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Is your child struggling in school? Are you wondering what supports might help? This episode of Understood Explains gives an overview of how schools evaluate kids for special education.

Host Dr. Andy Kahn is a psychologist who has spent nearly 20 years evaluating kids for public and private schools. Andy’s first guest in this episode is educator Julian Saavedra. They’ll cover a few key areas:

  • Why schools evaluate kids

  • What evaluations look like

  • How special education has changed over the years

Andy’s second guest is parenting expert Amanda Morin. They’ll end each episode this season with tips on what to say to your child about getting evaluated.

Related resources

Episode transcript

Lisa: Hi, my name is Lisa and I'm from Marin County, which is in California just north of San Francisco. By the time our son was in first grade, it was really apparent to us that something was off. He clearly was unable to do the basic homework that other first-grade students were trying to do. We were not able to get him to write, as an example, the word "cat." That would be a four-hour process. Unfortunately, at that time, we didn't realize we had the right to request an evaluation. We didn't understand. We didn't even know what we were supposed to be googling.

Andy: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains." You're listening to Season 1, where we explain evaluations for special education. Over 10 episodes, we cover the ins and now of the process that school districts use to evaluate children for special education services. My name is Andy Kahn, and I'm a licensed psychologist, and an in-house expert at I've spent nearly 20 years evaluating kids for both public and private schools. I'll be your host.

Today's episode will give you an overview of what an evaluation is. We're going to cover a few key things: the purpose of school-based evaluations, who's on the evaluation team, how long the process takes, and the benefits of evaluating kids who are struggling in school. But first, let's go back to Lisa. Her story shows the many emotions and experiences that come along with the evaluation process.

Lisa: We did feel completely alone. We didn't have anybody else to run this by or who had been through this experience other than, you know, little tidbits here and there. And so we were really piecing it all together ourselves. And it was, you know, a frustrating journey. And it really wasn't until we had that tutor that said, "This is crazy. This child should have been sent to us and evaluated years ago." And she was really the one who told us that those were our rights. And in a way, I feel guilt to this day that I didn't research it properly enough to understand that earlier. But again, you don't know what you're looking for if you don't know.

Andy: My first guest today is going to help give everyone an overview of what an evaluation is and how it can help kids who are struggling in school. Julian Saavedra is an assistant principal at a Philadelphia high school. He's also father of two and co-hosts the Understood podcast "The Opportunity Gap," about kids of color with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences.

Julian: Hey, thank you so much for having me.

Andy: Thanks for being here, Julian. Before we get into it, I want to start off by addressing a common myth that might make a lot of parents hesitate to evaluate their child for special education services. When I was a kid, special education meant like spending the whole day in a separate classroom. But special education changed like tremendously since then. Today, most kids who receive special education are in the general education classrooms for most of the day, and might only get pulled out for an hour or two of specialized instruction. I mean, Julian, when you think about it, it's really incredible how much special education has changed.

Julian: Yeah, and I think, Andy, touching upon the generational shift that's happened with special education is something that we don't talk about a lot. If you're not in schools on a daily basis, you might not know how much education has transformed in the last 20 years, right? And, you know, I've been an educator for — this is my 19th year. And what special education is now, compared to when I first started as a classroom teacher, is dramatically different. So there's a lot of just historical memories that we have, as people of our age range, that are very different than what's happening in education across the country.

Andy: So as an administrator and teacher, you've been a part of the evaluation process in a variety of roles. What are some of the basic things you tell parents about what happens in an evaluation?

Julian: A lot of times our families have a misconception about what evaluation actually means. They might think that this is a test that's going to happen over the course of one or two days. Sometimes a family might ask me, "Well, Mr. Saavedra, do they have to study for this?" And I'll tell them like, "No, this is not something that you're traditionally used to testing."

Andy: Yeah, very common question.

Julian: So evaluations encompass a variety of factors that are looked at. They include academics. Maybe a student might be observed over the course of multiple classrooms. Or this might include behavioral, so there might be an assessment that one of the student's teachers might take. A family member or parent might fill out a questionnaire, and somebody else that's a trusted adult that's able to observe the child in different settings might fill out. There might be conversations that happen between an evaluator and the student to evaluate the social-emotional aspect of a student's personality. So there's a variety of things that are looked at. It's not just a specific aspect of the child, it's trying to get an idea of who the child is on a holistic level.

Andy: Can you tell me a bit about how you explain this process to your families? And maybe some tips and tricks you have that might help describe the process to them.

