When my youngest son, who’s now in fifth grade, was in first grade, we already saw the signs of a child with ADHD. He didn’t have hyperactivity or behavior issues sometimes associated with ADHD, but he couldn’t focus for jack-cracky.
We had parent-teacher conferences, I sent many unanswered emails to the teacher, and time after time, we found that she was lumping him in with all the other students, and completely overlooking the specific educational needs of my son.
I wasn’t asking her for an effing kidney. I just wanted her to consider for just one flipping minute that my son wasn’t learning the way she was teaching.
I have a very strong opinion on this, by the way.
I do realize that teachers (many of them, anyway) work very hard and are underpaid for the work they do.
I also believe that - especially in the early grades - it’s important to teach the students in the ways they learn the best.
And that sometimes means customizing the delivery of the lessons a bit to cater to those who learn visually, or kinetically (hands-on), or audibly. Or maybe even in other ways.
It’s extra work on the teacher. It’s hard. It sucks.
But it’s for the benefit of the student.
And that’s the point.
I say this as a former teacher, by the way. I walked in those shoes for a handful of years, and I altered my lessons around the learning styles of different students and it was a pain in the ass and I worked way longer hours than some of my colleagues, and not a one of us made a big, juicy paycheck.
But you don’t get in to teaching for the money, honey!
So yah. I adjusted my lessons around different students and their needs.
As best I could, anyway.
Part of the reason is because this is a philosophy of mine that I believe in deeply.
But another reason is because of the 504 Plan, which I did not know about until I was a teacher, and I didn’t need to know about, from a parent’s perspective, for my first-born.
But thankfully, I did know about it by the time my youngest son was in school.
Here’s What The 504 Plan Is
The 504 Plan is designed to help parents of students with physical or mental impairments work with educators to create customized education plans. It’s a legally binding plan that ensures each student is treated fairly in school. It upholds the right for every student to have equal access to an education. It levels the playing field.
In other words, if a student has a health issue or impairment that prevents them from learning in the same way as “everyone else,” such as ADHD, diabetes, visual impairments, or anxiety - and these are just a handful of arbitrary impairments I’m throwing out right now - then the parent has a right (and should) reach out to the school’s counselor to initiate a 504 hearing.
What A 504 Plan Does
In very basic, practical terms, a 504 Plan documents on paper what your student’s impairments are, and then identifies classroom accommodations to give him or her the same access to education as their peers.
For example, let’s say your kid has ADHD like my son. Common accommodations for ADHD are: extra time on assignments, visual reminders of the time (like having a timer on his desk), and seating near the teacher so she can give verbal reminders to get back on task.
The 504 Plan is not part of Special Education.
What A 504 Plan Does Not Do (Or Shouldn’t Do)
The purpose of the Plan is not to make things easier on your kid. This is unfortunately, though, something I saw when I was a teacher. Some parents want their kids’ lives made easier because they think it will help them.
But the thing is, making things easier doesn’t help your kids.
It might help them right now. But not in the bigger picture.
Nobody at your kid’s job is going to “make things easier” on them when they’re in their 30’s and have focus issues.
Their boss isn’t gonna give a shit, even if they try real hard.
This is a fine and delicate line, but it’s your job as a parent to find it and to make sure that your kid is getting fair and equal access to an education at school, but they also need to know that - in life - people with impairments have to work harder at some things than others.
I knew when my son was in first grade that we needed to get the ball rolling on implementing a 504 Plan, and I didn’t know how long the process would take or what it would entail.
I just knew he needed it, if for no other reason than it would basically force his teacher to do her job and teach to my son’s educational needs.
I should mention here that his teachers ever since have restored my faith in the fine men and women entrusted with my son’s education.
But the thing is… you can’t force someone to give a flip about your kid.
