School evaluations are free — and you can ask for one at any time and for any reason. But the details you include can make a big difference. This episode of Understood Explains covers the ins and outs of how to request an evaluation for special education.
Host Dr. Andy Kahn is a psychologist who has spent nearly 20 years evaluating kids for public and private schools. His first guest on this episode is former special education teacher Christina Gutierrez. They’ll explain three key things:
How to request an evaluation
What details to include and why
How soon the school needs to respond
Andy’s second guest is parenting expert Amanda Morin. They’ll share tips on what to say to your child about requesting an evaluation — and what not to say.
Jennifer: Hi, my name is Jennifer and I live in Atlanta, Georgia. I have a son, Nathan. He is 11 years old. I first started having concerns about Nathan's differences when he was in first grade and his teacher called us in for a meeting. And she said, I just feel like something's not right. Like, he's working really hard in class, but we're not seeing any results. And can you work harder with him at home? And for me, the first thing that happened for me was like this mom guilt, like we haven't been doing enough. I was kind of in denial that it could even be something like dyslexia at first. And once I kind of came around to OK, this actually sounds exactly like what dyslexia is described as, so now what do I do? How do I go about getting him help? I started looking into it and started realizing that I had the right to request that evaluation.
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 focuses on how to request an evaluation. We're going to explain three key things: what details to include in your request and why, what you can expect after you submit your request, and what you can say to your child about requesting an evaluation — and what not to say. First, back to Jennifer's story.
Jennifer: When I knew that I should submit this request for an evaluation, I did some research online. And there's several templates online that you can use to guide you on how to write a request for this evaluation for your child. And so in my first letter that I wrote, I was very just kind of like to the point, like I'm requesting this evaluation. And I didn't put a lot of the background information that I wish I would have included. I was very direct. And I didn't add in the parts that made him a person, if that makes sense. So when I look back on how that went, I kind of wish I would have documented in that letter what I was seeing and why I was requesting the evaluation.
Andy: What to include in an evaluation request? This is a big question for many parents. But before we get into those details, I want to mention two important things about special education law. Number one: Over the years, I've worked with many families who didn't know that school districts are required by law to be on the lookout for kids who might have disabilities, and that school districts need to evaluate kids, at no cost to families, to see if a child might need special education services. Number two: Many families are surprised to learn that they can ask the school district to evaluate their child. They don't need to wait for the school to reach out and say, "Hey, we think something's going on, that your child is struggling." You can reach out first. So that's a really important part of special education law — that you can ask your school district to evaluate your child at any time and for any reason. But the way you ask — the details you include — can make a huge difference in helping the school decide how or whether or not to evaluate your child.
So my first guest today is going to help me unpack all this. Christina Gutierrez has spent a decade as a special education teacher in New York City, where she recently shifted gears and is now working in a private clinic that provides free evaluations for kids. Christina is an Understood Teacher Fellow. She's also a mom of a child who receives special education. So she knows the evaluation process personally, as well as professionally. So Christina, welcome. So glad to have you here today.
Christina: Thank you for having me.
Andy: So I understand you worked for many years as a special education teacher. And you also worked for two of those years as a school response to intervention coordinator. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Christina: Yeah. So a school response to intervention coordinator is a role that's pretty specialized. Response to intervention is a school's attempt at catching any lagging gaps that may be happening with students, and intervening either through extra tutoring in reading, or extra tutoring in math, to help students thrive. There are levels to it. There are different tiers — what they call tiers to intervening. So your Tier 1, just for some understanding, is your classroom, just like your natural classroom that you're in, right? Schools are expected to provide classrooms that try to assess — that try to reach every child in their understanding and in academic content.
Your Tier 2 is, oh, as a teacher, I'm noticing this kid is struggling a little bit in his math facts. I'm going to pull him every day for a couple of minutes, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to go over these math facts extra just to see if I can in closing on some of that gap.
Tier 3 is where a school says oh, a teacher says oh, or a parent says, oh, wait a minute, you've tried this, we've tried this, it's not working. OK, let's intentionally pull a kid out of the classroom environment and provide key instruction in that gap that we're noticing — if it's math facts, if it's reading, if it's writing, whatever the gap is — and then we have pre-assess, right? You see where the kid is in the beginning, you intervene, usually six to eight weeks, and then you test the student's ability at the end of that time. If the student has grown, the intervention has worked, we're going to continue that until we can close the gap. In many cases, the intervention doesn't work. And you say, wait a minute, we've pulled you three times a week for 30 minutes, and you're still struggling in this key area, it may be time to refer for an IEP. So IEP stands for an Individualized Education Program, which is the actual like document that references all of the services a student may get, including their classification.
