A Teacher's Basic Guide to Making a Referral

Teacher discipling a student

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A referral is the process or steps taken by a teacher in order to get extra assistance for a student with whom they directly work. In most schools, there are three distinct types of referrals: referrals for disciplinary issues, special education evaluations, and counseling services.

Teachers complete referrals only when they believe that a student requires additional intervention. Some students need this to help them overcome obstacles preventing them from achieving success and others need this to help them communicate their needs and avoid outbursts. All referral situations are dictated by the behavior and/or actions of a student, however extreme those may be.

How to Make a Referral

So how and when should a teacher make a referral? First things first, teachers should participate in professional development and training to recognize signs that could indicate when a student might require a referral. Otherwise, teachers might inappropriately make referrals or opt not to at all because they don't know how to. Training can also center around prevention. Prevention training is most appropriate for discipline referrals but recognition training is beneficial for referrals associated with special education or counseling. 

Each of the three types of referrals has distinct steps that must be followed according to general school policy. With the exception of a counseling referral, a teacher must establish that they have attempted to improve an issue before making a referral, and thus should document steps taken toward student improvement. Often, teachers get families and administration involved at this time.

Documentation helps to show a pattern that may justify the need for a referral. It can also help those involved design the right student growth plan. The process of documenting can take a lot of extra time and effort on the teacher's part but often proves worth it once a student shows improvement. In short, a teacher must concretely prove that they have exhausted their individual resources before making a referral. Read the detailed steps for each type of referral below.

Referral for Discipline Purposes

A teacher or other school personnel makes a discipline referral when they need a principal or school disciplinarian to help deal with a student issue. A referral automatically implies that an issue is serious and that you have already tried to handle it without success, so keep the following questions in mind before moving forward with the referral process.

Key Questions to Ask

  1. Is this a safety issue for a student or a threat to other students that requires immediate attention by an administrator? (If so, contact the administration immediately)
  2. For non-emergencies, what steps have I taken to handle this issue myself?
  3. Have I contacted the student's parents and involved them in this process?
  4. Have I documented the steps I have taken in an attempt to correct this issue?

Referral for a Special Education Evaluation

A special education referral is quite different from a discipline referral in that it requests that a student be evaluated to determine their eligibility for special education services. These services include speech-language services, learning assistance, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and more. 

This type of referral is typically written by either the student's parent or teacher, sometimes both. Teachers completing special education referrals often attach evidence and samples of work to show why they believe a student needs to be evaluated. Parents often include anecdotal evidence of need.

Requesting that a student be tested for special education eligibility is no small matter, so use your best judgment and these four questions to make the call.

Key Questions to Ask

  1. What are the exact issues the student has that lead me to believe special education services are appropriate?
  2. What evidence or artifacts can I produce that support my belief?
  3. What documented steps of intervention have I taken to try to help the student improve before making this referral?
  4. Have I already discussed my concerns with the child's parents and gained insight into the child's history?

Referral for Counseling Services

A counseling referral can be made for a student for any number of legitimate concerns that do not always necessitate teacher intervention prior to filling out the referral. Referrals for counseling services are much more subjective than the others but no less serious—counseling can impact a student's life considerably.

Common reasons for counseling referrals include:

  • A student is going through a traumatic experience (i.e. divorce, death in the family, etc.).
  • A student exhibits signs of depression and/or withdrawal.
  • A student's grades suddenly dropped or there is a drastic change in behavior.
  •  A student cries often, gets sick daily, or expresses anger/frustration regularly.
  • A student has difficulty functioning in the classroom (i.e. behavioral issues such as insubordination, aggression, uncooperativeness, etc.).