IEPs and 504s: Where do I start?

Guest Authored By Dr. Shay M, PsyD

IEPs and 504s: Where do I start?

When it comes to academic accommodations, it’s hard to know where to start.  The process seems to take forever and, sometimes, with very little direction.  While every school district will vary slightly in the process for getting accommodations for children, there are some basic steps that parents can take to advocate for their kids.

Step 1: Start the conversation

Before diving into the deep end, start talking to people.  If your child is already enrolled in school, talking to their teacher is a great place to start.  If you’re noticing struggles, it’s likely that your child’s teacher is as well.  They may have some advice for you to start the process or be willing to provide some informal supports while you get the process going.  If your child hasn’t started school yet, you may find some support from daycare or preschool teachers.  They may be able to direct you on who to call and offer insights into your child’s academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs that the school will inquire about during the testing process.

If your child is enrolled in any kind of therapeutic supports, including Early Intervention, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, etc., your treatment team can provide great information, too.  Many have supported and advocated for services for their families and can provide great insights.  They may also provide documentation of a child’s need, including a diagnosis or treatment goals, which can inform the services they would benefit from at school.

Talk to friends and family.  Many of our families say they learned from their own social network about the process.  Even if they cannot provide steps and data on the process, it never hurts to have some social support when addressing your child’s learning and developmental needs.

Talk to your kid!  For kids that are old enough and ready enough to notice and talk about school struggles, it can help to ask them questions and offer support.  “What’s school like for you?” “I see you getting frustrated with homework, how would you feel if we got you some help?” “What do you wish your teacher could help you with?”  Conversations about school and getting help can not only de-stigmatize this process for them but may give you and the teacher ideas to include in the plan.

Step 2: Document, Document, Document

Whether you are just starting the enrollment process for your child or if they’ve been enrolled in school for a while, the first step to getting academic accommodations is to get some documentation.  Some documents that you may collect include:

  • Report Cards
  • Notes/Letters from teachers describing academic or behavioral struggles
  • Medical Documents including diagnosis, behavioral or emotional needs
    • This can include notes from therapists, doctors, medical diagnostic or neuropsychological testing reports
    • You can ask your providers to write a short letter including the child’s diagnosis or symptoms and how those impact academic and social success
  • State testing scores
  • Early Intervention reports
  • Any previous evaluations completed by the school, doctors, psychologists, or even tutors
  • Communications you have had with teachers or preschool/daycare staff that reflect needs or struggles of the child

Step 3: Contact the school

Reach out to the school, either via email, phone, or in person.  You will want to get in contact with the Special Education Coordinator or 504 Coordinator as well as the Principal during this process.  Typically, you can find this information on the school’s website or get it from your child’s teacher.  They will be able to give you the name or forward your message to the correct person in the district.

Make sure you make a request in writing.  A sample letter is offered by www.understood.org here:

Ask to Discuss a Problem With the School Example

Stay in communication.  Approach the school team in the spirit of teamwork.  It always helps to stay on the positive side of things.  Once you make the request for accommodations, the school is must respond and begin the process of evaluating for the IEP or 504.

This process can take a lot of time and follow up communication, which can get tiring.  In some cases, the process of getting accommodations can be long, but it’s generally amicable.  However, in a few cases, you might want to keep a record of communications and supporting documents to make your case for accommodations stronger.

Either during these communications or after setting up a meeting, the school may say that they want to “collect data.”  This means that they want to do some additional testing or observations to see where your child may be struggling and what services they may qualify for.  The data collection process for the school can include a special education staff or psychologist to observe the student in the classroom, additional testing, or gathering more information from teachers.  This is a normal part of the process and can include your child’s teacher, school social worker, or psychologist.

Step 3.5 Do I need private testing?

