Points of referral to meet the needs of learners

Last Updated on 03/09/2023 by James Barron


This article delves into the intricate process of identifying and addressing the diverse needs of students within educational institutions. Starting with the pivotal role of educators in recognising individual student needs — often first observed during the induction phase but necessitating continuous vigilance — the content underscores the importance of referrals when certain needs surpass a teacher’s purview. Citing Gravells (2014), the article emphasises that students should be directed to specialists or pertinent agencies, even if the issues seem manageable by the educators themselves. Real-world examples, such as referring students with health concerns to first aiders, are provided for clarity. The discussion further extends to the broader facets of educational support, including early identification benefits, the importance of a streamlined referral process, and the need for consistent professional development for educators in this realm.


Students inevitably come with a diverse array of needs and requirements. The challenge and responsibility for educational institutions and professionals is to accurately identify and address these individual needs. The initial point of identification often occurs during the student induction process. However, due to the dynamic nature of students’ lives, circumstances can shift. Sometimes, a student might even conceal a specific need. Hence, it’s crucial for teachers and staff to remain vigilant in their attempts to discern any individual needs.

The Importance of Referral in Education

Gravells (2014) emphasises that once a learner’s need has been identified, and if it extends beyond the educator’s expertise or role, a referral is necessary. This referral should direct the student to a specialist or agency equipped to handle their specific needs. To quote Gravells, “refer your learner to an appropriate specialist or agency if you can’t deal with their needs.” (Gravells, 2014, p. 57). Furthermore, even if educators believe they are capable of addressing the issue, Gravells advises it might still be preferable to “seek advice or refer your learner to someone who can help” (Gravells, 2014, p. 57). This recommendation acknowledges that specialised professionals within educational settings are often better trained to deal with certain areas, even more so than general educators.

Examples of Referral Scenarios

Take, for example, a student grappling with health concerns. While a teacher might recognise the issue and provide initial support, it’s likely more suitable to refer the student to trained first aiders. Similarly, if a student is facing financial difficulties, they should be guided towards student advice services that can offer specialised financial guidance.

Holistic Approach to Education

Education, inherently, is not just about academic learning. It encompasses the holistic development of students. The nuances of student needs can range from physical health, mental health, academic struggles, financial concerns, and even emotional and social issues.

Early Identification and Its Benefits

It’s also worth noting that early identification can often lead to better outcomes. The sooner a need is identified, the quicker it can be addressed, often preventing the escalation of problems. Therefore, proactive measures, such as regular check-ins and creating an environment where students feel safe to express their concerns, can be beneficial.

Streamlining the Referral Process

Furthermore, the referral process needs to be smooth and efficient. The referred specialists or agencies should be adequately equipped and responsive. The last thing a struggling student needs is to be caught up in bureaucratic delays.

Professional Development and Training for Educators

Lastly, teachers and educational staff should receive training to identify these needs. They should also be made aware of the referral pathways within their institution. Continuous professional development in this area can lead to a more inclusive and supportive educational environment, benefiting not just the students, but the entire learning community.

Example points of referral

  • Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO)
  • School Counsellor or Psychologist
  • School Nurse or Medical Officer
  • Speech and Language Therapists
  • Occupational Therapists
  • Educational Psychologist
  • Social Services
  • Student Welfare/Pastoral Care Team
  • Career or College Counsellors
  • Tutoring Centres or Learning Support Services:
  • Financial Aid Office
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) Specialist
  • Cultural or Religious Liaisons
  • Legal or Immigration Services
  • External Therapists or Counsellors


Gravells, A., 2014. The Award in Education and Training. Exeter: Sage Publications Inc..

Further reading

Teaching to Diversity: The Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning by Jennifer Katz

Katz’s model focuses on recognising and addressing the diverse needs of students, especially in inclusive settings.

Identifying Special Needs: Checklists for Profiling Individual Differences by Glynis Hannell

A practical guide to identifying a student’s specific needs and the best strategies to address them.

Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

This book offers strategies on how to approach tough conversations, which can be particularly helpful for educators navigating discussions with resistant parents or guardians.

