9 Ways IEPs Fall Apart: A Troubleshooting Guide for ADHD Accommodations
When ADHD-related challenges interfere with learning, an IEP or 504 Plan can unlock success at school. But when things go wrong — and you can be sure they will — a parent’s muscle and know-how are required. Here, an expert tells you what to look for and how to fight for your child’s rights.
Congratulations! Your hard work has paid off and you’ve secured an IEP or 504 Plan for your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). With more support in place, your child will benefit from new academic and social achievements, and you will finally be able to relax, right? Not so fast.
Your job isn’t done the day your child’s IEP or 504 Plan is signed. When your child is receiving accommodations to help with ADHD-related challenges, the landscape sometimes shifts, symptoms fluctuate, and educators interpret guidance in different ways. In other words, it’s important to be in regular contact with the school. Assume that accommodations will need tweaking. Know how to work the system — bring cupcakes and understand that learning is a life-long exercise.
Don’t assume your child’s school will carry out the accommodations just as you intended or hoped. Trust, but verify. And when things seem amiss — grades aren’t improving, emails from teachers aren’t glowing, and your student isn’t thriving — know that you’re right and justified to dig in.
It shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. I tell my clients that parenting a child with ADHD or a learning disability requires you to wear three different hats: detective, diplomat, and advocate. Identifying a problem takes detective work; negotiating solutions requires diplomacy, and ensuring your child receives all they’re entitled to is the work of an advocate.
IEP vs. 504 Plan: Key Differences
If a student simply requires accommodations in a regular classroom, they will generally get a 504 Plan. If the student’s needs require special education services in addition to accommodations like extended time on test, they will be more likely to qualify for an IEP. ADHD learning challenges are frequently covered in 504 Plans, which are shorter (2 or 3 pages) and easier to obtain.
IEPs, on the other hand, are more comprehensive and often comprise a dozen pages or more. They typically include long-term goals and ways to determine if these goals are achieved. The rules for both IEPs and 504 Plans are set forth under federal law. Schools need to report information on the IEPs they provide to their state department of education, which in turn needs to report these statistics to the federal government. So schools would sometimes rather provide a 504 Plan than an IEP. Note that 504 Plans are only required in schools that take federal funding, so almost all private schools are exempt, although they can offer accommodations if they choose to do so.
Neither option is ever flawless. Here, learn how to troubleshoot 9 common problems with IEPs and 504 Plans:
Problem #1: My child has an IEP or 504 Plan but their grades aren’t improving. What can I do?
Don your detective hat to answer questions like these: Where are my child’s grades suffering the most? Who teaches those classes? How does my child feel about those teachers? Have we received communication from any teachers about missing work, problematic behavior, or other concerns? Has my child’s attitude toward school or a specific subject changed?
When children struggle in school — academically and socially — it’s not uncommon for them to avoid it. Maybe they can’t get up on a school day due to a stomach ache, headache, or exhaustion. If new problems have developed around homework, test-taking, or studying this may be a clue that IEP goals are not being met.
New test-taking anxiety may be triggered when a child does not receive accommodations like extra time and a quiet place for her examinations — very common items in a 504 Plan. If you ask her if she’s receiving the accommodations to which she’s entitled and she tells you that “they don’t have room for me” or “the teacher is too busy” or “no one is available to give me the test, so I have to take it with the rest of the class,” know that this is not acceptable and should be a red flag.
If you know your child is supposed to be pulled out for speech therapy, but she tells you she hasn’t seen the speech therapist in three weeks, that’s also not okay.
First, find out as much as you can from your child. Then consult the IEP or your copy of the 504 Plan. Finally, make a detailed list of where things are falling short.
Is she supposed to be getting specialized reading instruction? Extra time for tests? A different set of math problems than the rest of the class? Is there supposed to be an aide or paraprofessional in the classroom to help your child, but your child reports their attendance is spotty? What kinds of things are supposed to be happening that are not?
