5 Things Every Parent Should Know about Academic Supports and 504 Plans
As parents navigate the ever-changing world of public K-12 education, many find that they need to advocate for their child's needs because they are struggling in school. However, seeing as our darling children don't come with owner's manuals, many parents don't even know where to start. Contacting their child's teacher or principal to express concern and ask for help is always a good first step, but parents are much more likely to feel heard and see results when they know what help to ask for. One common method of support for students comes in the form of learning accommodations provided and protected by Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, commonly referred to as a "504 Plan".
Accommodations and Section 504 are some of the most frequent topics parents reach out to me about because most people are unaware of the law, their rights, and the process. Unfamiliar with Section 504 or just starting your research? This guide will help you to understand your rights and the process, so you can be an informed advocate for your child's needs.
1. What is a 504 Plan?
An Accommodation Plan under Section 504 identifies an area of physical or mental impairment that affects a child's ability to learn or engage in major life activities as compared to the average peer. It then pairs appropriate accommodations with the identified areas of need to ensure a safe and level playing field.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
o 504 Plans DO:
Address any number of struggles ranging from physical conditions like Diabetes, Spina Bifida, Dwarfism, etc. to mental or behavioral conditions like ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, etc. that may affect a child's ability to learn and succeed in school.
Provides further protection for your child from even unintentional discrimination based on their abilities or needs.
Ensures accountability and communication from year to year so that each year your child's teacher(s) receives a plan outlining what supports they need in order to learn best and be safe and healthy at school.
Sometimes include stand-alone individualized services that can't otherwise be provided through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) such as occupational or physical therapy services.
o 504 Plans DO NOT:
Solve everything. If your child is struggling in school, there are likely a number of ways that those struggles show up for them, and it may take some time to identify the best accommodations and interventions.
Communicate all of your child's needs. Even if your child has an established 504 plan, you will still need to communicate with your child's teacher(s) to advocate on their behalf and participate in annual reviews of the plan.
Take the place of an IEP. 504 Plans generally provide access to accommodations, and only rarely provide limited access to services. On the other hand, an IEP identifies a child's needs under certain disability categories and provides individualized services and instruction from specialized providers to meet specific goals, in addition to accommodations. If you are concerned that your child's needs are more severe, or they are more than a grade level behind, it may make more sense to request an IEP evaluation from your child's school, instead of a 504 evaluation.
Change school attendance or discipline policies. However, they do ensure that your child's needs are accommodated for within the implementation of the policy.
2. Who can qualify?
Students who have a diagnosis of a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or who are regarded as having such an impairment can qualify for accommodations under Section 504. While a diagnosis from a doctor or licensed professional can certainly help, it is not required to qualify for accommodations.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Schools and districts cannot legally require a family to seek out a medical diagnosis prior to consideration for 504 accommodations without being liable for the cost of that medical assessment.
Schools and districts must provide a school-based evaluation of a child's learning and needs if it is formally requested by a parent.
3. How to qualify?
Students who qualify for accommodations under Section 504 are determined to: (1) have a physical or metal impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or (2) have a record of such an impairment; or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment. A 504 eligibility meeting is held to review any documentation or record of a student's impairment and the impact it has on their ability to access a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
To determine eligibility, the degree to which the impairment limits a child's life activities cannot take into account other interventions or accommodations such as medications. For example, the impact of ADHD on learning for a child who takes Ritalin daily must be considered as though the child was not on daily medication.
Students who have a 504 plan in their K-12 schooling, may also qualify for academic adjustment in their post-secondary school career.
4. Who decides?
A student's determination of eligibility is decided by a multi-disciplinary team including the person responsible for managing the 504 (usually a counselor or administrator), the person(s) responsible for implementing the accommodations (usually teachers), and the child's parents. Parents can also bring anyone else with them to this meeting who they feel would be of benefit to them, their child, or the process (an advocate, family member or friend).
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Parents voices should have equal weight in the determination of eligibility by this team, but that doesn't mean they will get everything they want.
Having an educational consultant at this meeting can help you navigate this process, ask the right questions, and ensure your child's needs are advocated for.
5. My child qualified. Now what?
Once your child qualifies for accommodations under Section 504, you and the team will work together to create the 504 Accommodation Plan. This list of statements should identify any accommodations that need to be made, the major life activity they address, and who is responsible for implementing them. Once the plan is official, it is distributed to any staff member responsible for implementing the accommodation each year. The plan should be reviewed annually by the team to discuss any updates or changes that need to be made for a new setting, the child's development, etc. Every three years, a meeting should be held with the team to re-determine eligibility for ongoing accommodations.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Parents can request a 504 meeting at any time outside of annual review or re-determination meetings if they feel the accommodations are not effective or are not being implemented properly.
It is stressful and heartbreaking as a parent to see your child struggle in school due to a known or suspected disability or impairment. Take control of your child's education by being informed about the process of receiving learning accommodations for their struggles. Bottom line: don't go it alone! Engaging an advocate or educational consultant can ensure that your child's needs are met and you have a partner in your child's educational journey. Contact Colorado Partners in Learning today to start getting help, tailored to your child's and your family's needs!
This guide should not be considered an exhaustive list of your rights as a parent under Section 504, nor should it be considered legal advice. For more in-depth information about your rights and the law, check out these resources:
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. (2020) - "Protecting Students With Disabilities: Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities". Published online at Ed.gov. Retrieved from: 'https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html'. [Online Resource].
Colorado Department of Education. (2018) - "Special Education Rules and Regulations". Published online at CDE.state.co.us. Retrieved from 'https://www.cde.state.co.us/spedlaw/rules'. [Online Resource].