Schools and Families: Creating Essential Connections for Learning by Sandra L. Christenson and Susan M. Sheridan

This book discusses the importance of school-family partnerships and provides practical strategies for effective collaboration.

The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students by Thomas Armstrong

Armstrong delves into the neuroscience behind the adolescent brain, offering insights that can help teachers better understand their students and communicate with parents about their needs.

Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)

CEC is a professional association dedicated to improving the educational success of children and youth with disabilities and/or gifts and talents. They provide information, resources, and professional development for educators.

Website URL: https://www.cec.sped.org


This website offers resources specifically for educators who are working with students with learning and thinking differences. It provides strategies, lesson ideas, and insights into understanding and meeting individual student needs.

Website URL: https://www.understood.org

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)

NASP provides resources for educators on various topics, including student mental health, behavioural challenges, and working collaboratively with families.

Website URL: https://www.nasponline.org

Colorín Colorado

This website is dedicated to helping educators and families of English language learners (ELLs). It offers strategies, research, and resources to bridge communication gaps and support ELL students.

Website URL: https://www.colorincolorado.org

Parent Teacher Association (PTA)

The National PTA website offers a plethora of resources for educators and families. Their mission revolves around building strong partnerships between parents, teachers, and schools to ensure every child’s educational success. The website provides materials on family engagement, parental advocacy, and tools for effective communication between parents and educators, making it an invaluable resource when handling challenging situations, like resistance to referrals or disagreements over identified needs.

Website URL: https://www.pta.org


How do teachers ensure that the referral process respects the privacy and confidentiality of the student’s personal information?

Teachers ensure that the referral process respects the privacy and confidentiality of the student’s personal information by following institutional protocols designed to protect student data. They share information on a need-to-know basis, limiting details to those directly involved in the student’s care or support. Any written or electronic records related to the referral are stored securely, with restricted access. Lastly, teachers maintain open communication with students and guardians, informing them about the referral while respecting their rights and wishes regarding information disclosure.

How do educational institutions measure the effectiveness of the referral process and ensure that referred services are benefiting the students?

Educational institutions employ periodic evaluations of referral outcomes to gauge their effectiveness, often through feedback from students, teachers, and specialists involved. They analyse academic, behavioural, or well-being metrics pre- and post-referral to determine if there are noticeable improvements or changes. Regular communication between the school and the external specialists or services ensures consistent updates on student progress. Additionally, institutions might conduct surveys or hold focus groups with stakeholders to gain insights and make necessary adjustments to the referral process.

How do teachers handle situations where parents or guardians may be resistant or hesitant about the referral process or disagree with the identified needs?

Teachers approach resistant parents or guardians with empathy and open communication, ensuring they understand the reasons and intentions behind the proposed referral. They provide evidence-based observations or assessments, highlighting the potential benefits the referred services might offer the student. Teachers also invite parents to engage in collaborative discussions, valuing their insights and addressing any concerns or misconceptions. If necessary, teachers might involve a neutral third party, such as a school counsellor or administrator, to mediate and facilitate a productive dialogue.

Author Profile

James Barron
My first experience of teaching was in 2016, when I was asked to
deliver a talk to a group of 16-year-olds on what it was like to start
your own business. I immediately knew I wanted to become more
involved in teaching but I didn’t know where to start as I had not
previously considered a career in education. A few weeks later I
agreed to teach a class of Chinese students from the Shanghai
Technical Institute of Electronics and Information, who had travelled
to the UK to learn English and Software Engineering, after that I was
hooked. Within the next few years, I taught hundreds of students of
many different nationalities, aged from 16 to 60, and from
levels 2 to 6. I focused my time teaching with Bath University and
Bath College for several more years until I felt a change was in order.
For the last few years, I have taught remotely with several private
training organisations, provided dedicated one to one coaching
sessions, provided consultancy on teaching and assessment practices
and written about my experiences as a teacher. I plan to continue
with my current activities for the foreseeable future but I’m always
open to new teaching experiences.

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