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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patty Richardson

School-based Support to Help Your Child Thrive: ABCs of 504s and IEPs

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

All kids and teens are able to thrive at school when the environment is a good fit for their academic, socioemotional, and behavioral needs. Kids with chronic illness, learning differences, cognitive/mental health concerns, speech and language challenges, and/or physical differences, among other conditions, may benefit from personalized academic accommodations. Read on to learn about the basics of school-based accommodations and find answers to common questions parents have about IEPs and 504s.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) ensure that children with disabilities are able to succeed at school by providing specialized instruction (adapting the curriculum to the needs of the child) and necessary services (e.g., physical therapy, social work). To qualify for an IEP, children must have a disability AND that disability must impact their academic functioning. Thus--not all children with disabilities qualify for an IEP. To determine if a child qualifies for an IEP, a school-based assessment is conducted that includes psychoeducational testing, classroom observations, parent feedback, and other academic and behavioral data points.

If a child qualifies for an IEP, a plan will be developed that outlines specific goals for the child's academic, socioemotional, and behavioral development. It is the IEP team's job to provide services and accommodations that will support progress on these goals over the course of the school year. The team typically includes some combination of specialists: special education, social work, school psychology, speech and language, occupational therapy, and/or physical therapy.

IEP Example:

Your child has had depression and behavioral concerns for years and just underwent an IEP evaluation. They were found to have a deficit in processing speed and are several years behind same-age peers in math. An IEP could be developed that allows your child to have access to a school counselor and work 1:1 with a special education teacher who instructs at your child's grade-level and incorporates learning techniques designed for those with delays in processing speed.

504 Plan

504 plans are designed to help students with physical or mental impairments successfully navigate the general academic curriculum. The 504 plan is for children who do not require specialized instruction (i.e., working with a special education teacher) in order to learn. Children who do not qualify for IEPs are often able to qualify for 504s.

504 plans provide school-based accommodations that are tailored to the needs of your child (e.g., extra time on tests, behavior plans, ability to take breaks from class). To qualify for a 504 plan, children must have a physical or mental impairment that impacts their life. The impairment needs to be supported by documentation from the child's psychologist or medical provider.

504 Examples:

Your child with ADHD is bright, but their grades aren't consistent with their abilities because they are distracted during tests and sometimes miss important information shared during class. A 504 could be developed that allows them to sit in front of the class to reduce distractions, receive a copy of lecture notes from the teacher, and have extra time to complete tests.

Your child has chronic headaches throughout the school day. At times, their pain flares and it is really difficult for them to stay in class. A 504 could be developed that would allow your child to spend 15 minutes in a quiet and calm space in the front office so that they could use some of their coping skills before returning to class.

Common Questions

Are IEPs basically the same thing as 504s?

Nope! They are very different in their scope and associated level of intervention. IEPs indicate that your child's disability has impacted their ability to engage in the general educational curriculum and they need specialized instruction in order to learn.

504s are for kids who do not need intensive individualized programming in order to learn--but benefit from accommodations that help them access the school environment.

If my child already has an IEP for a learning disability do they also need to get a 504 for a medical condition?

Nope! Any and all accommodations/modifications for any/all disability/ies that a child may experience (e.g., learning disability, psychological diagnosis, medical illness) can be included under the umbrella of their IEP.

How does this all work when my child attends private school?

IEP: Well, this is where things get tricky; technically, private schools do not have to adhere to the same strict IEP guidelines that public/charter schools follow. However, there is a lot of variability among schools. Some private schools do not offer sufficient special education resources, while others specialize in teaching kids with learning differences. If you have a child with special needs, it is important to have a frank discussion with their school about the services they offer.

Keep in mind: all children with/suspected disabilities that impact their academics, even those attending private school, are entitled to no cost IEP evaluations through their local public school district. Parents can request an IEP evaluation by calling their local district.

504: Although many private schools may not have all of the resources that a child with an IEP or 504 may require, it is my experience that private schools are highly motivated to offer their students 504-like accommodations, when helpful/possible.

What if I have concerns about my young child (ages 0 and up)?

Many parents are unaware that young children are eligible for interventional services provided by the school district before they are school-aged. Children can have IEPs as young as 3 years, while infants and toddlers (ages 0-3) are able to receive early intervention services with Individualized Family Service Plans.

Final Thoughts

As you continue to learn more about school-based accommodations, I would highly recommend checking out Michigan Alliance for Families. MAF provides information, support, and education for parents who have children, ages 0 to 26 years, who receive, or may benefit from receiving special education services.

Feel free to reach out to a child development specialist at Bluebird for support. We would be more than happy to help your family navigate academic accommodations and advocate for your child's needs every step of the way.


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