I include this as a half-step because it’s a “maybe” step.  Private neuropsychological or psychoeducational testing is not required to qualify for an IEP or 504.  The school will complete their own data collection and assessments.  However, completing private testing can help speed up the process and give you the tools for further advocacy.  This can also help the school along the way.  Schools do their best to allocate their resources to each child equitably.  And that means that they tend to focus their testing more specifically to target needs in academic areas.

Private testing can help “fill in the gaps” and give more in-depth information about different areas of functioning, including emotional, behavioral, and cognitive.  It can also provide insights into resources and referrals outside of the school.  Private testing can help to clarify diagnosis, strengths, and creative ways to explore what might be impacting your child’s success.  This might include recommendations for outside therapies, community supports, and resources to use in the home.  I like to include books, websites, and other apps for both parents and children to gain a better understanding of themselves and what they need to thrive.

Step 4: Meetings

The school will want to set up a meeting with you and your child.  Children are encouraged to be at the meeting and, as they get older, may be required to attend and give input on their plans.  Depending on if you are setting up a 504 or an IEP, this meeting may include different people. You can expect to see your child’s teachers, principal or vice principal, and support staff, such as a social worker, resource teachers, or school psychologist.  This will be a time to discuss goals and next steps.

Bring your ideas and thoughts about what helps your child to this meeting.  Remember that everyone has different perspectives based on their experiences with your child, the environment they see the child in, and the demands of that environment.  For example, a child’s behavior in Math class might be different from their behavior in Reading or ELA because they struggle in math but love reading.  These different teachers may have different ideas about a child’s needs, strengths, and supports.  That’s great!  It means they’re paying attention and tuned in to the unique needs of your child.

A list of some common IEP and 504 accommodations can be found here:

504 Accommodation Checklist

Common Accommodations and Modifications in School

Surprising IEP and 504 Plan Accommodations

You’ll be surprised how creative these interventions can get!

Keep in mind that accommodations can apply to both academic and nonacademic areas.  This means that lunchtime, recess, and even some afterschool activities may be included in the service plan.

Step 5: Formalize the Plan

Again, depending on if your child receives a 504 or IEP, as well as your school district, this may be fairly informal or more structured.  You, your child, and their team will come up with a written document outlining the modifications, accommodations, and supports in place.  After everyone agrees to these services, everyone will sign it, and you will get a copy for your records.

Services will be put in place.  As mentioned, 504 plans tend to be pretty flexible.  Students are given access to supports but are generally not required to rigidly adhere to them.  With IEPs, teachers are generally required to provide the more structured accommodations, such as a specific number of 1-1 or small group teaching minutes.

Step 6: Following up

Because 504 plans tend to be more informal, there are generally fewer follow up meetings and formal progress monitoring.  But again, this can vary with each school district.  Your district will provide any deadlines or dates of reviews and follow up meetings.

IEPs are formally reviewed every year and re-assessment occurs every 3 years.  Review meetings will go over your child’s progress toward their IEP goals, need for continued accommodations, and adjustments based on their need.  Teachers will collect data through the year, based on learning and academic performance, behavior, or emotional supports.  With an IEP, there will always be a transition plan, or a plan for what the students must accomplish before being transitioned out of services.  This may look different based on needs, from earning all passing grades, decreasing hyperactivity in the classroom, or it may include plans to transition to vocational training or other early adulthood supports.

I recommend keeping all of these documents.  They can help support the need for future accommodation.  For example, when a child prepares to take the SAT they can support the need for extra time or individual testing.  They can help support vocational training needs or additional resources after graduation.  Just keep a continuous file on hand, either physical or a computer file of your scanned documents.  Starting this documentation early makes the process much easier as your child grows up.

Take Away:
While the school will ultimately determine what is allowed in your child’s 504 or IEP, you can start the conversation, advocate, and be informed to help your child get the best out of their education.  Every child has the right to learn and these services exist to make sure every child gets a fair chance at education.

Further Reading:

Protecting Students With Disabilities

IEP Roadmap: How Kids Get Special Education

IEP vs 504 Plan: What’s the Difference?

What is an IEP?

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