Andy: Cool. So we're talking about general education students here. We just see that there's something that's not going like it needs to go. So we're providing intervention before that process starts.
Christina: Absolutely. And after a certain amount of time, I can notice that like, hey, Mom, I've tried this many interventions, or this many activities with your student. He's still pretty struggling or she's still struggling. I think it's time to refer for special education services. Here's how you would go about doing that.
Andy: So it sounds like a big part of your job was helping to decide if the school — if they should reach out to parents and asked to evaluate their child. Have you ever reached out unofficially, and said, you know, maybe you should ask the school to do this, you know? Why would you — and why would you give that advice?
Christina: Yes, I have. And a lot of the families that — I've worked in primarily urban communities, and a large amount of those students were Black or brown, Black or Latino students, in very under-resourced communities. And so there was a connection there in terms of language, in terms of just like, overall experience. And so parents trusted me a lot. And so a lot of the time, they'd asked me, like, I don't know what to do. And at that point, I would say, here's what you can do. And I would explain to them the steps, like completely from start to finish.
The parent has the right, as their child's primary advocate, to request in writing an evaluation for their student. And then they'd go "How do I do that?" I'd say, "Here's how you do it." And in some cases, I would like write it. And in New York State, in particular, it can be written on anything. It can be written on a napkin, it can be written on a Post-it, if it's in a form of writing, has the student's name, the student's school number or identification number. And then you say, like, "I want my child evaluated, because there's a delay in their academic performance, or I'm really concerned about how they're doing in math." Sign your name, and have a date on it. And they have to acknowledge that they've received it.
Andy: And Christina, the reason why it's important to put a date on your letter is because schools have to respond within a certain number of days to let you know if they're going to approve or deny your request. The response time frame might be 10 days in some states. It might be 30 days in other states. But the big point is that the school can't leave you hanging forever waiting for a response.
The one other thing I want to clarify is that in some states, you don't have to write a letter, you can make an oral request. But it's always, always, always a best practice to submit your request in writing. Listeners, if you go to our show notes, we have a link to state-specific information so you can find out what the time frame is in your state. We also have a link to a template that can help you write a request for an evaluation.
OK, so Christina, let's turn back to writing the letter. What kind of details do you encourage parents to put into these letters?
Christina: The first is a date, that's really, really important. The other key information or detail is the student's full name, the student's identification number — if not, a key identifier, such as their birthdate. And then a request, like naming what you want evaluated. So I'm requesting a neuropsychological education evaluation. I would like it to also include an occupational therapy, a speech therapy, such and such evaluation — because that's not always given, right? And then that delays the process further if you didn't request that but you did want to see if your kid required those services. So you want to include in detail what you want assessed. And the reason: Because I'm concerned about their performance, because as of lately, whatever the reason is. And then a signed signature.
Andy: Absolutely. The thing that you said that I think's interesting is that when you talk, you've named a lot of assessment types. So a lot of my families aren't going to be familiar with those types of assessments. So what would you — what are some other things you might tell them to put in that would be helpful? Because yeah, what you're saying, I would say, I'd go to you. I'd want you to help me write that letter. Because what you're saying is going to just — it sounds like it would plug me right in. For my parents, what are the things they might observe or see that could help them in that process if they don't have that knowledge?
Christina: Well, I think the key conversation here would be one with their child's educator. Where do you see that my student is struggling most? I notice that when I'm helping him with homework, or her with homework, they're struggling with their math. I'm notice this is true frustration, they're crying, you know, label the behavior that they see. So I think that's the first one. I would say — something that's a key that helped me, because my son has also has an IEP, and it's something that helped me decide that I wanted to get him special education services, was that I noticed that in our communication, he seemed to be really, really frustrated or not understanding what I was saying. He also could not express himself. And so there was this very, like strong gut instinct that, wait a minute, there may be something happening with my son that I need to address.
Andy: So when we're talking about the details to include, is there a certain sort of length of letter or note that's great? What do you see as most effective?
