IEPs and 504s: Expert Tips to Help Parents Develop Special Ed Plans

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“The first step is getting together with your child’s teacher, preferably in person,” explains Dr. Michelle Curtin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

Whether it’s homework, tests, a learning disability, a behavioral problem or a mental challenge, if you are concerned about your child’s performance in and/or out of the classroom, then it is important to ask questions and seek help.

“The first step is getting together with your child’s teacher, preferably in person,” explains Dr. Michelle Curtin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “There can be a lot of misunderstandings through email, especially with this kind of sensitive topic, and your worries may not come across properly. So I recommend that you speak in person or by phone for the initial conversation.”

If the problem is not something that can be solved by a simple classroom modification or changes in the home, then you may need to seek out a 504 Plan or an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for your child. Once it has been determined that a child is eligible, the school is required to provide educational supports so your child can succeed in the classroom. Your child may qualify for a 504 Plan, based on an anti-discrimination civil rights law, or an IEP, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is a federal law with specific qualifying disabilities.

A 504 Plan is issued when a child has a disability that is impacting his or her ability to learn. It creates classroom supports can be created without changing the child’s curriculum in any way. For example, placing the child in the front of classroom, changing the number of questions on their homework assignments, providing additional breaks throughout the day, or refocusing or moving the child around the room are all examples of accommodations granted through a 504 to help a child learn better throughout the day. Obtaining a 504 is an easier process and much less involved than an IEP as the law simply states that a disability is whatever impacts a child in the classroom. Families can bring in an outside evaluation with a diagnosis that can be used to create a 504 Plan.

An IEP is a more comprehensive document that can provide a variety of supports or accommodations for a child both in and out of the classroom during the school day. If a student receives in-school therapies, such as speech or occupational therapy, then an IEP is generally necessary. It is created after an evaluation is performed by a variety of specialists, usually at the school. Once all evaluations have been completed, then the IEP team, which includes one person who can explain the results the teacher and parents, meet to discuss the results and determine what is best for the child. An IEP is more complicated as a child has to qualify for and then receive a full evaluation from the school.

While school evaluations can be sufficient for many children, in some cases having an outside medical evaluation is helpful. “Having a medical evaluation outside of the school can present information that cannot be obtained within the school,” Dr. Curtin advises. “A school day is only a part of a child’s life, and for certain things, like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), it is usually diagnosed outside of the school. Having that documentation can be critical and this becomes a way of sharing information with the school.”

During your first meeting for a 504 or an IEP, Dr. Curtin recommends bringing a partner – a spouse, sibling, or parent – to help absorb all of the information presented. She also recommends using a parent advocate such as through Insource Collaborative Parent Advocates who has been through the process, to help you understand and ask the right questions. The meeting is a collaboration between the parents who are experts in their child and the school that is an expert in education, with everyone sitting down together to determine what is right for the child.

Once the plan has been decided, parents must sign the paperwork in order to begin services. If a parent chooses to delay signing, then the commencement of services will also be delayed. There is a short period of time to contest the plan. Once everything is in place, it is important to monitor the progress.

“This is all an ongoing process,” says Dr. Curtin. “What works for one child may not work for another, or what works at one point in time, may not work in another. This requires good communication between the parents and the school. Overall, the goal for all educational accommodations is for children to be as successful as possible.”

-- By Gia Miller

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