One of the first steps to helping a student with special needs is identifying them. Schools need to be able to identify a student who will need more support early and efficiently.

Our Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education outlines the importance of early identification, and how judgment and bias can limit which students get help. This is especially true for students of color.

Below are some guidelines for what to look for in your school and district in order to determine whether they are successfully identifying students with disabilities. 

What to Look For


  • District / charter school leaders have a clear process for identifying students with special needs that meets the legal requirements of “Child Find” under IDEA legislation. The process is followed throughout the year, including summer months. Leaders notify parents about policies related to special education and communicate the legal rights of parents and students. 
  • District / charter school network officials collect and analyze data about specific disability types and report any disproportionality in terms of race, English Learner status, or income. 
  • Schools identify students with most disabilities in early elementary grades and the district / charter school network provides resources and training for implementing universal screening and early identification processes.
  • The district / charter school supports early identification through ongoing staff, community, and family education and communication. This communication is particularly present in preschool, pre-k, and kindergarten programs with targeted outreach to families that may not know their legal rights or the benefits of early identification. 


  • School team proactively sends home information to all parents, especially those with students in early grades, to explain the process for assessing and identifying students with disabilities, the timelines, and the legal rights of parents and students throughout the process.
  • If a parent requests that a student be assessed for special education services, the school team acts quickly to perform complete psychoeducational assessments as required by law.
  • School teams collect data from a wide variety of sources including academic assessments, behavioral checklists, and early childhood development inventories for all students, including those in early grades. Teams use this data to conduct universal screenings and identify students who need additional support and those who might benefit from special education services.
  • School-wide systems are in place for sharing data about student performance and behavior, which is used to make decisions about which students are referred to be assessed and when for special education.

What to Ask

If you want to know if your school has effective methods for identifying students with special needs, ask: 

  • How quickly does the school assess students? Do parents or teachers currently have to fight to get their child assessed? 
  • How accurately do schools identify students with disabilities? 
  • Does the school and district or charter school network take steps to ensure the process is accurate, objective and bias-free?

Adapted from An Advocate’s Guide to Transforming Special Education.

Innovate Public Schools

We are a nonprofit organization focused on ensuring that all students in California, including low-income students and students of color, receive an excellent education.

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