Christina: I mean, I think simple is best. I think the key here is, name your concern, and why you have that concern, give identifying information so that they know which child you're referring to. And make sure you have a date and the name on that document. It doesn't need to be lengthy. It can if you feel like you want it to be.
Andy: Gotcha. So I would assume that based on that, maybe sending an email would be good as well?
Andy: I gotcha. And the theme that I got from you was, in terms of keeping it simple, it sounds like maybe a single-page letter will be just as good as a long letter, in the sense of let's just get the key points out and put it in writing. Who should the family then give the request to? Like, where does this go? Who do you send it to?
Christina: Yes. So in New York City, you give the request to the school psychologist, or the guidance counselor, and they will hand it forward. If you don't know who those people are, you can give it to the teacher and the teacher is responsible for bringing it to the parties that be.
Andy: Any tips for homeschooled or private school students in terms of doing this process and getting that communication to — to who? I guess that would be a big question.
Christina: In New York State, the way you would get your child evaluated in that case, if they're in a private or parochial school, is to go to the committee of special education for that district. It can be tricky for parents whose children are in different school settings because legally, they're not mandated in the same way public schools are to provide these services or to have your student evaluated. It gets a little nuanced and tricky when you decide to go out of the public school system.
Andy: So whether you're a homeschool, private school, or public school student, you have the right to request that evaluation. But schools can deny that request. So here's an example of why a school might deny a request. There may be a case where a child has pretty good grades, and they seem to be achieving well and making some academic gains. But the parent sees something that doesn't seem right to them, maybe something seems like it's going on behaviorally, or they're struggling with some anxiety about going to school. And in those situations, the school may deny the request, because they don't see the impact.
I often would strongly advise families to appeal that process, to really talk more about that with the school. Because it can be so important to gather things like baseline data. Now what we mean by baseline data is, let's get a sense of what they're doing right now academically, let's get some information. And then if we come back and evaluate them again later, because maybe they're not eligible for a service, you know, to get some certain kinds of support, we may have really important information that can help them in the future.
Any other tips for families who are getting ready to submit the request for evaluation. Any other things to keep in mind?
Christina: I think the tip to keep in mind most is don't let up. Right? Like you are your child's advocate, you are the best person who can speak for your child. Even if it's in a language that people at their school don't speak in, you have the right and you should not let up. And eventually, you know, even if they don't, they continue to deny your request, at least there's documented proof that you've been requesting the support. And should a need come later, as you said before, Andy, at least there's documented proof that like we've had this anticipation coming. And so here's where we should begin.
Andy: So I guess there's one last tip I want to sort of talk about just a little bit. And I say this to a lot of the families that I've worked with over the years. You know, it's really important to avoid confrontational language. And maybe you can talk like, what's your experience when parents get confrontational with the school? How does that — how has that typically gone for you?
Christina: I don't recommend confrontation. But I do think that sometimes it happens. And the best way to talk a parent through that is to say like, here are your rights moving forward. Because most people are going to get confrontational if they feel like their rights are being impacted, or I'm not being heard. I'm not being received. And this touches my child you're talking about, right?
Andy: Yeah, I think for me when I've had conversations within schools, especially with my younger students, is to say to families, this is a lengthy relationship. This is a relationship that's going to go on for many years, and being really aware of how that communication goes can set you up for more future success.
Jennifer: I wish I would have included the types of things that we were seeing at home. Like, he's only in first grade that we've read the entire Harry Potter series together. He sits and listens, he can comprehend the story. He's predicting plot developments that I didn't even see when I read it as an adult. And he's so young, he's so smart. But when he's reading, he's missing words like "he" and "said," and these little words, "of," "if." They're supposed to be the easier words that he's missing these things. And so something's just not right. We're working so hard at home with sight words, and he's just not making the progress that I would expect him to make based on how smart I know that he is.
I didn't include those kinds of details. And I really wish that I would have. I don't know, you know, we didn't have the best experience. And I really don't know if that would have made a difference. But when I talk to parents now, I definitely add that as advice to them: When you write your letter, make sure you write what you're seeing at home and why you think that you need that evaluation.
Andy: So we've been talking about what to say to your child's school about why you want your child to be evaluated. But what can you say to your child about requesting an evaluation? My next guest is an expert on talking to your child, Amanda Morin, the co-host of Understood "In It" podcast.
