A common occurrence in my office is parents who come in with the concern that their child is struggling in school, but they often don’t know where to turn.
Knowing what resources are available to your child is the first step in your ability to advocate for them. There are two main federal laws that describe the services that children are eligible for and the services provided for particular disabilities.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
This is a federal law that disallows discrimination against individuals with disabilities. This law helps ensure that there are no barriers to a child learning a classroom and allows equal access to learning opportunities. In order to be eligible for a 504 a child must have any one of a number of disabilities that affects a major life activity ie. Learning.
The definition of what constitutes a disability is much broader for a 504 than it is for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) which will be discussed later in this article. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to all federally funded programs which includes all public schools.
A 504 plan is less structured than an IEP, but will include a list of accommodations that schools can implement to help a student obtain equal access to the educational curriculum. Unlike an IEP, parents are unable to request an evaluation of the child that is paid for by the school district, however if parents would like to have an evaluation done they are able to pay for it themselves and provide it to the school.
A 504 plan is created by a team that usually involves the child’s parents, general curriculum teachers, special education teachers, and the school principal. A 504 is usually a written document, but it does not have to be, as opposed to an IEP that must be a written document. The 504 should include child specific accommodations or services to better support the child.
It should also designate who will be providing each particular service and identify the person responsible for making sure the plan is implemented appropriately. The frequency which 504 plans are reviewed depends on the state the child lives in. They are usually reviewed once a year with a reevaluation every 3 years.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
This is a federal special education law that applies to children with disabilities. This law is a Civil Rights Law and governs who is eligible for special education services, what disabilities qualify for special education services, who participates in the creation and oversight of an Individualized Education Plan. This law applies to all state and local public school districts.
An IEP is a formalized special education plan that is tailored to a specific child’s needs based on their disability. Because of the legality and formality of this process there is a great deal that needs to be done in writing. For example a parent must request evaluation for an IEP in writing, and the school district must respond. If a child does qualify for an IEP any changes to the plan, any meetings to discuss the IEP, and any evaluations that need to be completed must be done in writing. Parents must consent to both a school evaluation as well as implementation of an IEP.
In order to be eligible for an IEP a child must have a disability that is covered under the IDEA law, and the disability must impact learning ability or educational performance which warrants need for special education. Children will need to be evaluated to determine if they qualify for special education services.
Parents can ask the school district for an evaluation which the school is responsible for paying for, or parents can pay for an outside evaluation themselves. Depending on the school district, they may prefer to have the evaluation completed by someone in the school district as opposed to a private evaluator outside of the school district.
Once a child is deemed eligible, an IEP is created by a team. The members of that team include the child’s parent, at least one of the child’s general education teachers, at least one special education teacher, a school psychologist or equivalent, and a district representative who is responsible for oversight of special education services. Other can be involved as well if they are invited.
An IEP is a very specific document and there are many components that make up an entire IEP. In a nutshell an IEP identifies specific learning goals for a child, and specifically states what the school will do to help the child reach those stated goals. The IEP documents a student’s current school performance, and the school is responsible for tracking that progress over the course of a year. IEP meetings take place at a minimum of every year.
Every three years the child will be reevaluated to determine whether special education services are still needed. If a child is not deemed to meet criteria for an IEP, they may still be eligible for a 504 plan.
There are many different accommodations that can be made as part of a 504 or an IEP. A few examples are:
- Providing a set of class materials for home, and another identical set that stays at school
- Providing audio books instead of written material
- Allowing use of a computer to complete written work
- Changing seating arrangements so a child can sit closer to the front of the room
- Posting a visual schedule at the front of the classroom or on the student’s desk
- Extra bathroom breaks and movement breaks
- Giving additional time to complete an activity
- Intermittent timing reminders to help students stay on task
- Giving directions orals as opposed to written
- Use color coded materials for each subject or class
Remember that every child is unique, and that the process of obtaining a 504 or an IEP can take time so don’t give up. There are many great resources that are available to parents. The more you know, the better you can advocate for your child.