Julian: The way I like to break it down for families is, you know, I like food. I'm definitely a big like food guy. And I like to make a lot of references to food. So I use the analogy of a menu: that this is a menu of options that we're trying to figure out as a school for your child. You know, everybody doesn't want the same dish. And we all know that there's different ways to cook the same food. But ultimately, we can make it delicious. We just have to figure out what ingredients and what strategies are we going to use to make this incredibly beautiful dish. So when I talk to families, and I break it down that way, it helps them alleviate some of the stress of figuring out well, they're not really saying something's wrong with my kid, they're saying that maybe we need to figure out what are the things that are going to work well.

Andy: Yeah, I love, love, love the analogy, because I think what we're talking about is, is well, let me stick to your theme here: making it more appetizing to families, right?

Julian: I try to really focus on the positives, you know? Everybody likes to hear great things about their child. And a lot of times the evaluation process brings out some of those positive strengths that a child might not get shine for normally. So when families get a chance to see all these positive things coming out from the evaluation process, it makes them feel good about it. But if you go into the process with the mindset that there's something wrong, and we're doing this because they're not doing well, or they're messing up, that shuts them down immediately.

Andy: This is about finding out the student's strengths and weaknesses. When we talk about weaknesses, it's really important to share with families that our focus is on figuring out how the school can do things differently to help them. It's not about something that's wrong with the child, but rather what the program needs to do to change to help the child. It's to help and not to blame the child. That's, that's a key. It's also about describing to them how this process can make sense and help focus on that this is to help them, not to identify or to stigmatize them.

Julian: I mean, it can be incredibly intimidating. And so I think having the idea of trust, and an understanding that there's a two-way process happening, is really important, right? There's a lot of intelligence that our parents are bringing to the table. They just might not have the same vocabulary that we do. So making sure that we're making the jump and breaking things down so that everybody's on the same page, because our children are the most important thing that we have in our lives. Right? So making sure that that process is crystal clear, and it's streamlined for everybody to feel comfortable, is of prime importance.

Andy: Julian, let's talk about why we do these evaluations. You know, when we do evaluations, we're looking for specific things. What are we supposed to be on the lookout for? What is this process about?

Julian: One thing that families need to know is that by federal law, schools are mandated to look for students that may be struggling in school. So it's not a choice, it is by law, that all schools have the ability and the mandate to look for students who may be having struggles. And all families have a choice to have their students evaluated, if they believe that there may be struggles that are happening.

Andy: So we're talking about the idea of Child Find here — the idea that schools are supposed to be on the lookout for kids who might have disabilities that needs support. Do you find that some of your families misunderstand the idea that these evaluations are free, or aren't aware of that process?

Julian: I think that's been pretty well communicated. People know that it is for free. But we always want to just make sure that it's crystal clear that it is not to any cost of the families. And the bigger issue is more the timeline of how long this is going to happen. Just communicating what the rights are within those laws, so that families are clear as to what should be happening and what the timeline is for it to be happening.

Andy: Right. And I think in the process, Julian, it's very important for folks to know that most commonly, schools are doing some interventions and doing some supports of children before they go into the evaluation process.

Julian: Right, right. Yeah, many, many schools have a process called MTSS, or multi-tiered support systems, where tier one, or tier two, or tier three interventions occur. And those, again, are things that are preliminary that happen before the evaluation process actually starts. And just again, the schools are attempting to try as many different things as possible to really support the students and intervene if students are struggling. But then the parents need to understand that at any point during their school experience, they have the right to request an evaluation. And so that's something that we make really clear to all families: that they have the right, and they can request an evaluation to happen at any point when they choose.

Andy: So one of the key things I'd like to chat with you about here today is talking about terminology, I always find that being able to speak the same language as the school staff and administrators can be a huge stress reliever for families.

Julian: So having the same vocabulary is credibly important. In Pennsylvania, we use the term "evaluation." I know that in other states, they use different terminology. Some states may use "assessment," some states may use "testing," some states may use "evaluation and/or assessment." But in Pennsylvania, we use the word "evaluation." And then I would also recommend any families that are considering this process to make sure that they research what are the terms that are used in your state. Because the laws vary from state to state. And so making sure that you get yourself acclimated with the vocabulary is incredibly important.

Andy: So here in Maine, we use the term "evaluation" and "assessment" almost interchangeably. In our show notes, we have a link to state-specific information that might be helpful for some of our listeners.

So Julian, let's talk a little bit about who are the people at the table, so to speak? Who are the players in this evaluation process that our families may be introduced to?

Julian: In many cases, the primary contact person is going to be the special education team. So that may include a special education teacher. That may include a special education coordinator. There's also going to be a school administrator that's designated to oversee the process. There will be potentially a speech pathologist. There might be a school psychologist. There might be an occupational therapist to evaluate the physical needs of the child. There could be a guidance counselor or a counselor that's involved to kind of evaluate the social-emotional aspect of the student. Of course, general education teachers, that will be a part of this process, too. And in some cases, a parent might even bring a parent advocate or child advocate to the table.

