful in that conversation, you know, because it's not a grade or a number on a piece of paper or a grade-level standard. So I think so much of what we talk about in making those decisions, talks about the academics as well as sort of the emotional response.

Julian: Mm-hm.

Andy: So, Julian, let's take a couple minutes and talk about some key terms that families need to know. I always talk about, like, the terminology as being so important. And if families are aware of the terminology and the language we're using, they're going to be better able to collaborate and participate in that. So maybe we can talk a little bit about terms like "prereferral," "referral," "response intervention," and things along those lines.

Julian: Sure. One of the terms that you'll most likely hear a lot of at all parts of the process is the idea of referral. And sometimes that term is a little bit scary because it sounds like something related to a doctor's office or a medical thing, but it's not. It really is referring to the idea that there's a recommendation that will be made.

And at the earliest part of the process, there is a team of teachers and other school staff that has come together, and they're trying to discern — determine — or figure out what's happening with the child. And in some cases, they may determine that from their recommendation, that they may want to consider evaluating the child to deem if that child is a good candidate for special education services. And in that case, that would be a referral for an evaluation. And so the parents or families or parenting adults that are involved in the child's life will have to say yes and agree to that evaluation. It cannot move forward without the families or the people in that child's life agreeing to that process starting.

Now, another term that you may hear is "prereferral." And prereferral is all of the conversation and the data collection that is involved before that official referral process occurs. That's where there's a block of time where the team of people that are at the school starts to come together and figure out what's happening. They may start looking at what's going on in specific classrooms. They may start having some conversations with the student. They may even try some different interventions that will hopefully assist the student to improve their performance.

And another word that you might hear is the idea of "intervention," meaning the team of adults at the school is intervening in the general education program to try something different, to try something that may help the student. And there's different levels of intervention. 

Andy: So, Julian, let's dig into that a little bit. So what do those different levels look like?

Julian: A Tier 1 intervention is something that is going to intervene for all the students. Everybody that is in the classroom is going to have this change. It may be the teacher is going to change the seats in the classroom, or it may be that the teacher is going to post an agenda on the board. Something that is going to impact everybody.

A Tier 2 intervention may be something that's more specific to a targeted group of students. So maybe your child is within that targeted group. And that Tier 2 intervention is, again, another change to the regular programming that is an attempt to see whether or not we can help.

Tier 3 is where that prereferral starts to really catch up. And that's because that's an individualized approach. And the key to all of this for families is understanding that these processes of intervention are supposed to happen for a certain amount of time. And that time is to then evaluate, over the course of that span of intervention happening, whether or not change occurs. And if they find that they've tried these things over multiple times and they're not working, then the team might decide, all right, well, maybe we need to go ahead and do a referral for an official evaluation to determine, does this student fall into the category of requiring special education services?

Andy: There was a really good description of some prereferral intervention. And just in case folks are curious: In our show notes, there is a resource there, an article on "What is response to intervention?" So you can go back and look over some of those pieces of information in detail. So when we talk about how schools decide how to evaluate a child for special education, we're thinking about from that school perspective, but what about for parents? Now, parents have legal rights here. How can the parents take an active role in deciding whether or not to evaluate their child?

Julian: Parenting adults have the right legally to say, "Yes, I would like to move forward with this evaluation process," or "No." On the other side of it, as a parent, you also have the right to ask or request for an evaluation at any time.

Andy: So, Julian, I just want to pause on this point for a second. So what you're saying is that the school can make a referral for a child to be evaluated, or the family can request an evaluation. Families are going to have a lot of questions and most likely are worried school is going to try to sugarcoat the answers.

Julian: So I always push people to make sure that, you know, whenever you're dealing with the school, you want to make sure that there's somebody in the school that you trust. Seek them out as counsel for this process. It's a really big decision. It's a big step. You know, in my own experience, especially — I'm a Black male educator, right? — and so I work in schools that have a historically underprivileged population of students. A lot of my kids are Black or brown students that come from poverty-stricken areas, and, quite frankly, a lot of their families don't trust the system. And so when they hear the terms "referral" or "evaluation" or "assessment" or "response to intervention," it automatically raises a red flag, like, "Wait, hold up, I don't want my kid to do that." But when I get a chance to have a conversation with them, because I'm somebody that, for a lot of families — you know, I'm the only Black male educator in my school, and I have a lot of families that come to me to talk about what's happening. And they trust my judgment. And when I'm able to sit down and talk with them about what this actually means, and how we know if the evaluation determines that the child requires special education services, it's only going to do good things for that kid, it eases them off a lot.

