M2U4A2 – Malin Matus – Special Education Referral Process


This blog will outline my actions for assignment 2 of unit 4. For this assignment I performed two interviews. One with Diane Olson a certified adapted P.E. special educator and Kenji Sakai former principal of my school Tamagawa Academy (2008-2014) and general educator. The purpose of the interviews were to gain information on the special education referral process as well as further insight into how special education is viewed and performed at the teacher level. I will provide a short summary of each interview where I will outline my major findings. In addition, I have provided a link to the recording of each interview and a document containing the interview questions used (note some questions were paraphrased for ease of understanding by the interviewee). Unfortunately, neither interviewee could clearly describe the special education referral process so before the interview summaries I will also provide a brief outline of the US special education referral and implementation process as  defined under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA].

Special Education Referral process in the US under IDEA

All elements are summarized from the web page UnderstandingSpecialEducation.com (n.d.)

  1. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) Referral
    • Can be initiated by parent, teacher or other school personnel
    • The IEP process can legally take up to 60 days but the district should provide you with an assessment plan and a copy of procedural safeguards within 15 days
    • Parents have 15 days to approve the plan and return the consent form. Without informed parent consent a child cannot be evaluated unless the district uses due process.
  2. Evaluation for Eligibility
    • A special education evaluation or assessment is done by an IEP team to determine if the child has one of the 14 types of eligible disabilities defined by IDEA.
    • After the assessment the IEP team will determine whether or not the child is eligible for special education.
    • If a parent disagrees with the IEP’s decision they may request an Independent Education Evaluation.
  3. Writing the Individualized Education Program (IEP)
    • Should a child be found eligible to recieve special education services the IEP team will write a IEP for the child. The IEP will include:
      • Your child’s present level of functioning
      • Strengths, weaknesses, abilities and educational needs
      • Area(s)of eligibility (based on the 13 categories named in IDEA)
      • Annual goals and objectives
      • Common core standards
      • DIS services
      • Program placement
      • Accommodations and level of participation in assessments
      • Transition plan
    • Parents can agree or disagree with all or part of the IEP and the plan can be modified or revised by the IEP team under parental direction.
  4. The IEP meeting
    • This is the final step in the IEP referral process and the first step in a child beginning to receive special education services.

Educator Interviews


Interview One Summary – Diane Olson – Adapted P.E. Teacher
Audio – Diane Olson’s Interview

The purpose of the first interview was to gain some insight into special education from the perspective of a certified special education teacher. Specifically, I was looking to understand how students were identified for special education.  How special education programs were conducted by schools, and the general mindset that a special education teacher cultivates to manage and cope with what is, in my opinion, a challenging teaching position. I conducted the interview with my colleague Diane Olson, who was an adapted P.E. teacher, for four years, at both a special education junior high school and at a main stream high school with special education students. The schools were located in the states of Montana and North Dakota, respectively. Diane worked in the early 1990s so perhaps some practices have changed but I think the information she provides on the day to day responsibilities and attitudes of the teachers, parents and administrators is still relevant. I asked Diane a total of eight main questions with some follow-up questions or other questions to clarify her answers.

The interview was very informative in my opinion. From Diane I gained a more personalized insight into the world of special education. From only reading government policy, or even just school policy, special education practices can sound very well thought out and standardized. However, as any teacher who has worked in a school knows, there can be a very large gap between policy and practice. Thus, I felt very fortunate to have a firsthand account of special education from the “trenches” so to speak. One more thing of additional value to me was the opportunity to investigate the mindset of another teacher because as teachers we encounter stress and challenges and developing coping strategies is as important as planning our lessons.

Four of my findings from the interview were significant and in my opinion warrant me sharing them here. First, about the dedicated special education junior high Diane (Olson, 2017), said, nearly all the adapted P.E. was carried out off campus because the school lacked appropriate facilities. Furthermore, about the high school she went on to say, the administration would fund the main stream off campus activities (like sports events and drama productions) but not special education off campus activities. This tells me that although the school had a policy to provide for special education teachers like Diane they did not allocate funds equitably, or lacked funding for appropriate facilities. Second, Diane (Olson, 2017) told me that parent involvement at the two schools was different. At the junior high school because the students were much more severely disabled there was high parent involvement: especially to supervise off campus activities and to administer medications. However, at the high school, where the disabled students were part of the mainstream student body, the parents of the disabled students were no more involved than the parents of the mainstream students. This indicates that the level of community involvement in a special education program may vary dependent on the needs of the student population. However, I question whether this should be the case. Although the high school disabled students were much higher functioning could they have benefited from extra community/parental involvement and support? This leads me to the third finding of note, which is what Diane (Olson, 2017) described as, “a lack of empathy”. What she means is that the disabled students would occasionally make errors in judgment not made by mainstream students. For example: forgetting to whisper in the library. And when the disabled students made these mistake they were often judged harshly or shamed for their behavior. This is important to note because unless the whole school community is aware of the disabled students needs and/or patterns of behavior the school will not be a comfortable or safe learning environment. Finally, I asked Diane how she combated any frustration or disappointment she felt when she saw a lack of empathy for these disabled students or when the IEP wasn’t effective for a particular student. Diane’s (Olson, 2017) answer that “the special ed. team was on the same page and that they would gather informally to discuss their frustrations and support each other” is most instructive. This underscores the importance of collaboration in teaching and building strong teams and working relationships.

