Navigating help in school to determine whether your child needs an IEP or 504 plan can be a task that leaves you feeling overwhelmed, fearful, and ill-equipped for the journey. Maybe you have been told the child in your care needs some extra help or that they already have educational support in place, but you have no idea what that means or will mean for you. Maybe you are caring for a child you suspect may need support and don’t know where to start. Whatever the case, help is here! Together, we will navigate what an IEP or 504 Plan is and provide clarity to boost your confidence when you advocate for your child.
First Things First!
Let’s chat about where to begin. Take a close look at your child’s specific challenges and difficulties. Sometimes, this may take a little detective work on your part and on the part of others who interact regularly with your child. Resources can include pediatricians, data from former schools, and other professionals.
Another valuable exercise to complete is familiarizing yourself with developmental mile-markers that are appropriate for your child’s age and stage. The Child Mind Institute’s website is a great place to find those.
Sometimes, our expectations are too low, and sometimes they are too high. Knowing a child’s strengths and weaknesses can help us to communicate concerns effectively. Set up a meeting with your child’s teacher to describe those findings. Teachers can help in many ways, especially while you wait for more formal intervention, should that be necessary. Please note that sometimes, a more formal intervention isn’t the route. Schools can offer much support to address academic, behavioral, and social concerns. From a teacher’s perspective, recognizing that you know your child’s history will add a layer of compassion and advocacy that will not go unnoticed.
What Is an IEP Plan?
First, let’s talk about the IEP. IEP stands for Individualized Educational Plan. This plan has stringent criteria. To qualify for an IEP, your child must have 1 of 13 disabilities outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that both defines and regulates special education. It serves children ages 3-21.
Real-Life Examples That Qualify for an IEP
The thirteen disability categories that fall under this law include the following:
1. Specific Learning Disability
Specific Learning Disability covers a particular group of learning challenges that impact a child’s ability to read, write, speak, listen, or use reasoning or mathematical skills. Such disabilities include dyslexia or written expression disorder.
2. Health Impairment
Health Impairment includes conditions that limit a child’s strength, energy, or focus. An example of this is ADHD, which impacts attention and executive functioning.
3. Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder can display many symptoms but primarily affects a child’s social and communication skills.
4. Emotional Disturbance
Emotional Disturbance can include varying mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
5. Speech or Language Impairment
Speech or Language Impairment includes any problems in language or speech or lack of understanding.
6. Visual Impairment
Visual Impairment includes partial sight loss and blindness. If glasses correct the impairment, a child will not qualify.
Deafness refers to the inability to hear most sounds, even with a hearing aid.
8. Hearing Impairment
Hearing Impairment refers to hearing loss not defined as deafness. This hearing loss can occur over time.
Deaf-Blindness involves both severe hearing and vision loss.
10. Orthopedic Impairment
Orthopedic Impairment includes conditions such as cerebral palsy.
11. Intellectual Disability
Intellectual Disability includes conditions such as Down syndrome. Below-average academic ability could also negatively affect communication, social, and self-care skills.
12. Traumatic Brain Injury
A Traumatic Brain Injury occurs when a child has had a brain injury caused by physical trauma or an accident.
13. Multiple Disabilities
Multiple Disabilities means having more than one disability mentioned in the IDEA.
If your child has a documented disability, including one or more of the thirteen disabilities, and the disability affects the child’s performance or learning ability, your child would be eligible for an IEP. The IDEA gives your child learning access while removing barriers to the learning experience. The school provides a complete evaluation at no cost. The evaluation must always be done with the parents or caregivers’ permission. Once they make a recommendation, an IEP team is created. For an IEP team to be effective, understanding team members’ roles and responsibilities is essential.
Forming an IEP Team for Your Child
Parents or Guardians
The IEP team should always begin with the student’s parents or guardians. As the experts on their children, they can explain their strengths, weaknesses, and needs.
The regular-education teacher provides instruction to the student and can offer insight into their academic performance and classroom behavior.
The special-education teacher develops and implements the IEP and can clarify the student’s specific needs and accommodations.
The school psychologist can characterize the student’s cognitive and emotional functioning and provide assessments to guide the IEP development.