Andy: You raised a huge and important issue. And what you described as finding that ally at that school, if you can explain in a way that helps people feel that they understand the process, and understand, most importantly, that it's there to help their child, you'll have a better probability — a better chance — of being successful and moving that process forward.

Julian: You know, allies can take many forms, right? We don't necessarily need to share the same socioeconomic background or the same cultural background, but it helps, definitely. But, you know, the idea of having trust, and having somebody that has a relationship with you already is really helpful in navigating this process. And so, you know, anybody that you feel you've built that relationship with should have a working knowledge of how this process goes. You know, it's something that all educators learn about in their teacher prep programs. So, theoretically, all adults in the building should have a very clear knowledge of how this process goes. And they know how to navigate some things going on at school that the parents may not, and being somebody that the parents can call on and ask questions, and ask questions in a nonevaluative way. You know, it's nonjudgmental; it's not telling the parents which way to go, that you should do this or you should not do this. Just being really clear about making sure that the families feel comfortable during the process. That's the most important thing, I would say.

Andy: And I think that having an ally allows you to hopefully speak openly about stigma and, in some cases, addressing the myths about what special education really means. Are there certain myths that you see or misconceptions you hear about with regularity from parents?

Julian: Yeah, there's a lot of language that's used to describe people with learning and thinking differences that is antiquated. You know, I hear sometimes the terminology, "Oh, I don't want to be in the slow class," or "I don't want to be on the small yellow bus," or "I don't want to be considered, you know, left behind everybody else," or "My child isn't stupid. He's just not working hard."

You know, I have students coming in from different countries, or students coming in from places that special education is very different than it is here. And so there's also a stigma around culture and understanding that, you know, the learning and thinking differences are not something just to be conquered. And they're just not going to go away. Or it's not just because you're not working hard enough and they just need to do better. No, this is actually a much deeper situation. And helping families understand that what learning and thinking differences actually are, and how, in many cases, it's not directly tied to the effort that a child is putting in. And I think a lot of times going back to the idea of trust and allyship, when a conversation is had with somebody that you already trust has your child's best interests in mind, and they can speak with confidence about what some of those stigmas and those myths are and how they are debunked, from somebody you trust, a lot of times that helps make that person change the way they think.

Andy: So what are some of the common questions families ask you about evaluations? You know, I think there's some core issues about, you know, the timing and what this means over the long haul.

Julian: Yeah, I mean, a lot of times they just ask, like, "What's going to happen? Like, what kind of test are they going to do? Is it something that they have to study for?" They might ask, like, "Well, how long is this going to take? What kind of questions are you going to ask them? Do you really think they need this? Like, or is it just that they they're not doing what they're supposed to do? Is this something that they're going to grow out of?" Sometimes I've been asked, "Do you really think the school is going to do right by my kid? And what's the next step after that? And what do I have to do in this process? Like, what role do I need to play in this?"

Andy: Yeah, so I think you've covered some really great points. What are some situations you think where it would make sense to not evaluate a child or to decide against it? And what would, you know, support the idea of you deciding to do it at a later time?

Julian: You know, I think there's a couple of factors involved. One, has the school been extremely communicative about all parts of the process? Like, if this is coming out of the blue, and you've never heard anything about this before, then I would put a pause on wanting to go through this first. I'd be asking the school, "Well, have you tried interventions yet? What's the child's response been to these interventions? How long have you been trying to do these different things?" before we jump immediately to the evaluation process. I'd also be wondering, the child's age in that case. Like for, especially for younger kids, "Is the child a little young for the grade? Or is the child not necessarily catching up with their peers developmentally?" I think especially with the pandemic and the things that we went through, over the past two years, especially with our younger students, I would be wondering about like, what kind of instruction did the child have? So this may not be something where we have to evaluate their learning and thinking differences necessarily; it might just be this was a gap in instruction. And this gap in instruction is impacting their performance. I would also be wondering, in general, like, "What time of the school year are you asking this question?" If you're asking to evaluate in September, I might be wondering, "Well, do you have enough data to support this request?" And so I might request to push it back to later in the year, maybe November, after Thanksgiving, to really give the school a chance to really try some of those interventions and track whether the interventions are working or not.