Andy: Yeah, so you're describing this, this whole group of people who are likely to be on the evaluation team. And they all need to do certain things within a certain amount of time. So for example, the evaluation process can take as long as 60 days. And that's the time frame for federal special education law. But some states may have shorter time frames. So Julian, there's a deadline that the team needs to meet. And during this time, the child might get pulled out of class to talk to one of the specialists. Teachers might get asked to share what they're seeing in the class. And parents and caregivers might get asked to share what they're seeing at home. And, you know, I gotta say, as someone who's evaluated many, many kids over the years, the parent questionnaires are just a hugely important part of the puzzle. Because what you see in your child, when you're at home, might be completely different than what's going on in school.

Julian: So parents, we really encourage you to be completely open and honest about what you're seeing at home. Because the more global picture that we can get of the student, the better it is for everybody. And really, the whole purpose of this is to understand where are the gaps? And where are the strengths? What can we do to replicate some of the things that are going well? For example, if you see that your child is doing an excellent job of organizational task at home, right, they have a whole list of chores they have to do at home, and they do it really well. That's executive functioning. Whereas maybe they're struggling in their second-grade class to put their books away or have their desk organized or to get started. That's something that needs to be known, because that can help the team understand, well, maybe there's something happening with a disconnect and how the instructions are given. Maybe there's something that you as a family are doing really well that's working with how you break down chores that our teachers need to know at school, and they can replicate that at school. But if there's not that conversation or that strength analysis filled out by the family, then it makes it really hard to figure that out. So, again, it's really about a combination of a whole swath of people that are trying to get this holistic picture of who the child is, and what they do, across all places in their life, not just what they do in school or not just what's happening at home. And, you know, I think when families hear that, they start to feel a little bit more comfortable. It's not just trying to find the things that are not going well. It's trying to find everything. Then I think that really helps the comfort level increase.

Andy: Wow, that's, that's a lot. And it's really important for families to know that an assessment isn't just about weaknesses and problems. But we want to know about what's going well. Because if a parent has something that's really working for their child, gosh, I know so many teachers who would love to borrow and steal those skills, and use them in their settings. And I think that's where it becomes a collaboration. So for so much of this, getting information is about parents giving their best honest view of their kids, and also helping us identify their strengths and weaknesses, not about labeling, not about diagnosing, but about really getting a big picture view as best as we can get. So what are some of the biggest benefits of evaluating kids? And how have you seen this process help kids that you've worked with thrive over time?

Julian: You know, there's so many benefits to the process, because in many cases, it gives the child, it gives the family, and it gives the school a holistic picture of who that child is. And ultimately, education should be as personalized as possible. And when we have a better idea of what works and what might not be working, and what areas might need to be helped, then it gives the school a much better shot of actually providing the services that are required. I've had families that come in, and they just don't feel comfortable with the whole process. They don't know what's going to happen. But they realize that this IEP is something that's going to be beneficial for them. And, you know, when they walk out and you tell the child, you know, these are the things that you're going to get. And these are the different services that you're going to have at your disposal. And here's another teacher that's going to help you really get what you need to get — the smiles that you see when a kid finally feels like somebody is hearing them? That makes all the difference. You know, I forgot to say earlier, when I talked about the whole team that is involved, I forgot the most important person: the student themselves. Like, and it doesn't matter what age this kid is. Whether it's a kindergartner, or whether it's a 12th grader, they are at the center of all this. And if we can make sure families and children know that, then everybody wins.

Lisa: My son had his first public school evaluation in the sixth grade. We set up a meeting. It was the tutor, a few of his teachers, and the school psychologist. And we went in with a much more aggressive approach than we had the first time. My husband, the first thing out of his mouth was, you know, "Thank you everybody for coming. And we don't mean to be aggressive. But we were told by the school in first grade that we needed to sit back and see what happens. And we took your advice. And our son is now in a really bad situation. And we're not going to wait any longer. So we need to get him tested."

Andy: What Lisa was just describing is an all-too-common problem of waiting to evaluate, taking a wait-and-see approach that can leave kids in a tough situation. Sometimes it's the parents who want to wait to evaluate their child, because they're really nervous about how getting an evaluation for special education might affect their child's self-esteem. My next guest is going to offer advice on how to talk to kids about these things in a positive way. Amanda Morin is the co-host of the Understood's "In It" podcast, and the mom of three kids, two of whom learn differently. She's also a former classroom teacher and an early intervention specialist. Hey, Amanda.

Amanda: Hey, Andy. It's really good to join you.

Andy: So what's your first piece of advice that you give to parents?