The IEP team may include other specialists, such as speech, occupational, or physical therapists, based on the student’s needs.
The IEP team should be collaborative and focused on the student’s needs and goals. The team can create an effective plan supporting the student’s success by working together.
The IEP is reviewed annually and will include accommodations and modifications to enhance the learning environment, involving changes in how your child participates in standardized tests or class or school activities.
Exploring the 504 Plan: An Alternative Option for Support
At this point, if you are saying, “I know we need some support, but my child doesn’t fit the criteria for an IEP,” a 504 plan is worth exploring. A 504 is a section in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to stop discrimination against people with disabilities. It is a civil rights law.
A 504 is a formal plan that a school designs that ensures support, removes barriers to learning, and provides equal access at school. It covers any condition that significantly limits daily activities. These disabilities must interfere with a child’s learning ability in the regular education classroom. These include a person’s activities and bodily functions.
Physical or Mental Impairments Covered By a 504 Plan
Included in a 504 plan are physical or mental impairments such as:
- Physiological disorder or condition
- Cosmetic disfigurement
- Anatomical loss that affects one or more body systems, including neurological, musculoskeletal, sensory, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, urinary, lymphatic, dermatologic, and endocrine.
- Any mental or psychological disorder.
- Caring for oneself
- Seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking and breathing.
- Concentrating, working, and performing manual tasks.
The categories are much broader than the specific IEP disabilities. However, the listed impairments must affect a student’s ability to learn. Modifications can be made, and services can be implemented even if your child has good grades. Generally, 504 plans work by setting accommodations that make learning easier.
Examples of Students on a 504 Plan
One example is an accommodation for a child struggling with executive functioning, such as planning and organizing. An accommodation could be schedules, directions, and rules posted where they are visible to the child. Or, create a daily routine where little change occurs.
Another example might be a child with an ADHD diagnosis having an accommodation for a flexible seating option or brain breaks during the day when the child is overwhelmed.
Accommodations for Students on a 504 Plan
Other practical examples of support that may be included in a 504 plan are:
- Preferential seating in the classroom
- Extra time on tests and assignments
- Breaks during the school day
- Access to a quiet space for studying or taking tests
- Use of assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software or calculators
- Modified homework assignments or projects
- Reduced homework or classwork expectations
- Adapted physical education activities
- Accommodations for medical needs, such as frequent restroom breaks or medication administration.
Accommodations help children with specific needs succeed and grow. Your school provides a 504 plan at no cost. Unlike an IEP, a 504 does not require a complete evaluation, and it can accommodate a child through the college years. Begin by documenting or obtaining documentation of your child’s needs, diagnosis, or previous report cards. Next, research who your county’s 504 coordinator is. You can usually find this information on your county’s school district site. Your school principal is also a great resource if you need help finding the coordinator.
How to Request a 504 Plan
Write a formal request stating why you are asking for a plan. You can find a great template to assist you in writing your request here:
Once you have made the request, you will begin the process. The goal is to create a plan to provide the student with accommodations and support that will allow them to access education and reach their full potential. Usually, a meeting is set up to see if your child qualifies. Once that is determined, a 504 plan is created.
The 504 team is less specific than an IEP team. It usually consists of a parent or caregiver, a teacher, and a principal. The team’s goal is to create a plan to provide the student with accommodations and support that will allow them to access education and reach their full potential. The team will review all pertinent documents and records, including the student’s school, work, and medical history.
The 504 does not need to be a written plan (but it usually is). It includes an outline of services and indicates who will be responsible for each. If any parts of the 504 plan are unclear, discussing them with a teacher or school administrator may be helpful. They can provide clarity and ensure the plan is tailored to meet the student’s specific needs. The plan must be well-communicated and easy to understand so everyone involved can work together to support the student’s success. The 504 plan can be reviewed annually and reevaluated every three years or when necessary.
Help Is On The Way
Whether an IEP or 504 plan is the pursued route, help is on the way. They are both meant to create a better experience for your child’s educational career. Knowing the differences allows you to understand better what supports are available to meet your child’s needs. School success is obtainable when we all work together.