Andy: I think that's really helpful. You know, some of the things that were issues that would come up in our schools up here in Maine, was what if a student had just moved from one district to another? And we see that instruction may have been provided as substantially different pace. So giving a chance for a child to adjust to new environments, to have the opportunity to get some intervention before we jump to evaluation.

So let's think about what you've raised from the flip side here too. If a parent requests an evaluation, the school might respond in the same way as what you were just describing, too, in raising some of those issues. And I think it goes in both directions, that the school as we're saying, may ask those very same things that well, have we given enough opportunity? Are we giving the child enough chance to adapt and adjust if they haven't had access to into even to instruction if a child has been out sick? Or if a child has had some disruption in their daily lives? Those are very important things. So what are some of the proactive things that parents can do if we decide to wait on the evaluation process? Let's say we've decided, hey, we're going to delay for now and give them some chance to develop and, and offer some things in school?

Julian: Yeah, I would, I would, number one, make sure that the parent requires that the school sets aside specific times where there's going to be follow up about what's happening at school. You know, the communication process is key. So making sure that the school, even as far as putting calendar dates when there's going to be conversation about the child's progress outside of progress reports or report card conferences, like when are we going to actually check in about this? And I would ask the school, what kind of interventions are you going to do? How can I support those interventions at home? I would also start to take some notes about what I'm noticing with my child at home. I know some parents even will go so far as to write down or keep a journal of some of the responses that their child, their children, give to them. When they asked that question, "Hey, how was school today?" It may be on Monday they say, "Great." And on Tuesday, they might say, "Not so good." And, you know, kind of pushing your child to have more specific conversation: Tell me more about what was good about your day. Tell me more about a challenge that you had today. Tell me about a place where you felt really good about school during your day.

Andy: So, Julian, maybe we can spend a minute or two talking about any specific tips you might have for groups of parents. I'm trying to decide about evaluating maybe for younger kids or for older kids about how that would look, and if there's any differences.

Julian: Yes, there are definitely differences for all groups of kids. I think with younger kids, as opposed to older kids, with age and more school experience, you have a lot more data to speak from. That will help inform what your decision is going to be. I think with our families that may be speakers of other languages or those that are English learners, especially, also, you know, kind of understanding what the process is for their language learning. What kind of services have they been receiving for language learning, and knowing that maybe this is a language gap, or a content gap, and not necessarily a learning and thinking difference? There's, there's a big difference between those two things. And above all, trust your gut, you know, you are your child's number one advocate. And there's no judgment either way. It's ultimately your decision. And so trust yourself.

Michele: I believe totally that a mentor, an ally, is a necessity. My mentor, Mrs. Gwen Crenshaw, she was golden. She was an angel. She was the best. She actually was a deaconess in a church where my family went. And I've talked to her all the time. She told me what was supposed to take place during the evaluation process, what to advocate for, what to look out for, what I should do, what I shouldn't allow. And she basically — whether she was in the room with me or not — held my hand through the whole entire process.

Andy: So we've been talking about the importance of finding an ally, as you think about whether your child needs an evaluation. Let's switch gears here and get some advice on how to talk to your child about deciding to evaluate. Amanda Morin is the cohost of Understood's "In It" podcast and the mom of three kids, two of whom learn differently. She's also a former classroom teacher and early intervention specialist.

So, Amanda, this can be a really sensitive topic for families. What advice do you have for parents on how to talk to kids about deciding to get an evaluation?

Amanda: Well, it's so interesting, Andy, because as you and I both know, it depends on the age of the kid, too, right? So with a younger child, who is really kind of just starting to see that there might be something difficult for them in a classroom or that things are a little bit harder for them than it is for other kids, it's probably worth saying, "You know, we've noticed this is hard for you and that you're having some difficulty. And we want to make sure that we can get you the support you need to really do well and feel like you're in the same places as all the other kids in your classroom." So I don't think it has to be a really in-depth conversation about "You're going to be evaluated," because that's a really scary kind of thing to say. Now, with older kids, I think you can be more up-front, and you can say, "You may know, or you may not know, that there's a process for getting evaluated for having a way of looking at what's hard for you, what's troublesome for you, where you really have strengths and that kind of thing. And we think it's a good idea to start looking at that so you can get some help in school, or we can figure out what kind of help you need."

