To learn more about the special education system, and more specifically the referral process, I interviewed three colleagues who shared their insight into the proceedings. There are a few things to keep in mind.
I work at a Korean public school in Vietnam, so there are different national laws at play and how they fit together can be, well, interesting.
Additionally, their perspectives towards special education for certain difficulties and/or disabilities is not aligned. For example, ADHD is recognized in Korea as a learning difficulty. In Vietnam it is accepted as normal behavior among primary school children.
Keeping this in mind, here is the account of a grade one Korean teacher in Vietnam.
Imagine you’re teaching in class and all of a sudden, you hear crying. You immediately run over to the student and ask what is wrong. She tells you that her partner, the boy that sits next to her, has just punched her. Not only as he punched her, but he has punched her so hard that her front tooth is broken. You send her to the nurse to make sure she’s OK and now you have to address the boy. Yet, where is the boy? He has already begun playing with someone else. Unfortunately, you’re not surprised because it is a student that has consistently caused disruptions in class and you’re wondering what you need to do next.
This was phase one for Ms. Lee, recognition that there is a problem. Ms. Lee recounted similar stories of one her students. A lot of her stories happened within the first week of school. She quickly learned that her student had difficulties and so she began the process of assessing what was happening, and how to work with the student to improve his behavior and learning abilities (J.S. Lee, personal communication, December 8, 2015).
How did she identify that her student needed special attention and what were the signs of this student struggling?
In this case, Ms. Lee could see that this student’s behavior was different than others. In first grade, students have a lot of energy and spend a lot of time “fooling around” or off task, but this student showed extreme signs of disobedience. He spat on the bus and in the classroom. He would play in the toilet for 15 minutes and not return to class. He would hit other students, and even, jump out of the bus window.
When it came time to learn, he seemed to shut down, especially during his English classes. He would regularly refer to being too cold and asked to be moved, only to play around wherever he was put. She asked the student to read and he didn’t know how. She asked him to complete math problems, and again, he didn’t know how. The information she was teaching was going in and seemed to get lost, while the rest of her class performed well.
When he went to extra language classes in English and Vietnamese, he acted out even more. He would simply refuse to sit and learn. He threw things around the room, and again, hit other students. And this behavior happened daily.
Ms. Lee quickly acknowledged that this was a recurrent problem and needed to meet with the students parents to address his behavior. However, within our school system, there is a specific process that we need to go through. (J.S. Lee, personal communication, December 8, 2015)
So, I asked, can you send a student to the counselor without parent’s consent?
Ms. Lee explained that at our school, we cannot send a student to the school counselor without the consent of the parents. So, in the beginning of the year, all of the teachers send out a consent slip for the parents to fill out. In her class, all of the parents sent the contract back signed, except the parents of the student that was having difficulties.
This seemed really odd to her from the beginning, but it all seem to click when she saw the student’s behavior within those first few days of school. The parents were not acknowledging their child’s behavior, at least not with her.
She was in a predicament. She needed immediate help but she didn’t have the “right” to send her student to get the attention and help they both needed. She eventually decided that it was in the student’s best interest to go to the counselor. That way the student could have someone to talk to, and she could have a better idea of what was happening. She also then called the parents and set up a meeting with her and the school counselor to discuss the student’s behavior and ask if this hyperactivity was typical at home. She was trying to gain a better sense of her students needs and also, what she could do at school to help him.
And so began our school’s version of a response to intervention (RTI). (J.S. Lee, personal communication, December 8, 2015)
Meeting with the parents, what did you find out?
She found out a lot.
When Ms. Lee met with the parents, she learned the student goes to a private education center where he works on his behavior three times a week.
She also learned that his parents have heard of his in-class behavior before. The student attended a private English international school previously and was punished regularly by being left in the gymnasium on his own. The teacher said he was unable to control the student.
So, it all came together. The parents sent their child to our school without mentioning any of this, though they knew these behavioral issues were present. (J.S. Lee, personal communication, December 8, 2015)
After meeting the parents, what did she decide to do?
Ms. Lee and the counselor suggested that her student should take a special education assessment but the parents refused. They felt that their child did not have a behavior issue. Instead, they thought that he was a late bloomer and just needed time to develop.
This put Ms. Lee in a difficult situation. She still has thirty-odd kids to teach in class while trying to take care of the needs of her student. So, she and the counselor came up with an alternative plan. The plan wouldn’t be called an individualized education plan (IEP) as it did not contain annual goals for the child, any special education related services, or a program of modifications (2). Remember, the parents did not acknowledge that their child has a disability. So, they recommended that the student see the counselor twice a week and a parent come to school during the class times when he is most disruptive – English and Vietnamese classes.
The parents were not thrilled with this idea BUT they eventually accepted.
Now the student’s mom comes to school every day, but only specifically for English and Vietnamese classes. She waits outside the classroom until there is a problem. When there is a problem, she goes into the classroom and helps resolve any issues. That way, she can give him some time to be in the classroom on his own, but also be there to help supervise when needed. Additionally, the student now only comes to school for half a day and leaves after lunch, to spend time with his family or go to the private education center. (J.S. Lee, personal communication, December 8, 2015)
In the end
The whole process essentially stopped at phase three, a referral to special education (1). That is, for now. After speaking with the counselor, I learned that the student will most likely enter the school’s special education program once he reaches grade three, as he will not be ready for a homeroom setting.
