A Model of Student Support: A Digital Referral Process

Fall 2019

By Naomi Schimmel and Pia Awal Beirne

On a Friday morning, seven faculty members sit around the table with computers open, all looking at the same document. The digital form, submitted three days prior by a classroom teacher, delineates the strengths and struggles of Henry (pseudonym), a third grader. “Interested in sports, loves watching professional basketball. He has a nice sense of humor and can be empathetic and caring.”

As the group continues reading, they see that the teacher has suggested struggles in the areas of language, memory, and higher-order cognition. “Changes in schedule are difficult. Anything unexpected is met with lots of questions. Henry has a hard time with math in particular and takes a long time to pick up new strategies and concepts.” Sitting around the table are the members of the lower school Student Support Team (SST): four learning specialists, a psychologist, and two administrators. After reading the submitted form, members of the support team add information on recent work with and observations of Henry. The facilitator of the meeting poses questions that address Henry’s learning needs and background. After about two minutes, the group shifts the focus of the conversation to possible strategies the teachers can try and poses questions for follow-up and clarification. During the discussion, one of the learning specialists is taking notes and writing an email to the teachers with follow-up questions and possible strategies. Several minutes later, the conversation switches to the next student.


In a school, individual students are supposed to be at the core of our dialogue. However, too often teachers and administrators leave students out of the conversation, getting sidetracked instead by issues of curriculum standards, test scores, pedagogical differences, and scheduling conflicts. If educating students is the purpose of our work, why are their needs so often forgotten?

At the time, we were two learning specialists working in an independent elementary school in New York City. We wondered how to direct the conversation back to the students themselves, but then the questions started to emerge. How would we find time during the school day? Who would need to be involved in these conversations? Where would these discussions take place? What might the format of these meetings look like?

We had two primary objectives. The first was the desire to address the strengths and struggles of our students in a goal-oriented conversation about specific ways to target support. The second was to structure a format that was inherently committed to being sensitive and attuned to our students’ unique cultural backgrounds. In order to do so, we would need to change some of the existing structures in our school.

To address our first objective, we set out to develop a structure and language with which to talk about students. When teachers discuss student learning in an objective, respectful, and structured framework, there is an increase in student learning and teacher growth.1 By considering students’ strengths, struggles, and interests, we acknowledge that they have different profiles that need to be addressed through various approaches.

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a term used to describe the best classroom teaching practices for students from different cultures.2 Through this approach, teachers are respecting and acknowledging students’ cultural and family backgrounds. Given that our ultimate goal was to discuss students’ learning needs, we needed to address any potential confusion between teaching students from diverse backgrounds and teaching students with learning or other disabilities, while being sensitive to both.

The Process

We gathered a small sample of faculty members into a core design team, including classroom teachers, a physical education teacher, and a technology specialist. Together we developed the guiding question, “How might we talk about students’ academic, social, and emotional strengths and areas of need?” We used the design thinking process, a structured approach to generating and evolving ideas with “five phases [that] help navigate the development from identifying a design challenge to finding and building a solution.3

After generating our guiding question, we began by speaking and visiting with other schools, businesses, hospitals, and organizations to learn how they collaborate about students, patients, or their subject matter. With a pile of Post-its and lots of notes, we “bucketed” the ideas in order to find patterns and themes to support the interpretation of the data. We learned that while each institution had its own system that fit its needs, they all had common elements: efficiency, a common language, and a clearly defined structure.

We realized that the first step in this process would need to be an effective system and a succinct referral form that would allow for teacher reporting, explicit documentation, and timely targeted follow-up. As we created the new form, we had two central criteria in mind: a digital form and a common theoretical framework. If we used a digital form, teachers could access it easily, and it would automatically be received by the psychologist, administrators, and learning specialists: our support team. This would enable us to have a more comprehensive conversation about the needs of a particular student.

We had both attended a training on learning variations, and we were inspired by the eight neurodevelopmental constructs—memory, attention, language, higher-order cognition, social cognition, temporal-sequential ordering, neuromotor functions, and spatial ordering—to guide the creation of the new referral form.4 Our goal was to utilize a framework to describe and organize students’ strengths and struggles. Working with our core design team of teachers, we created a prototype of the new digital referral form. We piloted the form with a larger sample of teachers and enlisted the support of the administration. After more tweaking and feedback, we came back with an improved form and a more streamlined process.