There are things to avoid as well, right? You want to make sure that you're not saying to kids, "We're going to have you tested and you're going to see Dr. So-and-So." Because for young kids, that sounds like you're going to the doctor's office, and that there are tests and there might be needles, and there might be those kinds of things. So I think it's important to say, "You know, this is, this is a decision that we're talking about with the school because your teachers want to make sure that you have what you need to and that they have what they need to help you in the classroom."

I also think that you may want to, as a parent, not talk about this in special education terms right yet, because it may not end up providing results that have a child become eligible for special education. You may end up in a different space where a child has accommodations in the general education classroom. So I think keeping it a little vaguer because you don't know the outcome yet really matters. 

Andy: Yeah, and I think akin to that point, we're talking about what it is, not what it's going to become. And I think the decision process is really important to not go into the what-ifs. What-ifs can lead to a lot of anxiety, it can lead to more questions, and we can handle it this time.

Amanda: Yeah. And one of the best pieces of advice, I think, is to think through the what is versus the what if, right? "What is" right now versus "what if" down the line?

Andy: Exactly. Really just staying focused on that momentary sort of conversation. There's plenty of time to get into the depth of this, especially as we know more. Any other advice for what parents can say to kids at the very beginning of the evaluation process?

Amanda: That we want to make sure that kids know this is not being done to them; this is being done for them. And I think that that's something that I always try and stress when I'm talking to my own kids, when I'm helping other parents have these conversations. This is not being done to your child, it's being done for your child. And I think that makes all the difference in the world in terms of language.

Andy: Yeah. And I think that even a step further is talking about them being a participant and a cooperative part of that process. You know, so much of it is really just making the kids feel like we're all in this together,

Amanda: I think "Yes, and." Because I think with older children, right, when you're talking about middle schoolers and high schoolers, sometimes they're not a cooperative part of this process. And you have to let them know "We're doing this anyway because we make these decisions for you as parents." When it comes down to what that looks like after we've done the evaluation, you will have some say in how this gets put into place in the classroom. But right now we're making this decision, because you may not be able to see how much we see you struggling, right? So I think it's important to know that not all kids are going to be part of that cooperative process. And sometimes as parents, we have to, we have to make those decisions and just say so,

Andy: Yeah, that's a great point. You know, and I think on the, on the other side of this, you know, really being cautious around the technical terminology. You know, I always say to parents, "It's a lot harder to break your kids than you think. You're not going to break your kid by using the wrong phrase in a moment." But it's certainly helpful to get up to date on the language and to maybe do a little rehearsal at times, because it's awkward. And talking to kids isn't always easy.

Amanda: Absolutely. I think rehearsal is a really good suggestion. It's definitely something we've used in our house. It's definitely something I use when I'm working with other parents, right? To be able to say to them, "Pretend I'm your child, and let's have this conversation." And I think it's worth acknowledging to your child, we're taking this step, we've decided on doing this having this process started. We're not necessarily sure what's coming next, but we will keep you in the loop and keep you posted as much as we know. 

Andy: So we've talked about how best to involve your child in a positive conversation about the evaluation process. We've talked about how to decide whether your child needs an evaluation now or if you should wait. We've also discussed stigma and the importance of finding an ally. If there's one thing you need to take away from this discussion, it's that schools and families need to make this decision together. You can play a very active role in deciding what happens next. Don't be afraid to keep asking questions until you understand what the school wants to do and why. So always remember that as a parent, you're the first and best expert on your child. In our next episode, we'll dive deep into how families can request an evaluation. And if your child's school has already recommended an evaluation, you may want to jump to our episode about what to expect during the evaluation.

You've been listening to Season 1 of "Understood Explains" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.

And now, just as a reminder who we're doing this all for, I'm going to turn it over to Lauren to read our credits. Take it away, Lauren.

Lauren: "Understood Explains" is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also did the sound design for the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. A very special thanks to Amanda Morin and all the other parents and experts who helped us make this show. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

Andy: Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Host

  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who has served as an evaluator and consultant in public schools for nearly 20 years. Dr. Kahn, who describes himself as neurodivergent, is a subject matter expert at Understood.

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