There are positives and negatives to draw from this situation. This student is getting a lot of the least restrictive environment (LRE) experience, which results in a lot of interaction with peers and teachers. However, is this time really beneficial for him? From the description of his behavior, I feel (as did Ms.Lee) that the student would benefit from time with a special education teacher and in a special education classroom.
We know that he is attending a private education center, but we don’t have a clear idea of what he is doing there. That’s because all of the information related to those classes is confidential. And, the private education center cannot release information about the student.
The parents have chosen to send their child to the private education center to keep it that way. Again, they are reluctant to admit that their child even has learning difficulties.
Where we are based, in Vietnam, the school can’t do anything more than suggest that this student needs additional help. In speaking with the Special Education teacher, Ms. Park, I found out more about the process.
At the moment, she works with two full time students and one part time student. All of these students have significant cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Two are unable to spend time in their homerooms but the part time student spends most of his time in homeroom, and only works with her twice a day.They are all unable to speak beyond sounds but can understand language.
I asked her how student is identified for a special education referral in Vietnam and in Korea?
Ms. Park said that it is different in Korea than it is in Vietnam. In Vietnam, a student needs a note from the doctor that details that a student must have special education. A school assessment means nothing. Only a doctor’s note does the trick.
In Korea, a student needs either a doctor’s diagnosis, special education certificate, or a Special Education assessment from the school. In both Vietnam and Korea, it is up to the parents whether the student does any of these. At our school, a student can enter the Special Education program if a student has a disabilities certificate or if they have a doctor’s diagnosis. (Ms. Park, personal communication, December 7, 2015)
How is the significance of a difficulty and/or disability a factor?
I’ve found from speaking with Ms.Lee – the grade one teacher – that most parents that send their students to our school are hesitant to label their students with a learning difficulty and/or disability. Most parents will privately help the student while sending them to public school to be with the rest of the class, even if the difficulty or disability is apparent. For example, aside from the student discussed here, she has two other students who also attend the private education center for emotional and behavioral aid. She only found this out after her meeting with the parents of the student with ADHD.
We also have one student in attendance who is physically disabled. He is unable to climb stairs, carry anything heavy, or play sports with the children. His parents have also refused to send him to the special education program as they want him to spend his time in homeroom classes only. It’s great that he spends time in homeroom, but we don’t have the staff to provide aids or helpers for those types of students in need.
It ends up putting a huge strain on the homeroom teacher as he has to ensure everything is available to the student through the help of other students. It also takes a lot of his attention away from other students as he needs to be by the side of the physically disabled child regularly.
What needs to change?
For one, the stigma needs to be removed from the culture here. With the proper guidance and help. these students could feel just like every student that doesn’t have a difficulty and/or disability. They just need an individualized plan that works for them.
Technology could be a great resource for both of these students. In the case of Ms. Lee’s student, who is ADHD, there are programs out there that could be great for him and help him stay focused on a task for a longer amount of time. For example, Kurzweil Education, (https://kurzweiledu.com/default.html) where students can complete reading activities that are designed with ADHD students in mind online.
Now imagine if we just integrated that technology into every classroom. Students with learning difficulties aren’t the only ones who learn better one way or another. Student A may be a visual learner while Student B may be a kinesthetic learner. Student C is an auditory learner! Every student has their niche. The use of technology could level the playing field and help remove that stigma of learning difficulties and/or disabilities. If everyone is using the same technology to help them learn, then one student is no different from the next.
We have learned this through countries like Finland, one of the top achieving countries in education. Finland has taken away the stigma of being a student with learning difficulties and/or disabilities by treating all students as students that need extra care. Each student essentially has their own IEP. The teachers and staff use an early intervention strategy then collaborate with colleagues to come up with the best strategy to approach teaching every individual student. Not just those that might be labeled as having a learning difficulty or disability elsewhere, but all students.
If we combined the use of technology in every classroom and IEPs for everyone, it would lay the groundwork for every student excelling in their own way.
Links to Interview Recordings and Summaries
Interview with Ms. Lee, Grade 1 teacher
Summary of Interview
Interview with Ms. Park, Special Education teacher:
Summary of Interview
Interview with Ms. Lee, Primary School Counselor
*Link to recording will be posted as soon as received
Summary of Interview
(1) Special Education Referral Process – Project IDEAL. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.projectidealonline.org/special-education-referral-process.php
(2) Contents of the IEP – Center for Parent Information and Resources. (2010, September) Retrieved from:
(3) Finland’s Formula for School Success (Education Everywhere Series). (2012, January 25). Retrieved from
Kaloi, L. (2012, August 30). What is an IEP? Retrieved from
Khan Academy. (2012, October 30). Sal Khan on CNN Starting Point. Retrieved from
Saxena, S. (2014, January 5). Integrating Technology in a Special Education Classroom. Retrieved from
UNESCO Global Report Opening New Avenues for Empowerment ICTs to Access Information and Knowledge for Persons with Disabilities. (2013, February). Retrieved from