Know the basics of Child Find triggers, referrals

Don't wait for 'magic' words before referring a student for an evaluation for possible special education services.
By: | October 30, 2020
Getty Images: LPETTETGetty Images: LPETTET

Educators play a key role in the Child Find process, as they are often the first ones to notice signs that a student is struggling with a disability. As such, they need to be aware of what situations might trigger the requirement to refer a student to be evaluated under the IDEA.

What is Child Find?

Child Find is an obligation the IDEA places on educational agencies to identify, locate, and evaluate students suspected of having a disability and needing special education and related services. Districts are responsible for identifying all IDEA-eligible students who reside in their jurisdiction.

Educators should keep in mind that child find:

  • is an affirmative duty that cannot be delegated to parents
  • applies even to students who are advancing from grade to grade
  • applies to highly mobile children, including migrant children

What triggers Child Find?

The event that generally starts the IDEA evaluation process rolling is when a parent asks a teacher, school counselor or school administrator for an evaluation. But often, an educator, such as the child’s teacher, or an outside provider, will refer a student to be evaluated.

“Evaluation” is not a magic word

“Evaluation” is not a magic word that educators must wait to hear before they can or should make a referral.

Part of what makes the child find obligation an affirmative one is that it requires educators to take an active role in identifying students. A parent specifically requesting an IDEA evaluation is one event that can create the suspicion that the student may have a disability and need special education services.

But often, a parent won’t use the word “evaluation.”

Instead, the parent may say, for example, that she thinks her son is struggling academically because of long-term depression and anxiety. That could create suspicion that the child has an emotional disturbance. Or, she might explain that the student has poor grades because he can’t focus long enough to complete homework and has been medically diagnosed with ADHD—a statement that could indicate the student might qualify under the other health impairment category.

Educators should be on the lookout for red flags.

While educators should not wait around to hear a magic word, they shouldn’t necessarily be waiting for words at all. Rather, they should be on the lookout for circumstances or behavior that signals the need for an evaluation, even when no one has requested one.

These red flags might include:

  • Dramatically declining grades
  • Excessive absenteeism in tandem with a recent medical diagnosis
  • Sudden withdrawal from peers in combination with declining school performance

Referral doesn’t automatically mean the child gets an IEP.

First, a referral for an evaluation does not always require a school to evaluate a student. Instead, the school can look at the information it has about the student, such as grades, the student’s social interactions and behavior, and other data, to determine whether there is in fact reason to suspect the student has a disability and needs specialized instruction. Whether the district decides to evaluate or declines to do so, it must explain its decision and the basis for that decision to the parent in a formal notice, usually referred to as prior written notice.

Second, after evaluating the student, a district could determine that the student is not, after all, IDEA-eligible, either because she does not have a disability or does not need special education. Again, regardless of whether the district finds the student eligible, it must send the parent PWN explaining its decision.

Once a district finds a student eligible, it must convene the IEP team to develop an IEP within 30 days. If the district has determined that the student is not IDEA-eligible, the district can consider referring the student for an evaluation under Section 504, which has different eligibility criteria.

Joseph L. Pfrommer, Esq., covers special education legal issues Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.