Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: What Can We Do If Our Child’s Private School Won’t Follow His 504 Plan?

Accommodations for students with ADHD are only effective when both teachers and students commit to following them. Unfortunately, schools vary widely in how willing and able they are to do so, especially outside the public school system. Read on to learn what recourse parents have to get teens the resources they need.

“Our son has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), for which he is treated with medication and coaching, as well as depression and a possible learning disability related to processing. He attends a Catholic high school where he has a 504 plan that allows him preferential seating, movement/stress breaks in class, and the ability to turn in assignments late for partial credit. But he’s been struggling to keep up with one class in which the teacher is not following the accommodations. Recently he’s been having huge meltdowns over assignments and projects, complete with rage and tears. We can’t seem to get the school to have him tested for processing problems. Our public school system won’t help because he’s not a registered student there, and he was turned down by the local vocational-technical high school due to poor grades and his 504 plan. His grades have since plummeted, and he’s losing friends because he’s been moved to some of the slower classes. It’s gotten to the point where he hates school and wants to quit when he turns 16. He used to enjoy his classes and social involvement with extracurricular activities like Eagle Scouts. Where else can we turn so that he doesn’t drop out? How can we help him find some enjoyment in learning and maybe even some success?” — StrugglersMom

Dear StrugglersMom,

A 504 plan only works if both teachers and students make use of the accommodations it dictates. By high school, breakdowns often start with the student because he doesn’t want to be singled out or he feels that extra help is unnecessary. But lapses can come from school staff as well. I have seen psychoeducational reports that offer pages and pages of suggestions, but all of this good advice falls on deaf ears if it cannot be implemented.

Being at a private school can make enforcing a 504 plan more complicated. But there are solutions to try. First, be a polite but squeaky wheel. Meet with the guidance counselor, principal, and teachers as much as necessary to advocate for your son. Focus less on the school’s shortcomings and more on your son’s needs. Assume they want to help him, because that is why most teachers and administrators go into education. Be respectful but persistent. It’s always best to have a student advocate for themselves and participate in meetings, but your son may not ready to do this — yet.

[Quiz: How Well Do You Know Special-Ed Law?]

Some private schools are better equipped to handle students with ADHD and learning disabilities than are others. In my neck of the woods, several Catholic schools are considered the go-to option for these children, and some private preparatory schools have excellent learning centers as well. Others, however, do not see this kind of support as part of their mission. If your school is like that, it might be time to transfer your son back to public school. The public school system is often best equipped to handle the needs of children with learning disabilities and ADHD because it has more resources and specialized staff. Even though these resources are currently dwindling, public school might still be a better option. Your local school district might also have a program for students at risk of dropping out.

Your suspicion of a learning disability could be correct. Learning disabilities often co-occur with ADHD. Testing is the only way to know for sure. Beyond its diagnostic value, a psychoeducational evaluation can help secure school accommodations. A private psychologist or educational consultant can offer the most comprehensive evaluation, but this option is often out of many families’ financial reach. Unfortunately, these days insurance companies rarely cover any of the cost. However, at least where I practice, it is the county’s responsibility to test children in private schools. I suggest looking into this possibility where you live.

It’s not surprising that your son’s academic challenges have clouded his mood and self-esteem. You mentioned medication and coaching, but he might also need therapy to deal with his depression. Furthermore, if vocational education is not an option, then perhaps an after-school job would give him a sense of accomplishment and value.

It might also be helpful to locate a mentor for your son. This can be a teacher, guidance counselor, or coach who is inclined to help him out. The mentor can meet regularly with your son and speak to his teachers to help him stay on track. Such a mentor may not be easy to find, but I have seen educators who are willing to meet with students on a daily basis to help them find stable footing. Your son might suggest someone he feels comfortable with or who might be willing to step up. Sometimes a mentor can be found outside the school walls. You mentioned that your son is an Eagle Scout; perhaps you can talk to the troop master and either ask him to help out or enlist the aid of an older scout. Your son needs all the encouragement he can get.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.