Back to school means learning letters and numbers: IEP and 504 Plan 

Back-to-school time can be exciting. Different teachers, fresh school supplies and friends old and new are waiting. For students with a wide range of disabilities, going back to class can also be challenging and stressful. The change in routine alone can be chaotic for the entire family. 

For parents of students with disabilities, and for students themselves, this can be a difficult time of year. Will teachers understand neurodiverse behaviors? Can specific learning styles be accommodated? Will it be easy to get on and off of the school bus? Will there be bullying? It can mean so much more planning – and so much more anxiety. 

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked utter havoc on students of and education for all ages. Admittedly, some students thrived with virtual learning. Pivoting back and forth between online and in-person learning was difficult for many other students who needed in-person attention and the socialization schools provide. The loss of continuity set many students back. Some are still catching up. 

Another potential obstacle is the high turnover many school districts are seeing in the ranks of teachers, paraprofessionals and other support staff. When we hear of school districts forced to hire education staff members with little or educational background, we worry about all students and the quality of education they will receive. We worry about new bus drivers who may not be used to unique behaviors. 

That’s why it’s so important for parents to understand their students’ rights and what can be done to provide the very best learning experience possible. Parents need to know what their options are under federal law, including the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal anti-discrimination law. 

Every public school student who receives special education and related services should have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. The plans have differences and school professionals will direct families to one or the other. 

Specialized education and accommodation plans are to provide the means for students, parents or guardians, teachers, school administrators and other school staff to work together to improve the student’s educational outcomes. For students with disabilities, these plans are the cornerstone of a quality education. 

Plans are to be designed with the individual student in mind. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Plans are also living documents that can change over time. 

There are key difference between the two plans that parents and guardians should educate themselves on. A student may not qualify for an IEP but would receive services under a 504 plan. School professionals can guide families through that. 

One significant difference between an IEP and a 504 plan is that while both plans provide for accommodations, an IEP provides for specialized instruction for students in grades K–12, while a 504 plan can serve students at both the K–12 and college levels. 

Parents, teachers, other school staff–and often the student—are to partner together on plans to understand the student’s unique needs and plan for how to best accommodate those. What is to emerge is an education roadmap to help the student be involved in, and make progress in, a curriculum. Plans gets reviewed at least once a year. 

Be aware of difference between states and even school districts. For example, IDEA requires that specific information be included in each student’s IEP. But states and local school systems can and do call for additional information, typically to document that they have met federal and state laws. That can be confusing for parents who move children from one school district to another. 

Going through the process of developing or updating a plan can be an overwhelming experience for a parent, especially parents who have so much going on in their lives. Many parents must go it alone, and juggle responsibility for several children, their work and even aging family members. 

We encourage parents to not be afraid to seek help. Parents need to feel comfortable reaching out to their peers. We’ve seen some great Facebook support groups for families with disabled children or teens, where parents can reach out for advice, ask questions or just vent. 

Many advocacy organizations focused on specific disabilities stand ready to help, too. 

Most importantly, parents need to not be afraid to speak up for what is best for their students, yet also be able to listen to and respect professional advice. Education plans are a two-way street, in terms of how they are shaped by input. But parents need to be assertive with school professionals to get what is best for a student. 

Every student should be able to fit in and be successful, regardless of abilities. Every student deserves a good educational plan.