There’s no such thing as “normal” when it comes to education – every student learns differently and at a different pace. Some children excel in certain subjects (or all subjects), some children find particular classes easier than others and some struggle with one or multiple subjects.
If your child is struggling to grasp certain concepts, regardless of their age, there are things you can do to help. And while you may worry that obtaining in-school support for your child will label your child as “special” or “different,” know that whatever services your child receives are confidential between you, your child, your child’s teacher, the support staff and the school.
“I’m a big proponent for providing students with supports when they need them,” says special education attorney Paul Barger. “I understand that people think there is a stigma attached to having an IEP or a 504 Plan, I really do. But there’s not. There are many, many students with many, many needs. And there is really no downside to having that support and getting what’s needed for your child. You’re giving your child the best possible chance to succeed, to reduce frustration and to enjoy school. These things are put in place to benefit your child – they’re not there to create any sort of a stigma at all.”
The difference between an IEP and a 504 plan
While they’re both legally binding documents, IEPs (which stands for individual education plan) and 504 plans provide different services and are administered in very different ways. An IEP is more about procedural rights, and a 504 is a bit more flexible.
Provides a student with specialized instruction from a special education teacher or therapist.
Has specific goals and learning targets that must be met with the help of teachers/service providers outside of the general education setting.
Requires that service providers regularly monitor the student’s progress.
A 504 Plan:
Provides modifications and accommodations for students in a general education classroom.
Requires that all teachers follow/provide the modifications listed in the plan.
Common modifications include extra time on tests, class notes, preferential seating and therapeutic support.
“A 504 Plan helps level the playing field by providing support, accommodations and modifications that a student needs in order to access their education, and it can come in a number of different forms,” says Barger. “An IEP is specialized instruction that can be for academics like reading, writing and math, but it also could be therapeutic, like behavioral and social skills.”
Is a diagnosis needed?
The short answer is no, but, of course, it’s a bit more complicated.
To qualify for a 504 Plan, the student must have an impairment that has a substantial impact on a major life activity. To prove they are struggling with something that impacts their learning, you will often need an official diagnosis. For example, a diagnosis of ADHD or anxiety could allow your child to receive extra time when taking a test, while a physical impairment could allow your child to leave class five minutes early so they can make it to their next class on time. However, an official diagnosis is not legally required to secure a 504 Plan.
An IEP does not require an actual diagnosis because school districts find students eligible based on a variety of tests they administer. But school districts are not in a position to diagnose students. It’s less about the formal diagnosis and more about the impact on the students.
“You can have a diagnosis and not receive or be eligible for either,” says Barger. “Having a diagnosis alone doesn’t result in eligibility – it’s about the impact and the data. Schools ask the question, ‘Is it impacting the student?’ If the answer is yes, then they determine if the impact is such that the student requires special education and related services or classroom accommodations.”
How to know if your child needs an evaluation
Most parents aren’t education experts, but teachers are. So, one of the best ways to know if your child should be evaluated is to speak with your child’s teacher. They know if your child is reaching their educational benchmarks or falling behind.
Often, teachers will reach out to parents if they are concerned, but you should also know some of the general warning signs. The more obvious are struggling to complete homework, school refusal and a change in behavior. But there are some less obvious signs, too.
“If your child says they’re bored, that’s often an indication they’re struggling,” says Danielle Dachik, a long-time teacher who also works as a navigator and advocate for families with children who have or hope to obtain an IEP or 504 Plan. “They are saying they’re bored because they might not understand what’s being taught, and when kids hit their frustration limit, a lot of times, they just shut off. It’s a really big one that I’ve seen over the years. A parent will tell me their child says they’re bored, but in the classroom, I don’t see a child that’s bored, I see a child that’s struggling.”
“Some other things you might hear are, ‘I’m not smart, I’m not good at school, I can’t do this,’” Dachik continues. “But when they say this, or anything that makes you think they might be struggling, it’s important to work with your child’s teachers to figure out the reason before you jump to testing. It could be about learning, but there could be other reasons, like not wanting to go to school or even separation anxiety, depending on their age.”
Building level support
If your child is struggling academically, a teacher might recommend building level support before suggesting testing. This is exactly like it sounds – academic support given within the school building. Children are pulled out of class for additional instruction, typically with a special education teacher.
It could be that your child is behind because they’ve forgotten some things over the summer. Or maybe there’s one particular mathematical topic that is difficult for them to grasp, and because math builds on itself, they’ve gotten behind. A few months of building level support could bring them up to speed without needing an IEP or 504 Plan.
“When we see a kid struggling, especially after the summer, a lot of times, we give them building level support, and it works right away,” says Dachik.
Other times, it could be the first step to obtaining an IEP or 504 Plan. The special education teacher working with the child will track their progress, which could help them determine that classroom accommodations or regular specialized instruction is necessary.
It’s okay to disagree
It’s okay to question or disagree with the district’s recommendation for your child. It’s also okay to wonder if your child is receiving enough, or the right, support. Unfortunately, since parents aren’t allowed to sit in the classroom with their child, it’s hard to know exactly what they need.
“The way to gauge that is through an evaluation, whether by the district or private evaluators,” says Barger. “An evaluation is the best way to monitor a child’s progress because it will show you how your child is doing across multiple areas.”
Even if you haven’t had a recent evaluation, you can always request a meeting if you are concerned. And if you disagree with the school’s recommendations during that meeting, don’t hesitate to tell them right away and then document your concerns via email after. Depending on the issue, it might be time to get an advocate or attorney involved to help you navigate next steps.
“I don’t necessarily think that everybody must always agree, but it is important that everyone understands what’s being said,” says Dachik. “As a teacher, I’m very aware of this, and I make sure that when I explain present levels of performance and areas of difficulties, parents understand the conceptual development I’m trying to build. It’s not that the parents aren’t smart enough to understand it, but sometimes parents don’t really understand what all the information means.”
“During meetings, some parents aren’t really sure what questions to ask, so having somebody with that trained ear can be helpful,” Dachik continues. “They can make sure that parents understand the information being presented and ask the right questions.”
If you choose to bring someone with you to the meeting, whether it’s a friend, an advocate or even an attorney, you should let the district know prior to the meeting. If you do bring a lawyer, the district will also have their lawyer in attendance.
It’s about your child
At the end of the day, an IEP or a 504 Plan is about your child, and that means you shouldn’t leave your child in the dark. Depending on their age, maturity and the type of support, it’s recommended that you have conversations with your child about their accommodations and teach them how to advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy isn’t easy, so be prepared to serve as backup until they get the hang of it. But once they do, they will be more successful in school and in life.
This article was published in the September/October 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.