Qualifying for a 504 Plan or IEP with ADHDBy Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.
ADHD symptoms related to paying attention, remaining seated for extended periods of time, staying organized, and managing impulses make it harder for kids with ADHD to do well in school. As a result, most students with ADHD receive some school-based accommodations or interventions. However, these services are often not provided through a formalized and structured special education plan. When services are provided informally by a strong teacher who is skilled at working with ADHD students, students risk losing their accommodations when they switch to a new classroom at the start of each new school year. Fortunately, accommodations and interventions can be formally requested and implemented through the school’s special education services program via a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Students with ADHD are typically eligible for a 504 plan if their ADHD substantially limits their ability to fully participate in all academic and non-academic activities at school. When the school decides whether the student’s disability is “substantially limiting,” they must do so without taking into consideration the effect of treatments like medication or behavioral interventions that may alleviate symptoms when they are in use. 504 plans list the accommodations that will be provided for the student. However, they do not include any specific learning goals for the student and do not include regular reviews of the student’s academic progress to ensure that the accommodations and interventions included the plan are sufficient.
IEPs are more robust than 504 plans and are typically reserved for students who are clearly unable to learn through the typical classroom curriculum that is provided via standard teaching practices. IEPs are most often provided for students with specific learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia) or physical impairments (e.g., hearing, speech, vision) that interfere with learning. However, many students with ADHD do qualify for IEPs under the “other health impairments” category. The IEP itself is a detailed working document that describes the interventions and accommodations that will be provided for the student, as well as benchmarks for academic or behavioral success. Unlike 504 Plans, IEPs include information about the student’s current level of performance, learning goals for the student, and progress monitoring over the course of the school year.
Across all school districts, the IEP and 504 plan process begins with an evaluation that is requested by a student’s parents. This request must be submitted in writing and should be addressed to the head of special education services in your school district. School districts are required to review your request and respond within a timely manner. If your child already has an ADHD diagnosis, then the special education committee will determine whether the methods used to make the ADHD diagnosis meet their standards, or if a new evaluation will be required to confirm the diagnosis. In addition, the special education evaluation will include a review of the student’s academic records, a behavioral assessment, and classroom observations. If your evaluation request is declined or if you are not satisfied with the outcome, you can obtain a private evaluation. In some cases, the school may be required to pay for the private assessment.
If the evaluation results indicate that a student qualifies for a 504 plan or an IEP, parents should be involved in the process of identifying accommodations and establishing academic and behavior goals. There is a wide range of accommodations available for students with ADHD, and these strategies typically cluster around completing tasks and maintaining focus, staying organized, and managing impulsive and hyperactive symptoms. Here are some of the more common accommodations:
Completing Tasks and Maintaining Focus
- Shortened assignments (particularly for assignments that require repetition, like math worksheets)
- Preferential seating in the front of the classroom to reduce distraction
- Providing choices to show mastery (e.g., in writing, orally, via a hands-on project).
- Allowing frequent breaks
- Providing clear instructions and checking in with the student to ensure understanding.
- Using a computer to complete essays and other writing assignments
- Extended time on tests
- Using a simple, color-coded organization system for papers
- Providing an extra set of textbooks that can be kept at home
- Checking the student’s backpack to make sure all necessary materials are packed up at the end of the day, and that homework is taken out of the backpack and handed in every morning
- Weekly desk clean-outs
- Minimizing the number of items in the desk, backpack, and cubby
Managing Impulsivity and Hyperactivity
- Encouraging frequent movement breaks
- Praising and rewarding students for raising their hand before talking
- Allowing students to move or fidget in a non-distracting manner
- Providing extra opportunities for physical activity and refraining from taking away recess as a punishment
- Providing a chair for students during circle time (or any time when students sit on the rug)
Obtaining formal interventions and accommodations for your child with ADHD can seem overwhelming when you’re a parent who is new to the process. If you think your child may benefit from formal special education services at school, schedule a meeting with the school’s special education coordinator and learn about the process. If at any time you feel like the school is not being responsive to your requests, continue to make your concerns known and enlist the help of outside professionals if necessary. Your child deserves to have the accommodations and services that they need to reach their full potential. As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate when it comes to getting them the services that they need.
ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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