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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Is a 504 Plan Right for My Child?


From NCLD.org - The National Center for Learning Disabilities

By Laura Kaloi, NCLD Public Policy Director
March 13, 2013

When you are making a decision about how to seek support for your child at school, it’s important to know your options for requesting help under the federal law.

There are two laws for K-12 students in public school that may offer supports and services: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Schools that receive federal funding are obligated to serve students under Section 504; however, no federal funds are provided to directly support Section 504 services.

This article focuses on whether seeking a 504 plan might be the right solution to helping your child be successful in school. 504 plans are developed by school teams and parents to support the educational needs of a K-12 student with a disability that "substantially limits one or more major life activity" such as: learning, speaking, listening, reading, writing, concentrating, caring for oneself, etc.

A 504 plan is a good option for a K-12 student if:
  • The child has an identified learning disability (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) but does not meet the requirements of IDEA for special education services and supports;
  • The child is currently receiving informal accommodations or ongoing support at school.

504 Option: When Your Child Does Not Meet the Requirements of IDEA

The IDEA law requires that your child must meet two prongs of the law in order to be served by special education:
  • The child must have one (or more) of the 13 disabilities listed in IDEA which includes learning disabilities and attention disorders; and,
  • as a result of the disability, the child needs special education to make progress in school in order to benefit from the general education program.

This legal requirement essentially says that some kids with LD or ADHD may not meet the state or district requirements of the second prong. While the student may have a disability, it may not be impacting their learning in ways that qualify them for special education services.

These students however, because they have an LD or ADHD, may meet the requirement to have a 504 plan if their disability "substantially limits them in performing one or more major life activity."

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Effective January, 2009eligibility under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act became broader. Some students who did not qualify in the past may now qualify for Section 504 plans. Students with Section 504 plans may now qualify for additional supports, services, auxiliary aids and/or accommodations in public schools.

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Case Study: A Child with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia

Michael has been formally identified with dyslexia and dysgraphia and is in the third grade. He is struggling to read and write on grade level. However, in order to receive special education services under IDEA, the school district requires that Michael must 1) have LD and 2) be at least 1.5 to 2 grade levels behind in school.

Although Michael has two diagnosed LDs, he is only functioning .5 grade levels behind his third grade peers and therefore does not meet the school district’s requirements.

Michael’s parents and the school know that letting him fall further behind — just to qualify for special education services under IDEA — is not a practical plan for ensuring his success in school.

So, because Michael has identified disabilities that “substantially limit” the major life activities of reading and writing, they write a 504 plan that gives him several important supports and accommodations throughout the school day and during test taking. These supports are:
  • providing a computer for all writing assignments and test taking;
  • dividing reading and writing assignments into smaller parts;
  • providing a note-taker when class notes or daily planning demand writing for a prolonged period;
  • reading test items aloud (when reading skill isn’t being tested);
  • giving extra time to read during class and test taking.

Because the 504 plan must be reviewed at least once per year to ensure it’s working, Michael’s parents can partner with the school to monitor his progress. If he continues to fall behind, their options include:
  • revising the 504 plan;
  • adding special education services (although rare, this is allowed under 504 law);
  • re-evaluating for IDEA eligibility;
  • hiring outside educational support (e.g., tutor);
  • seeking professional advocacy support

Note: Michael’s parents do have legal rights under Section 504, although different than those offered under IDEA.

504 Option: When Your Child Receives Informal Accommodations at School

Sometimes, teachers or schools will provide informal or "undocumented" accommodations, supports or services to students as a way to shore up their daily learning. They may share this with you in a casual way, and your first reaction may be to just agree to it and allow the school to use their best judgment about your child’s learning needs.

While their efforts may be well-intentioned and may also be helpful to the child in the short-term, it is inappropriate for such informal accommodations to be provided in any ongoing way — especially if they aren’t formally agreed to between the school and the family.

Why? Because, if in fact your child needs these accommodations and the teacher or school suspects they have a learning disability or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, they are obligated to do more than casually accommodate him.

They must, in fact, provide an evaluation to determine the cause of the child’s ongoing need.

Also, if your child receives informal accommodations on a frequent basis, and needs them due to a qualifying disability or disorder, you want to make sure you have the paperwork (i.e., documentation) they will need later in life (e.g., when applying for accommodations for the SAT or ACT) or, when leaving a particular school or classroom.

It’s important for you to talk with the school, and if you believe they are supporting your child due to any suspicion of an LD or ADHD, you should ask in writing for your child to be evaluated.

Some examples of informal accommodations that should be formally documented are:
  • Providing extra time on assignments or tests because the child is struggling to meet deadlines or take timed quizzes or tests;
  • Offering to give consistent verbal or non-verbal cues to your child to get them back on task or focused;
  • Reading assignments or test items out loud to your child when the other children are reading it for themselves;
  • Providing a backpack check to keep your child’s homework and assignments organized;
  • Offering any of the accommodations provided in the case studies on an ongoing basis;
  • Providing instructional support or interventions that are targeted toward supporting a persistent learning need (e.g., pulling the child out for small group instruction for any length of time for any subject*).

*Sometimes schools will provide targeted interventions that are meant to reinforce or strengthen an area of learning (e.g., spelling, reading, math). These may be offered through a tiered intervention or instructional program, often called "Response to Intervention", and may be part of the school’s regular education program.

However, you should fully understand why your child is in the program and have a written instruction or intervention plan that explains:
  • the type of intervention or support provided;
  • why your child needs it;
  • how long it will be provided;
  • how your child’s progress will be monitored;
  • how that progress will be communicated with you.

Case Study: A Child Receiving Informal Accommodations

David is in second grade. It’s January, and David’s parents and the teacher have met several times since school began to discuss his inability to sit still, to pay attention, and his struggle to turn most of his class and homework in on time which has affected all of his grades.

David’s parents have been working with him at home to try and help him complete his work by providing both structure and a reasonable reward system so he’ll want to finish on time and feel confident when he accomplishes tasks and assignments.

At both home and school, David struggles to remember directions, to keep his things organized, and regularly interrupts others while they are talking.

Since the fall, the teacher has occasionally and sporadically:
  • provided verbal cues to David to get back to work;
  • allowed him to stand up at his desk to write if he gets too wiggly in his seat;
  • placed a cardboard cut-out around his desk to create privacy during reading and writing assignments which has started to embarrass David.

The teacher has also mentioned to the parents that they should consider medicating him so he’ll sit still. David’s parents realize that he needs consistent and systematic support – a real plan throughout the day--and that the school is actually accommodating him without any formal agreement or discussion about whether these supports are exactly right for him.

They deliver a letter requesting an evaluation, and also bring a doctor’s note stating that David has ADHD. The school schedules a comprehensive evaluation under IDEA. Although it is found that David’s ADHD does not meet requirements under IDEA, they do agree that his attention disorder substantially limits his ability to concentrate.

Together with David’s parents, they develop a 504 plan which spells out the accommodations he will receive in both classroom and formal testing environment.

Remember, the case studies in this article are designed to illustrate types of accommodations that could be included in a 504 plan. However, each student’s plan must be customized to meet their individual needs. Remember: There is no "one-size-fits-all" set of accommodations.

A 504 plan can be a powerful way to support a student with a learning disability or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, especially for students whose learning needs can be met full-time in the general education classroom.

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For information on how Section 504 applies to college students, read NCLD's publication, "Transition to College: Strategic Planning to Ensure Success."

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