Amanda: Hi, Andy.
Andy: I think so much of this, for us having been in schools for so many years, is really trying to help parents talk to their kids about the request process. What do you think is the best information to share with your child about that process?
Amanda: Absolutely. I can say sometimes it's actually more difficult to have this conversation with your child when you're requesting an evaluation, because there is an uncertainty around it. Because a school — you're not always sure if they're going to approve the evaluation request. So I think sometimes it's better to stay a little bit vague and say to your child, "I know that you've been struggling. I've noticed it. We've talked about it a little bit" — if you've talked about it. And if you haven't, now's the time to start having that conversation and say, "I've noticed you're struggling. And I want to help you. And I want to find other people who can help you." And I think that's the time when you say, "So because I've noticed this, I've reached out to the school. And I've asked them to take a look at it so we can see if there's more help we can provide for you." And I think that's sort of the crux of what you want to say right now, until you have more information
As more information comes in, right — as as you get to the process where the school is replying to your to your request for evaluation, then you can say to your child, "OK, so I've heard back from the school. And they've decided that it's a good idea to look closely at this — at what's going on. And you're going to start seeing some of this move forward." Or there may be a possibility where you say to your child, "You know what, the school and I took a look at this, and we're going to wait, we're going to hold for right now. So I told you that we're going to look at those skills. But in the meantime, I'm going to talk to your teacher, or other people in your school, and we're going to figure out what we can do to help you right now." So I think there are a number of ways you can handle that conversation.
Andy: I think that's a really great piece of advice. The idea is that the entire crux of this conversation is we're looking to get some help for your child. And even in the absence of an evaluation, there is likely to be some help that's going to be offered. It just may not be the same thing we expected had they gone through the evaluation,
Amanda: Yeah, and I don't think you would necessarily say to a child, whether they're young or old, "We're going to go through the RTI process." Because it's very — it's very technical, right? So even if you say "response to Intervention," what you want to say is there are programs in place that can help you learn skills that you're having trouble with, that are more intensive, or they're more supportive than the general education classroom, because they're designed to be that way. So I think there are ways around that language because it's very technical, right? And I'm not saying we would use it, but I think it's worth thinking through how do you describe that to a child. And what you say to them is, there are these programs in place already in your school, that don't require me reaching out to the school and asking them to do something extra. This is built in to the school's programming. And you may end up having a little extra support from your teacher, a different teacher, or some other professional in the school.
Andy: I think the simplest terminology is "We're doing a process to figure out how to help you best. Some of that help might be offered now. Some might be offered later." So the idea around this is we really just want to be aware of what this process feels like. And at least giving them an idea of what to expect while we're going through it. So I think that's really, really important.
Amanda: I love how you put that because I think it's — what you're saying really resonates with me is the idea of making sure we're keeping kids in the loop. And that's what this is all about, is keeping kids in the loop so they're not surprised when something new comes their way.
Andy: All right, so let's take a quick look at the next steps in the evaluation process. So at this point, we've done a written request detailing why we want the evaluation. We've found out who to send the request to, and the district has to respond within a certain number of days. And that number of days can vary depending upon what state you're in. So if your school district says yes, we'll evaluate your child, the next step is to formally give your consent to say that you agree, in writing, and then help the school develop the evaluation plan. We'll do the evaluation plan in the next episode of "Understood Explains," so stay tuned for that.
If the school district says no, we're denying your request, the next step is to make sure you understand why the school denied it. Then you can decide whether you want to wait and see how things go or you want to pursue some dispute resolution options and push forward to try to get that assessment. You know, families whose request gets denied may want to listen to Episode 3, where we talk all about your evaluation rights. Also, in Episode 8, we talked about private evaluations, including something called the independent education evaluation that the school district has to pay for.
If there's one thing to take away from this discussion, it's that you can ask your school district to evaluate your child at any time. But the concerns you include in your request can make a big difference in what happens next. As always, remember that as a parent, you are the first and best expert on your child.
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 mentioned in the episode. And now, just as a reminder of who we're doing all this for, I'm going to turn it over to Lucy to read our credits. Take it away, Lucy.
Lucy: "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.
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.
July 13, 2022
How do schools evaluate kids for special education? For a quick preview, listen to the trailer for Season 1 of the Understood Explains podcast.