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August 16, 2016
Dan’s mom left her son’s evaluation team meeting at school feeling really frustrated. Dan, an active second grade student, was diagnosed by his psychiatrist with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Dan did had trouble paying attention in class, but the school’s evaluation showed that he was generally functioning at grade level: he had an average intelligence level, and his scores didn’t reveal any specific learning problems. Dan’s mom knew that he needed some help paying attention, staying organized, and remembering things (such as his homework); however, the evaluation team said that he wasn’t eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Dan’s mom then called me to ask if there was anything else she could do.
I explained to Dan’s mom that her son was in good company. Many kids fall into a sort of gray area of learning or attentional weaknesses, where a formal disability cannot be supported by the school’s results, but it’s clear that problems exist. Luckily, there is another option when a child is found not eligible for an IEP.
If the evaluation team agrees that a child has a disability, but it’s not significant enough to require special education, the team should consider whether the child would benefit from accommodations or services under a Section 504 Plan. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to students who have learning or performance weaknesses that could be deemed “disabilities,” but are not eligible for special education. Such a child may have an academic program or curriculum modified to meet her needs, or receive accommodations such as extra time when taking a test. Services or accommodations like these would be written into a Section 504 Plan, which is similar in concept to an IEP, but usually less detailed and not considered “special education.” It’s important to note that fewer parental legal rights are associated with a 504 Plan. For example, a 504 Plan for a child can be discontinued without a formal meeting with the parents, whereas an IEP can’t be “dropped” without proving that the child has met his goals, and there is no further need for the services.
The Section 504 Plan can vary a lot in what it provides a student. Often times, children who have ADHD with no other learning problems can have their needs met with a 504 Plan. Accommodations such as preferential seating, organization skills support, testing in isolation, and breaking up tasks into smaller sections would be specified in a 504 Plan for these kids. Depending on the needs of the individual child, these kinds of measures might provide enough support for him to learn at an expected level. It should be noted that in some states, a related service such as occupational therapy may be placed under a Section 504 Plan, as the need to only this type of intervention would likely not qualify the child for special education or an IEP.
After talking with Dan’s mom, I urged her to meet again with the school’s staff to discuss the option of a 504 Plan. Luckily, she had the support of Dan’s teacher, who clearly saw that Dan was struggling. Dan received accommodations such as preferential seating in the classroom to limit distractibility, increased structure and step-by-step reminders to help him organize his approach to tasks, and regular conferences with his teacher to review his progress. These minor accommodations made a big difference for Dan, and having a document in place that articulated his needs was extremely helpful when he transitioned to the next grade level.