Approximately 2.8 million children in the United States are diagnosed with a disability- a physical, mental, or emotional impairment. Researchers believe the true number is much higher, as many children are not diagnosed until they are older or ever, depending on the education and support of those around them. Most families are impacted in some way by a disability, whether it’s an extended family member, a parent, or even your own child.
When your child has a disability, or you suspect they do, it is hard to know where to begin.
Fortunately, children with disabilities have many legal rights that have to be enforced, and those are especially important in a school setting. Enter the 504 plan and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These two types of plans are implemented by schools to meet the needs of students with disabilities. An IEP is federally mandated under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), while a 504 plan is federally mandated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They both ensure that the student has access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) with the least restrictive environment. An IEP is a plan for a child’s special education experience at school, and a 504 plan is a plan for how the school will provide support and remove barriers for a student with a disability.
As a special needs parent, my kids have had both 504 plans and IEPs. I’m going to focus on the 504 plan today, and fill you in on the basics.
If you suspect a disability, or your child has been diagnosed with one, first you need to reach out to the school to begin the sometimes lengthy assessment and diagnostics process as soon as possible. Each campus has access to qualified speech/language pathologists, educational diagnosticians, and licensed specialists who will help with the assessment. This group initially evaluates and assesses your child to determine eligibility, and then reevaluates your child throughout their school years to see what’s working, what’s not, and if your child has improved enough to no longer need services. If you already have a diagnosis from a professional, the school may be able to use this to begin their process. A child can qualify for a 504 plan if they have any disability that interferes with their ability to learn in a general education setting.
You will receive notice of an upcoming 504 meeting, via email, a letter, or both. You can forego a formal meeting and let the team make decisions in your absence. Some parents choose this option when a plan has been in place for a long time, changes aren’t being made, or for other reasons. I strongly suggest you go to every meeting regardless of the circumstances. This way you can support your child, get to know the people working with and for your child, and just in case something comes up or you have a question on the spot they can answer. If you can’t attend in person you can join via phone. You can also bring a support person with you, like a friend who has been through this before and knows the ropes, or you can call in a spouse or relative to join over the phone.
Document everything– documentation is key when it comes to getting accommodations for your child. Before the meeting, gather all of your documentation (diagnoses, notes from teachers or doctors, any evidence of disability you’ve observed) in a folder or binder. I try to get as organized as possible before the meeting, so that I can quickly and easily find what I’m looking for during a meeting, even if I’m flustered or upset. It happens.
Involve the teacher- it’s a good idea to reach out to the teacher in advance to ask what they’ve seen in the classroom, and if they have any particular concerns or suggestions. Yes, you know your child best, but the teachers are the ones who interact with your child in a multitude of educational settings and situations. They may have seen something you haven’t before, or have an idea for an accommodation that you hadn’t thought of. Ideally, the teacher will be at the meeting to offer up their suggestions and observations, but sometimes they aren’t, or they are out sick that day, so take this step just in case.
Accommodations– this part can be tricky. Some schools have just a handful of accommodations they like to dole out, and are pretty tightfisted. Other schools are open to input from teachers, students, parents, and doctors. This is where it helps to have already talked to the teacher, who has already suggested that yes, your kid needs to be able to stand in the back of the class when needed, or have frequent breaks during assignments, or anything else. Something I did with my older kids was to print out lists of common accommodations for their particular diagnoses (I highly recommend Pinterest for this, just type in “accommodations for ADHD, dyslexia, etc.” and you will find a ton of information) and I had the kids circle things they thought would be helpful. I don’t know what’s difficult for them in the classroom, but they do. At the 504 meeting, I was able to then ask for these accommodations, and while they didn’t get all of them, they got most and had a 504 plan that was more custom fitted to their individual needs. If your kids are younger, then the school will lean heavily on the recommendations of the teacher who has worked with your child, and the experts who are in place for just this reason.
All four of the children in our home have had either 504 plans or IEPs, from something as minor as speech therapy, to a full on autism support IEP. So I speak from experience when I tell you every school is different.
Sometimes you are met with resistance, excuses, or just aren’t seeing eye to eye with the administrators on your child’s proposed accommodations and support. Next week, I will talk about when a 504 meeting doesn’t go as planned and tips to handle this all to frequent occurrence.
Finally, the best advice I can give you before starting your 504 plan journey is to be prepared, learn as much as you can in advance, get everything in writing, and stay calm during the meetings. You are your child’s best and strongest advocate, and the difference you can make by helping them get the support they need can be life changing.
Photography: Jessica Rockowitz Photography + Film