The Form

The digital “ticket” is designed to be an efficient and specific system for teachers to identify students who are struggling because of academic, social-emotional, or behavioral reasons. We refer to the form as a ticket because it is a system of notification that alerts the support team about the need to discuss a student. By submitting a ticket, teachers may request further guidance from the support team or simply document that a student is struggling.

Using a standard Google form, teachers are asked to fill in key information about a student they have identified as struggling. The form includes the following seven components:
  • Student strengths and interests
  • Relevant background/family information
  • Student struggles
  • Strategies that have been tried
  • Reasons for referral, according to the neurodevelopmental framework
  • Previous contact with the student’s family and other professionals
  • Purpose for submission
The form asks teachers to identify the student’s strengths and interests before articulating the specific areas of need. A few teachers had difficulty with this initially, preferring to write simply about the struggles. We strongly believe that it is crucial to acknowledge and celebrate students’ strengths and interests and use them to help our students succeed. By asking teachers to use this strengths-based approach, we are encouraging them to pause and think about the whole child. This process allowed us to educate teachers on how we look at students.

The next section of the form asks teachers to identify some of the student’s areas of need. The teacher checks from a selection of specific neurodevelopmental areas in which the student is struggling. Subsequently, the teacher describes how the difficulties manifest during the school day and lists any strategies that have already been implemented. Finally, the teacher explains why the ticket is being submitted, either for documentation or to request support from the Student Support Team.

At the beginning and middle of each school year, we reintroduce the form and review the neurodevelopmental terms. This overview not only includes directions on how to access and fill out the form but, more importantly, provides the foundation of a shared language that the faculty and administration can use to discuss students and learning. Over time, the neurodevelopmental framework has become a significant part of the gestalt of our community.

How It Works

When a teacher submits a form, it can be viewed by the entire support team (learning specialists, administrators, and psychologist). The team meets regularly, and newly submitted tickets are discussed first. For each student, we review strengths, current levels of performance, and areas of need. The team adds any additional information on recent contact with parents or outside professionals. Together we plan for next steps, which may include further assessment, classroom observation, behavior charts, or subsequent conversations with teachers or families. In these meetings, we also review previously submitted tickets to check in on progress and update our documentation. In this way, once a ticket is received, it begins a cyclical process of reviewing, planning, and reflecting on the support ticket, thereby creating change from within (Figure A).


In the first five months of launching the form, we received 21 tickets from teachers. At that point, we solicited feedback from teachers and made adjustments. The following school year, we received 47 tickets in the first seven months. In the third year of the referral process, we received 77 tickets. Since implementing the system, the SST has committed to discussing newly received tickets at weekly meetings. Notes are logged into each student’s ticket, leading to clearer recordkeeping. Additionally, the SST follows up with teachers about previously submitted tickets, thereby ensuring more consistent communication with teachers and greater follow-through on students’ needs over time.

As a result of the digital form and the ensuing dialogue, a student like Henry is receiving targeted support earlier than in our prior model. Now, Henry’s teachers are taking photographs of the math charts and sending them home so that he can connect his learning in school to his assignments at home. Henry also has a schedule pasted on his desk and a checklist by his cubby reminding him of what he needs to take home each day. These strategies help Henry move through the day more seamlessly and bridge the gap between school and home.

It is clear that the impact of this process has been far reaching. Teachers are thinking deeply about their students—considering their strengths and backgrounds, attempting to pinpoint the sources of their struggles, and learning more about how to identify their needs. Teachers are experimenting with new ways of differentiating assignments and asking questions about how to help their students succeed in the academic and social realms. Administrators and learning specialists are also talking about students more specifically, using language from the neurodevelopmental framework while also deeply respecting students’ cultural backgrounds. The digital form, and the dialogue that goes with it, provide administrators and learning specialists with a snapshot of each student’s learning profile. In the end, it brings us back to what the conversation should be about: the student.


  1. Linor L. Hadar and David L. Brody, “Talk About Student Learning: Promoting Professional Growth Among Teacher Educators,” Teaching and Teacher Education 59 (October 2016), pp. 101-114.
  2. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
  3. Annette Diefenthaler et al., Design Thinking for Educators (San Diego: IDEO, 2011).
  4. Melvin D. Levine, Developmental Variation and Learning Disorders, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, 1993).
Naomi Schimmel

Naomi Schimmel (naomi.schimmel@gmail.com) is the head of the Lower School at The Shefa School, New York, New York.

Pia Awal Beirne

Pia Awal Beirne (piaawalbeirne@gmail.com) is coordinator of Academic Support and Enrichment PreK-12 at The Baldwin School, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.