Amanda: I think the first piece of advice that I would give is to be really cautious about the word "evaluation" when you're talking to kids, because it can be a very tricky word. So I think one of the things I start with with parents is to say to them, "Don't use the word 'evaluation' right off the bat." You know, talk to your child about the fact that you're going to be doing a closer look at their strengths and weaknesses, looking a little more at what can be supportive for them, because you know that they're struggling a little bit.

Andy: And how do you help explain to parents what "a closer look" actually means?

Amanda: It's important for both parents and kids to understand that this is not just one day, right? It's not a one-day process. Your child is probably going to talk to a number of different people, see new people in their classroom, have conversations, do activities with a bunch of different people over time. So I think it's important for them to understand that that "closer look" is really going to be more of a process. Because it's important to see what you're really good at, and also what you're having some difficulty with. And I think it's important for kids to know that this is an overtime kind of thing. So that "closer look" is really not just about "Today we're going to look at what you can do." We want to see the whole story, we don't want to just see one picture of one moment in time. And I think it's important for parents to know that too. We don't want you to think this is one day that you have to be really prepared for. It's many days that you don't have to be really prepared for it. You just have to be there for it.

Andy: Oh, absolutely. Any other information you might share, or advice about just talking about what evaluations are with your kids?

Amanda: I think with kids, it's important to sort of clue into how much information they want. And we can see that and how they're reacting to us. And if you're a parent, you absolutely have been in a situation where you've talked longer than your child is willing to listen. Pay attention to those things, right? It doesn't have to be a one-and-done conversation. You can sit down, you can start the conversation, and then just keep the lines of communication open, which for parents basically means bring up again if you need to. Listen when they're asking questions. And give as much information as you can without overwhelming your child right now.

Andy: Yeah, that's so crucial. I always think about when I was working with families on parenting, we often talked about the two- to three-minute rule, which is if you're talking for longer than two to three minutes, you can be pretty darn well sure your kid's gone. So on the other side of this equation, what's some of the things that you shouldn't say — the not to say advice we give parents?

Amanda: The "not to says" are the things that might make a child feels like it's their fault. You don't want your kids to think that they've done something wrong. I would not want you to say to your child, "You know, you're having a lot of trouble in school. And it's really clear. Your teachers are talking about it. I'm noticing it, and we need to do something about this." Right? That's a lot of responsibility on a kid. The other piece of it is probably just paying attention to the looks on their face. So if you say something and your child looks crestfallen, they look like they have just had a weight drop right on them, you're gonna want to say to them, "What did you just hear me say?" Right? And so having them reflect it back to you can really show whether or not you've said something that hit a nerve that you need to go back and correct. One of the things I say to parents over and over and over again, is you can always go back and try again. You can always go back and say, "You know what? I don't know that you heard that the way I meant it in my head. So we're going to try again, and I want to tell it to you differently." There's nothing wrong with knowing that you have to try again. And that's something that I wished I'd known as a parent much earlier in my parenting journey. Because I think there were a lot of things I could have said differently.

Andy: And I'll say this over and over again: It's a heck of a lot harder to break your kid than you think it is. They are far more durable and forgiving. And owning when you have a misstep as a parent, because we're going to make thousands and thousands of those missteps, is really the key here.

Lisa: So when we finally got the report back from the school evaluation, it was — it was a relief to both my husband and I. It was a relief because it backed up what we thought all along. And it confirmed that we were not mishandling our son or just not doing a good job helping him through school. It was a relief that everything we thought was true — as strange as that sounds, because you wouldn't wish these problems on anybody. But you can't begin to fix a problem unless you know what the problem is. And we had confirmation of what the problem was.

Andy: In today's episode, we've talked about the whys and hows of the school evaluation process, breaking down common myths and highlighting how kids can benefit from evaluations. Over the next nine episodes, we'll have a chance to dig deeper into various parts of the evaluation process. But if you there's one thing you can take away from this introductory episode, it's that evaluations are designed to help kids thrive by learning about both their strengths and their needs. The other big takeaway is that the more schools can help kids and families understand the evaluation process, the more likely they are to fully engage in the process and benefit from it. As always, remember that as a parent, you're the first and best expert on your child.

In our next episode, we'll talk about how schools and families decide if a child needs to be evaluated. We hope you'll join us. You've been listening to Season 1 of "Understood Explains" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode. And now, just as a reminder of who we're doing this all for, I'm going to turn it over to Benjamin to read our credits. Take it away, Benjamin.

Benjamin: "Understood Explains" is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also did the sound design for the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also makes the show, For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. A very special thanks to Amanda Morin and all the other parents and experts who helped us make this show. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

Andy: Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at


  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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