How Are Multilingual Children Referred for Special Education Evaluation?

A Series on Early Development and Disability
Blog Post
Two year old girl in a blue dress holding a toy phone to her ear. To her left is her teacher who is wearing a blue short and looking at the girl.
Feb. 6, 2024

Our conversations with kindergarten practitioners last fall revealed how little is known about how to support young multilingual (ML) children who may have disabilities. According to Elizabeth Burr, Senior Research Associate at WestEd, a combination of factors has created potential for better serving this population: increased federal, state, and local attention on the promise of universal preschool; a positive shift in the framing and understanding of multilingualism; and consensus that early identification of disabilities is key to improving childrens’ long-term outcomes. As Burr notes, “now is the moment to leverage these interacting foci and fill an important gap: attending to the needs of multilingual preschoolers who might have disabilities.”

We interviewed Burr about a new WestEd report that examines how California State Preschool Program practitioners decide to refer multilingual three and four year old children for special education evaluation. This pre-referral process is part of Child Find, which under federal law requires states to identify, locate, and evaluate all children who may be eligible for special education and related services. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is the nexus of early childhood, language development, and disability an important one? Do we know how many multilingual children qualify for special education services?

We want to ensure that ML children who might require special education services receive a timely evaluation. Research has shown that, in the early years, ML students are likely to be identified later than non-ML students for special education services. It is an equity issue when more (or fewer) members of a particular subgroup may be identified for special education services than actually need them.

Under IDEA, states are required to collect data on K-12 students’ English learner status and on special education eligibility for children ages three through 21, which means we can determine the numbers and percentages of students who are dual-identified in grades K-12. But not for children in preschool due to a lack of standardized protocols for dual language learner (DLL) identification in early childhood. California is the first state to establish a uniform process to identify and share information about DLLs enrolled in state preschool, general child care, and migrant child care programs. Having data on DLLs will enable the state to determine how many DLL children are eligible for special education services and compare this number to the comparable number for non-DLL children.

Why did you decide to focus on the pre-referral process?

The pre-referral process is key because it’s a largely preventative approach to help teachers in implementing interventions for children who may not be progressing as expected compared to other children with similar backgrounds and experiences. Pre-referral interventions can help to determine whether a child’s behavioral and/or educational challenges can be addressed before a formal evaluation for special education services.

Far from a snapshot view to inform decision-making, pre-referral is a systematic and precise process. Ideally, the process includes: defining the specific issue; collecting current data highlighting the issue; reviewing a child’s developmental profile and factors outside of preschool that may affect learning; talking with family members, administrators, and education specialists; implementing multiple interventions and documenting strategies used and the results of interventions; and discussing results of intervention data to inform next steps. A robust and data-informed pre-referral process informs the decision whether a child should be evaluated for special education services—either way, this decision has lasting effects for their educational trajectory.

The report highlights several constraints in implementing an effective pre-referral process for multilingual children. What are some of them?

California developed comprehensive guidance for K-12 educators highlighting the specific considerations for ML students when implementing a pre-referral process. A major constraint is that no state-level guidance exists on a pre-referral process for multilingual children in preschool. Absent guidance, preschool teachers and administrators are operating in good faith, using the tools they do have and applying a similar pre-referral process for ML children and non-ML children alike. Oral language development for all children occurs at different rates and in different ways, and research has shown that speech language impairment can be erroneously attributed to typical bilingual development. As a result, ML children are less likely than their non-ML peers to be referred for special education services in the early years, limiting access to critical educational supports.

Another constraint involves perceived expectations. For example, some of our interviewees shared perceptions that undermine pre-referral decision-making for all children, including fear of over-identifying children with disabilities (“disproportionality”) at their site or district. This fear can become a barrier to referring a child for an evaluation that may be warranted. In other cases, interviewees explained that teachers experience pressure to quickly identify children eligible for special education services. The teachers worry that preschoolers would “fall through the cracks” and not be identified in the TK-12 system. These orientations to special education evaluation referral affect teachers’ ability to engage in a more objective, data-informed pre-referral process.

What are some benefits of meaningful family engagement and why are families integral to the pre-referral process?

Families are the experts on their children; they have critical background information that no one else has. They know when the child met certain developmental milestones, what language or languages the child speaks at home and with whom, and how the child typically speaks and expresses their wants, needs, and interests. When educators engage with families in meaningful dialogue about the child’s strengths and habits, educators get the information they need to inform a robust pre-referral process.

At the end of the pre-referral process, if it turns out that a child requires a full-scale evaluation, educators can build from the relationship they’ve already established with the family to explain the purpose of the evaluation and what it entails, answer questions and allay potential worries, and describe (when appropriate) the meaning of the results. None of this is possible unless educators build a strong rapport with their most important partner, the child’s family.

Where are the biggest opportunities for change?

The biggest opportunities lie in providing guidance and tailored professional learning opportunities for all teachers and specialists. We recommend developing short, publicly available, and user-friendly state guidance on pre-referral processes for ML children in early childhood education settings. The guidance should describe oral language development in children’s home languages, acknowledge the typically occurring variability and patterns of multilingual language development, and articulate a thorough pre-referral process that incorporates data from multiple perspectives and contexts. Developing systematic, statewide professional learning opportunities on implementing the guidance is critical to ensure coherence and fidelity. As the proportions of ML children in California and other states increase, so too does the likelihood that teachers and specialists will have ML children speaking a variety of languages and dialects in their classrooms and districts. Training on oral language would help teachers and specialists understand the kind of language development they might expect and feel more equipped to support ML children.

For more information about the evolution of the terms used to describe linguistically diverse students, please see this glossary.

Related Topics
Early Development and Disability