Navigating the school system can be a tricky process, especially if your child has a disability. It can be challenging to avoid being ‘that parent,’ who may be combative and overinvolved, or that parent who is naïve to the special education system. Very quickly the discussion can go to the question of an IEP vs. 504 Plan. What’s the difference? Each plan has its place, and they can get tricky.
Here are five tips to advocate successfully for your child when working with your school system. To ensure your child’s needs are being met, know that you are an equal participant in the decision-making team, and that there is space for your child to assert his or her academic needs.
1) Do your homework.
Be informed regarding your child’s rights. It is imperative to have the knowledge of the federal and state education laws in order to make the best and most informed decisions for your child. It is easy to get lost in the ‘lingo’ and the technical jargon, so familiarize yourself with the differences between an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) vs a 504 Plan and the associated terms. This knowledge can inform the questions you ask. For example, “is my child receiving one-on-one time with the school psychologist or are they meeting in a small social skills group?”
IEP vs. 504 – what’s the difference?
An IEP, by definition, is a plan that details the supports and specialized instruction/special education services a school will provide to meet the needs of a child with a disability.
Children and teens with 504 Plans do not require specialized instruction, but rather specific accommodations (e.g.: seat in front of classroom, shorten assignments/work periods, allow test to be taken untimed with specified short breaks, provide fidget objects to meet sensory needs (squishy ball, putting, worry beads), provide daily/weekly progress checklist, etc.)
IEP vs. 504 – does my child need one?
If your child or teen struggles with one (or more) of the following areas, he/she may qualify for services:
- Learning differences
- ADHD / Difficulties with Executive Functioning Skills (organization, planning, memory, sustained attention)
- Social / Emotional challenges (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, social skill deficits)
- Autism, Developmental Delays or Physical Disabilities
- Hearing, visual, speech or language impairment
- Gifted / High IQ
2) Prepare for your meetings.
Keep all your documents and paperwork in an organized folder, including medical records, any formalized testing or evaluations, letters or recommendations from outside professionals (e.g., therapists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, neuropsychologists). Brainstorm a list of questions and points you would like to cover in the meeting. Administrators give you a short window of time to meet (thirty minutes to one hour), so you want to ensure you leave pleased with the meeting’s discussion.
3) Your input is valuable.
Remember that you, as the parent, know your child best. Do not succumb to the pressures of the school staff to make decisions. With that being said, it is important to be open-minded and flexible in finding the best solutions. But ultimately, you know your child’s needs and if certain interventions will suit his or her needs. Object when necessary and be an involved member of the decision-making team.
4) Be assertive and address your needs for support.
Don’t be afraid to speak up and asking questions about your child’s accommodations, services, or legal facts, as they arise. You, as the parent, are entitled to call a ‘recess’ in an IEP meeting if you need something doesn’t feel right. Keep in mind that is okay to request another meeting to re-convene, if you do not feel comfortable making a decision in the heat of the moment during a meeting. Furthermore, it is permissible for parents to bring your spouse or an outside professional (child therapist, etc.) to a meeting. It is imperative to ensure that your needs are being met and you feel supported.
5) Talk to your child and normalize their disability.
Check in with your child. Inquire if the accommodations/supports are being executed and if his or her needs are being met. You can ask “was there anything that could have helped you with that [difficult situation/problem] better?”
And most importantly, provide a safe space to talk to your child about their disability. Children oftentimes internalize their challenges and do not have the language to express sadness or frustration regarding their differences. Model positive emotional expression by saying “everyone needs help with something!” Encourage your child to ask for help, bond with their team of staff, and self-advocate when you are unable to speak for them.
If you think your child might need additional assistance from your school system, please check out our therapists at North Shore Family Services. We work with a number of clients in this situation, and we can help.