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Before Special Ed: How Pre-Referral Works

The pre-referral process can help determine if your child needs special education services.

By Colleen Stump, Ph.D.

If your child is struggling to learn, take time to find out about how the pre-referral process works at your school. When you become involved in planning with her educational team, your child will benefit.


The purpose of the pre-referral process is to ensure your child tries reasonable accommodations and modifications before she's referred for special education assessment. Sometimes, a change in the classroom can turn her performance around and make it unnecessary to consider special education services. Using strategies that draw on your child's strengths and meet her educational needs may be all it takes to put her back on the road to academic progress. The pre-referral team goes by different names in different places. In some schools, it's called the Student Study Team (SST) while in others, it's the Student Intervention Team, Child Study Team, Teacher Support Team, and Student Success Team. Regardless of its name, the purpose of the team is to:

Team Members

There are no rules for membership on a pre-referral team. Generally, the team includes general education teachers, who are most familiar with the general education classroom and curriculum, and a counselor or administrator. The team may also include a school psychologist, special education teachers, and related service personnel, such as speech and language pathologists. Each school selects team members depending on what works best for them.

As a parent, you're a key member of this team. Although law doesn't require a pre-referral meeting and parent participation isn't guaranteed, most schools include parents in this process. You're the one most familiar with your child's health and development, family environment, academic history, special skills and talents, and learning and behavioral needs.


Although the steps may vary by school, here's what often occurs:

Your child is referred to the pre-referral team because there's a concern about his academic skills or behavior. Although anyone who knows your child can refer him, usually it's you or the classroom teacher who makes the referral. You'll be asked to identify specific area(s) of concern, such as not turning in assignments, earning poor grades in a subject area, not paying attention, having trouble understanding homework assignments.

The team meeting follows these steps:

  • Review your child's strengths, interests, and talents.
  • Discuss reasons for referral, overall performance level, and behavior in the classroom.
  • List interventions previously tried and their rate of success. (School interventions may include accommodations, modifications, and behavior plans. Home interventions may include follow up with health concerns, behavior plans, and help with homework.)
  • Brainstorm interventions that address concerns.
  • Select interventions to try.
  • Develop a plan for carrying them out.
  • Agree on a time to meet again to discuss progress.
  • Put the intervention into action and evaluate it over time. The timeline can vary greatly — from a couple of weeks to a school quarter or trimester, depending on the type of program set up.
  • The team meets again to discuss the success of the intervention. As a result of the intervention, did your child's performance improve, remain the same, or decrease?

Colleen Shea Stump, Ph.D., served as Chairperson of the Special Education Department at San Francisco State University, and was a professor at SFSU for 8 years. She currently works as Coordinator of Program/Staff Development and Compliance for the Seattle Public Schools.

Comments from readers

"While reading this article I was disappointed to see no mention of possible physical health concerns when addressing a student's performance. The inclusion of the school nurse to screen vision and hearing, assess stress factors and nutrition and sleep habits as well as perform a general physical exam can be key to looking at the whole child as academic concerns are addressed "
"Great to see your work again Colleen!"
"When was this article written? Are there any additional articles? "
"this helped my research a lot.. it gives me information that i needed and i learned it more based from Letitia's story... thank you..."
"Hello, My family is in the process of moving to either Lakeland, Plant City or Tampa, what worries me is that, we have a daughter who is seven years old in 2nd grade, she had leukemia and RSV and was in the oxygen at four months of age until 7months old and was sedated for three months, as a side effect she still can't read, she can write some of the letters now, but have problems with her attention as well as her reading, math and writing, please if you know the best school that can meet her needs please post it so that we can check it out. She have an IEP in place so that is not a problem. We just want her to succeed despite of the hard life she had gone through."
"Sorry, I hit a button and wasn't finished writing my comment. Anyway, my daughter had progressd and declined as her 3rd year went on, and it is now March 08 and today I met with the Child Study Team, her principal, her teacher, and her basic skills teacher, and they all had a meeting, and agreed that they are going to change her 504 plan, to an IEP starting next year. She will also be enrolled in a special summer school program consisting of certifed teachers, and a special ed teacher, and the good part is that I don't have to pay for it, now that she has this IEP.They will be putting this plan into place for her when she enters 4th grade in September, and I feel so relieved. I believe if I hadn't pushed for her to get some extra help, and for the school to do something this would never have come about. I'm grateful she will be getting the help she needs now, and we won't have to go through the homework nigtmares, and failed tests. She will have a special ed teacher next yea! r, and will have alot of other resources available to her. I thank this website for all of it's helpful info, since this is where I got alot of the information I needed when I went into this meeting. I at least had some idea of what I was talking abut after reading some of the great articles, and parent suggestions on this site. Kathy"
"When Dan was in 3rd grade in had a very diffcult time reading and writing corrertly. His readind was very low and he writing was that when he wrote his letter's they went from big to little and ran down hill. They did a series of tests on him and found that he could do well on things that were read to him and could skip the word he didn't know and still figure it out. So they started him him in Special Ed. And he started to improve. He just graduated from high school and is at a nice 6 to 7th grade level.He reads much better now and his writing is good. I'm glad he got help in school.It has made him a better person."