Concerned about your student’s progress at school? Insider tips

Missed Parts 1 and 2? Check them out here: part one and part two.

written by, Michelle Grappo, former school psychologist

Children Playing
Success looks different for every child. But all children blossom when they experience it!

Today’s post is all about common referral concerns for struggling young . This advice is meant for the “middle of the bell curve” of difficulties… mild to moderate struggles that parents and educators are still trying to tease out. This post will probably not be as valuable, for example, for the parent of the child already diagnosed with a Reading Disability, on the Autism spectrum, Reactive Attachment Disorder, etc.

Please note that, although I write with a background of extensive expertise in special education, the information in this post should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please contact us for a professional consultation or to receive a referral for a specialist.

Before you do anything…

Have you had your child’s hearing and vision checked? Include testing for color blindness. Sometimes a new pair of glasses solves everything!

1. Academics


Reading is the number one referral concern in special education. I don’t want to be an alarmist but consider the following: after 3rd grade, researchers have found it becomes significantly more difficult for students to acquire reading skills. This research dates to Marilyn Adams in Beginning to Read (1990). Typically reading problems are divided into several different categories. I originally wanted to outline them for you, but I quickly realized I would end up writing a book, not a blog post. Typical concerns include difficulty in one of more of the following areas: sounding out words, automatically recognizing common (e.g. “sight”) words, and comprehending. Often times, comprehension may be poor because the majority of mental effort is being expended on the actual mechanics of reading. If your child is receiving a reading intervention, ask whether it is research-based and targets your child’s specific weaknesses. In fact, this holds true for any intervention. I am reluctant to get behind hodgepodge interventions administered by instructors not credentialed within the areas of reading or special education. This is your child’s education. Don’t let anyone fool around with it.


It is rare, in my experience, to receive a writing referral not connected with other concerns– reading, occupational therapy, speech, behavior, etc. I would say writing referrals can be broken down, generally speaking, into two categories: mechanical difficulties and/ or production difficulties. The former could include trouble handwriting (e.g. holding the pencil, hand fatigue, forming letters, spacing). This is a job for an OT, an Occupational Therapist (see below for more information). They can evaluate your child and develop a treatment plan for anything related to the fine motor and visual skills involved in writing. Early intervention is key. The second kind of difficulty in writing could be related to production with regard to trouble developing ideas, putting them on paper, and organizing them. Sometimes a child just needs help in the form of graphic organizers, sometimes it may be deeper. For example, a child who has been exposed to lead paint could struggle with producing language. Similarly, an English Language Learner will likely develop strong receptive language skills prior to expressive language skills, the latter of which is key to generating writing. Along the lines of production, other writing concerns include vocabulary and spelling (which often co-exists with reading difficulties).

An English Language Learner will likely develop strong receptive language skills prior to expressive language skills, the latter of which is key to generating writing.


Math problems also fall into two basic categories: basic calculation and problem solving. I often saw the former with students who moved frequently. As you can imagine, students who move frequently may miss out, due to varying curriculums and timelines, on developing a deep number sense and mastery over basic facts. The current trend in mathematics instruction is moving towards an emphasis on a fundamental understanding of numbers and basic facts (e.g. Singapore math). In any event, a student who struggles with basic calculation will also often struggle with high order problem solving. Just like in reading, you really have to have the math basics down fluently so you can spend your cognitive energy on higher-order problem solving.

2. Speech/ Language and Occupational Therapy

I love being on teams with Speech/ Language and Occupational Therapists. I have been in dozens of meetings where no direct concerns were reported in their respective domains, but these specialists were able to contribute valuable insight. I have learned so much from these esteemed colleagues and have continuously found their insight invaluable.

Speech and Language

Obviously, I am not a Speech and Language Pathologist, but school psychologists are often the first stop in reporting concerns, so I can share my top referral concerns. For more information, please refer to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. This link is to a wonderful set of information on frequent Speech/Language issues reported. Common referral concerns, in my experience, include Stuttering (e.g. Disfluency), lack of vocabulary development, and difficulty generating and organizing speech. Because language development is so integral to academics, I have found it very beneficial to have a Speech Path weigh in whenever a student was greatly struggling with reading, as well as writing and math. They are also involved in cases where hearing is compromised.

Occupational Therapy

Again, I am not an OT, so I will defer to the American Occupational Therapy Association‘s page on Children and Youth. This site also nicely outlines what OT is and common issues. Frequently reported concerns include handwriting, visual tracking, and visual-motor skills.

3. Behavior

Behavioral concerns can range the gamut, but for brevity’s sake, I will reduce concerns to two categories: externalizing and internalizing. Externalizing behaviors look like kiddos acting out– they may be described as “hyperactive,” aggressive, or defiant. Internalizing behaviors are more the “silent suffers.” These children may be withdrawn, inattentive but not disruptive, and difficult to engage. In cases of even mild to moderate behavior difficulties that continue for more than 3 months, I would strongly advise engaging a mental health professional to weigh in on any underlying issues. Behavioral issues could be neurologically driven (e.g. executive functioning weaknesses), environmentally driven (e.g. a classroom management style), or a combination of the two. Traumas, both major and seemingly minor, can also disrupt development and contribute to behavior problems. There are a myriad of factors in detangling a behavior issue, but it can be done with the right team!

For more information on these or other learning and behavior issues, please contact us!

And remember, problem solving will happen with the school team, but you are part of that team and I encourage you to embrace your role as detective and evidence gatherer!

The latestNews & Blog


Why Choose a Summer Program?

Summer experiences are more than just a break from routine! They provide opportunities to: Let’s explore three unique summer programs that promise to make your summer unforgettable. Need more ideas?…

Read More