The process of securing academic accommodations for your child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) can be confusing -- and intimidating. Follow these eight steps to take the hassle out of establishing an IEP or 504 Plan...
1. Get an Accurate Evaluation
Address it to the chairperson of the Committee on Special Education Services - aka the Director of Special Education Services. (It's often a waste of time to send the letter to the child's teachers, guidance counselor, or principal.)
Should the school decline your request, or if you're dissatisfied with the evaluation's findings, arrange for a private ADHD evaluation. (In some circumstances, the school may have to pay for the outside assessment.)
TIP: Send your letter by certified mail or hand-deliver it and keep a dated proof of receipt for your records.
2. Meet With the Evaluation Team
A school-sponsored evaluation is conducted by a multidisciplinary team -- including special-education teachers, the school psychologist, and other professionals. As part of the process, they'll want to meet with you to learn more about how your ADHD child functions in school.
Team members will review your child's academic records, conduct a behavioral assessment, and observe her in the classroom. Following the assessment, you will discuss the results with the evaluation team and together you will decide whether your child needs special-education services to address how ADHD impacts her ability to learn.
TIP: Bring copies of your child’s report cards, standardized test results, and medical records, as well as a log of your communications with the school and other professionals to the meeting. (See our checklist of academic records that every parent should keep!)
3. Decide Which Laws Are Applicable
IDEA covers kids with very specific conditions, including mental retardation, emotional disturbances, hearing impairments, and speech and language difficulties. Kids may qualify for coverage if they frequently have one of these problems in addition to attention deficit. Some qualify under another IDEA category: Other Health Impairments. If your child’s ADHD is so severe that he’s unable to learn in a regular classroom, he may qualify.
Section 504 covers ADHD kids who don’t qualify for special-ed services under IDEA, but who need extra help in the classroom. The law prohibits schools from discriminating against students because of physical and mental impairments. Just as the school must provide ramps for kids in wheelchairs, it must make modifications (such as preferential seating, extra time on tests, or help with note taking) for kids with brain-based learning barriers.
FYI: If the team decides your child doesn’t need special ed, you’re entitled to appeal your case in a "due-process" hearing - a legal proceeding that often requires legal representation for the family, testimony from independent experts, and a review of meeting transcripts, test scores, and other documents.
4. Develop a Plan
If your child qualifies under IDEA, you should meet with the team to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which specifies your child’s educational goals and how those goals will be met in the 'least restrictive environment' – which generally refers to a regular classroom.
Parents must be assertive. Make sure the IEP spells out exactly how the school will help your child meet his goals, which should be specific, measurable, and achievable.
Include time limits: “By month three, James will reduce his interruptions from 10 per day to 2 per day.” The IEP should explain exactly how James will be taught to stop interrupting. Unless the strategies are specified, there’s no way to enforce them.
If your child qualifies under Section 504, a school representative will help you and your child's teacher compile a 504 Plan, or a written list of accommodations that must be followed at all times. Unlike an IEP, there are no legal requirements about what should be included in a 504 Plan, and the school isn't required to involve the child's parents in the process (although many schools do).
TIP: Learn more about writing and implementing an IEP – including required provisions and the evaluation-team composition – on the federal Education Department’s web site.
5. Insist on a Customized Plan
The school may try to tailor your child's IEP around its existing programs, even though IDEA requires schools to customize the plan based on the child's needs.
If you're not satisfied with the IEP, don't agree to it.
The school may offer something more, or you can request a due-process hearing. If you prevail, the school district may have to pay for your child's education in another school that offers the needed services - even if it's a private school.
TIP: For specific accommodation ideas, check ADDitude's free Printable: Classroom Accommodations for School Children with ADHD.
6. Monitor Your Child’s Progress
By law, the educational team must meet annually to review your child's IEP. Many school districts schedule the annual meeting in the spring, so that team members can review current strategies and your child’s progress, and set goals for the coming year.
You can request a meeting whenever you think one is needed – like the beginning of each school year. Your child’s progress during the summer, or the demands of the new grade, may necessitate plan changes.
If your child receives special services under a Section 504 Plan, the school is not required to hold an annual review or to involve parents in meetings. However, you may still request a meeting at any time, and many schools invite parents to participate in the process.
7. Create a Paper Trail
As you secure services for your child, put all requests, concerns, and thank-you's in writing -- and keep copies on file. A note asking the teacher for your child's test scores can be valuable if you later have to document that the request went unmet.
After each IEP meeting and conference with school staff, summarize the main points in a letter to participants. This establishes a written record of what was said.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision underscored the importance of good record-keeping. The Court ruled that, in a due-process hearing, the legal burden of proving that a plan fails to meet a child's needs falls on the parents. It's more important than ever to document your child's difficulties, to be assertive about receiving progress reports, and to push for changes to the IEP as the need arises.
8. Seek Support
If at any point you reach an impasse with school authorities - or if you just want an expert to accompany you to meetings - contact an educational advocate or attorney. Many offer free or low-cost consultation.
To share strategies for getting accommodations for your ADHD child, visit the ADHD at School support group on ADDConnect.