From my interview with Diane I discovered many things about the ground level work of a special education teacher. How policy is actually practiced and about how schools can be organized. I also learned that community and collaboration are important to the success of education programs. In total the interview was an education experience and shed light on aspects of special education that I could not have found out from reading policy.

Interview Two Summary

Kenji Sakai – General Educator (ESL) and former Principal
Audio – Kenji Sakai’s Interview

The purpose of the second interview was to learn about the Japanese perspective on special education and differentiated instruction at the school where I work, from a general educator. Also, as an added bonus the interviewee was a former principal of our school so I could gain some insight into the administrator perspective as well. This interview was conducted with Kenji Sakai general educator (ESL) at Tamagawa Academy Middle School, a private middle school in Tokyo, which is part of the Tamagawa Academy K-university campus. Kenji is a more than 30 year veteran teacher at Tamagawa.

This interview yielded some surprising opinions and approaches to differentiated instruction, which I will outline later. As a foreign teacher at Tamagawa It is not often that we have the opportunity to discuss teaching practice and methodology with our Japanese colleagues so taking the time to interview Kenji was a valuable experience. I asked Kenji a total of seven questions with a few follow up questions in order to clarify his position or ideas on a particular topic. He provided me with the Japanese perspective on how to manage struggling students. Furthermore, he outlined the process, in our school, by which learning disabled students are identified and supported.

As mentioned above some of Kenji’s ideas on differentiated instruction surprised me and I’ll take the opportunity here to explain a few of them. First, when asked, how can differentiated instruction be used to assist students who are struggling? Kenji (Sakai, 2017) replied, “Seating is very important, put the [struggling] student in front of the teacher” he also went on to outline that additional after school instruction and special assignments are also used to help struggling students. The comment about seating is surprising to me because I did not realize that such a premium is placed on the student’s location in the classroom. I guess in the Japanese system, where direct instruction still dominates, student proximity to the teacher can affect student performance. Another surprising thing Kenji said in response to the same question above was that, “communication is important. Students should respect the teacher and the teacher should have patience”. I found this an interesting opinion as I know that in Japan teachers still believe that students must respect the teacher, however, I had never heard Japanese teachers talk about patience for the student being important as well. I am curious if this is just Kenji’s personal idea or indicative of a more generalized feeling among Japanese educators. Another point of interest from the interview was that Kenji (Sakai, 2017) mentioned communication as being a key element several times in the interview. When asked: how to determine if a student should be referred for special education services, how do you combat frustration/disappointment if the IEP or your teaching methods are failing to prove effective, and what was your opinion on how schools and teachers should deal with learning disabilities? His answer was, communication and teamwork between the subject teachers, homeroom teachers, the head teacher and parents as being the vital elements for deciding on action. This was a surprising finding for me as I have always felt that our school system is very top down. The head teachers tell us what to do and we get to work doing it. However, it seems there is a collaborative layer at play here that I either have not noticed or do not have access to.

From the interview with Kenji I learned some new things. That there is educational value placed upon a student’s position in the classroom. That teacher patience with struggling student is seen as important. Most surprisingly I discovered that when dealing with learning disabilities and/or struggling students, a premium is placed on collaborative practice. The teachers, parents and administration work together to decide on the best course of action and support the students learning. While by no means do I feel our school does an excellent job of helping struggling students, after talking with Kenji I have a bit more respect for my Japanese colleagues. I have learned that the Japanese teachers are thinking about the students in trouble and trying, in their own way, to help them as best they can. Additionally, they are not doing this in a vacuum, rather, there is a collaborative process at work that is trying to elicit support from several sources. The challenge for me now will be to find a way to get involved in this maybe exclusively Japanese circle.


Hancock, M. (n.d.). Understanding Special Education Law (IDEA). Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://www.understandingspecialeducation.com/special-education-law.html

Olson, D. (2017, April 12). Personal interview.

Sakai, K. (2017, April 13). Personal interview.


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