What Are 504 Plans and IEPs?
If your child is struggling in school due to physical, emotional or behavioral issues, it might be time to look into services and supports to facilitate their learning. Physical conditions, learning disorders, psychiatric conditions, and developmental disorders can impact a student’s progress, but thankfully, there are resources in place, established by federal law, to help target challenges and allow your child to be more successful at school.
There are two paths that parents can pursue to help their children with disabilities with their schooling, 504 plans and IEPs. A 504 plan, based on Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, helps students receive in-classroom services and accommodations to facilitate academic success. A 504 plan for a student with ADHD, for example, might include accommodations allowing for the student to stand up and walk around the classroom or granting them extra time on tests or assignments. This way, the student isn’t penalized for having ADHD. The teacher is responsible for adhering to the 504 and offering the appropriate accommodations. With a 504, the academic playing field is presumably leveled to some degree, with the provision of appropriate accommodations.
An Individualized Education Program (IEP), designated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), goes a step further and offers access to additional educational services with additional staff. An IEP might provide a student with speech therapy, physical therapy, or occupational therapy at school, for example, to target various symptoms or conditions. To learn more about the difference between 504 plans and IEPs, check out this slideshow for a side-by-side comparison of the two.
While a student with an IEP might also have a 504 plan (with the IEP plan created after the 504 proves insufficient), a student with a 504 plan won’t necessarily have an IEP. 504 plans and IEPs are reviewed annually to update how your child is doing and to identify any additional supports they might need in order to be successful. It’s also important to note that 504 plans and IEPs aren’t necessarily honored at schools that don’t receive public funding. So if you’re considering a private school or religious school or any other setting that doesn’t receive public funds, it’s up to the individual school whether they choose to follow the plan. This is in contrast to publicly funded schools, which must follow these plans by law.
Recommendations for Accessing 504 Plans and IEPs:
Here are some considerations for parents to keep in mind if they suspect or know that their child has a disability:
1. Parents are an important part of a child’s educational success. While we might want the school to be more involved and initiate these processes, in many cases they don’t. It’s oftentimes up to parents to say something when there’s a concern, to know their rights, and to get the ball the rolling.
2. Speaking of getting the ball rolling, start the process as soon as possible. The sooner your child has a 504 plan or IEP if they need one, the better. The more likely they’ll be to succeed in school and the less likely it will be that their academic performance will negatively affect their self-esteem. For many kids, knowing they have a disability and that their parents are going to bat for them can be validating and can positively impact their sense of self.
3. Try to find community in others with similar concerns. Online, there are many parent groups that focus on students with disabilities. In many cases, we can learn from others’ experiences (and offer our learning to the group). Plus, it helps us to feel less alone when we realize others are impacted by similar concerns.
4. Whether it’s asking for testing at the school or accommodations or an IEP, anticipate some pushback from the school. Teachers and administrators are overworked and underpaid and, especially if your child’s disability isn’t that obvious, might not be as forthcoming with the services you need or to which your family is entitled. Know your rights so that you’re able to ensure your child is evaluated and accommodated in a timely fashion. For example, if you are dissatisfied with the school’s evaluation, you can challenge the recommendations and can access outside testing, paid for by the district, but if you didn’t know this, you wouldn’t be able to move forward with this type of request.
5. Get help if you can. If resources allow, hire an advocate or attorney to help guide you through this process. Some non-profit organizations offer free peer (parent-to-parent) advocacy. These resources are particularly helpful if 504/IEP compliance is at stake. If your school is not following your child’s 504 plan. or IEP, first attempt to resolve the issue with teacher, the administration at your school, and the special education administrator. It’s possible that it might help to switch your child’s teacher, for instance. Other solutions that sometimes arise around non-compliance include independent school placement or securing extra services, such as tutoring, at the school’s expense. If attempts to address non-compliance with the school have been unsuccessful, you can file a complaint with the district’s special education administrator or directly with the state. Having an advocate or attorney by your side can help you with this process.