Thanks to the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 504 in particular, however, you can damn well force them to do what they’re supposed to do. <— (I also know this for a fact because when I was teaching, a kid’s parents threatened to file a grievance against me because I was forcing their child to write a full heading on his paper each day, and they felt it violated his 504 Plan. Sadly (for them), it did not violate his 504 Plan, they just fell into the trap of wanting things made easier for their child, who had grown lazy and defiant. When they realized their issue wasn’t warranted, they dropped the whole matter. I was nominated as Teacher of the Year that year. I knew what I was doing.)
BUT - if they’d had a case, they could have filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, which enforces several Federal civil rights laws, and - if they’d won - I could have, at the very least, been fined and required to follow the student’s 504 Plan. Worst case scenario, I could have lost my job and even faced a lawsuit against me and the school district.
Bottom line, teachers have to follow an implemented 504 Plan, so if your child needs modifications to their learning environment, you need to initiate the process right away (it takes a minimum of a few weeks).
How To Implement A 504 Plan For Your Child
First you will need a medical diagnosis. Schedule an appointment with a doctor and tell them not only the medical reason for your visit, but that you’re also seeking a 504 for your child. This way, they will know what paperwork you’ll be needing for the school.
Second, communicate with your child’s school counselor to let them know you’re working on the medical side of things - as far as meeting with a doctor for a medical diagnosis - and that you plan to seek a 504 Plan for your child.
Gather your school counselor’s (or 504 Plan Coordinator’s) full contact information: name, title, address, phone & fax numbers, and email address for your kid’s doctor so they can send copies of the official paperwork directly to the school.
Next - after the school’s point person has received the medical paperwork from the doctor - they’ll either schedule a meeting with you to discuss eligibility, or they’ll schedule a 504 hearing. This is when you will meet with that point person and possibly also your child’s teachers, and maybe even the school nurse, to discuss your kid’s needs and ideas for accommodations.
Before the meeting
I’ve found it helpful to type up a supplemental document with a summary of my son’s strengths and weaknesses, and where I identify his impairments and any accommodations that have worked in the past.
When I typed up the document the first time, I obviously didn’t have a list of “what worked in the past,” so I included a list of accommodations that I thought would be helpful based on research I’d done.
I came to the meeting armed with this list, and based on feedback from his teachers, who had experience not only with my son in the classroom, but also with other students throughout the years, we crossed some of my ideas off the list, added some of theirs, and vice versa.
By the way, this document is also helpful to send at the beginning of each school year so that teachers who are new to my son will have a heads-up about him.
Once all parties agree to the accommodations, you’ll sign the 504 Plan and it’ll be considered active. The teachers will each receive a copy of the plan and will be required to implement the accommodations listed on that plan.
After The Plan Is Implemented
While it’s the school’s and the teachers’ responsibility to implement the accommodations on your child’s 504 Plan, it’s your responsibility (and your child’s, as they get older and more independent) to make sure the teachers are, in fact, doing so.
This is one reason I send that supplemental document at the beginning of the school year. I remember when I was a teacher, we would get a stack of folders that held the 504 documents for each student who had a plan in place.
I would review the documents in each folder and make notes of accommodations in a special place in my grade book, but it was sometimes hard for me to keep up with each and every accommodation needed for each and every student (I had more than 100 kids rotating through my doors each day).
Down the Road
You should call for a Plan review at least annually. Don’t expect the school to reach out to you for this. I have had to initiate this review each year.
If something comes up before the next annual review, don’t hesitate to call for a meeting to add, remove, or adjust accommodations.
Once the Plan is implemented, it’s much easier each and every year. The hard part is determining eligibility that first time.
You can have the Plan terminated at any time, if your child no longer needs it.
If they do need it though, you should also know that it carries on with them into college, which many people do not know.
Here are additional resources for you
A Parent’s Guide to Section 504 in Public Schools (GreatSchools.org)
The Importance of a 504 Plan (NavigateLifeTexas.org)
Texas Project First background and resources (TexasProjectFirst.org)
50 High School Accommodations for Every ADHD Challenge (ADDitudesMagazine.com <— one of my favorite resources!
Common Modifications and Accommodations (Understood.org)