Taking the time to do this will generate a laundry list of problems to which you can refer during a meeting with the head of the IEP or 504 team. But you’re not there yet.
It’s best to start your search for answers with the classroom teacher. See if you can arrange a phone call or meeting. Don’t assume the teacher is familiar with the details of your child’s IEP or 504 Plan; offer to share your copy and list of observations.
Either way, ask the teacher if they can explain the issues your child is facing and help you figure out ways for the child to be more successful classroom.
Sometimes, the teacher can suggest simple tweaks to solve your problem. For example, if your child has trouble copying homework assignments from the whiteboard, a homework buddy could help enormously with keeping them aware of the next day’s assignments. Seeking ways to work with the teacher by coming across as a team player can be an effective strategy.
If the teacher isn’t helpful or the changes you seek are outside of their control, the next step is meeting with the principal, guidance counselor, or another appropriate special education administrator.
Problem #2. My child isn’t receiving the accommodations or support established in the IEP or 504 Plan. What can I do?
If your child is supposed to be receiving services and supports outside the classroom but you suspect they are not happening, first ask your child’s teacher to report to you about what’s going on.
Some classrooms today feature two teachers — a regular instructor, and a special-ed teacher or paraprofessional who supports struggling learners. It’s a great arrangement when it’s available. Parents are often surprised to discover that having an accommodation formally recognized doesn’t guarantee this classroom setup or special pullout sessions with school specialists.
Many factors come into play here. Is the reading specialist out on maternity leave? Is the scheduled pullout session for speech or language therapy interfering with your child’s favorite or most important instructional time? Does support interfere with after-school transportation to a team sport or other activity your child enjoys?
Perhaps your child is entitled to a specific type of reading instruction, but the school has a shortage of specialists. There’s a big difference between a reading teacher and a reading specialist — someone certified in a specific modality like Orton-Gillingham that teaches reading in a multi-sensory way. School districts often share resources, so scheduling is a frequent problem, but logistics should not prevent your child from receiving the help they need.
While it is up to the school to make sure the 504 Plan is being followed, as a practical matter, this is something you and your child should be monitoring. A teacher who isn’t doing what they are supposed to be doing isn’t going to call your attention to implementation problems.
Problem #3. My child’s IEP/504 Plan is no longer working. Do I need to call a formal meeting?
Simple tweaks like adding a quiet location to an accommodation that already provides additional exam time or decreasing the frequency of existing services — speech twice a week instead of three times a week to make scheduling easier — are examples of minor changes that likely will not require a meeting.
Bigger changes — substantial revisions to instruction or requests that may require funding from the state or federal government, like adding a one-on-one paraprofessional or a new specialist — are more likely to require a meeting.
Parents have the right to call an IEP meeting at any time, not just once a year. Just don’t expect a meeting to happen the next day or even the next week.
Don’t let the school put you off by telling you to allow more time for observation. If you see problems that need addressing, put your foot down. Tell them to make the changes you want without a meeting or let them know you understand the law requires the school to provide a meeting within a few weeks after you request one.
Problem #4. My child’s IEP is based on an inadequate or improper evaluation. How can I get a new one?
New IEP evaluations are required at least every three years, but parents can request a new evaluation once each year. (504 Plans are supposed to be reviewed annually.) Let’s assume that you had an IEP meeting in March and accommodations started later that month. Then, in October, you noticed a new problem. You had your child evaluated, but now it’s the end of January, and the accommodations established in your IEP meeting last March no longer make sense. Perhaps the initial evaluation was weak or did not adequately identify all of your child’s challenges and needs.
Perhaps a goal that seemed appropriate when the IEP was created no longer reflects the skills your child needs. For example, maybe a child was initially struggling with reading, so the IEP goals were heavy in that department. Over time, the child’s reading skills improved and math emerged as a problem that needs resources and goals.
Some parents choose to get an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). There are circumstances under which the school will pay for an IEE, but it’s a complicated process. (See Problem #7 for more on this topic.)
A new evaluation may reveal root causes of your child’s shifting problems, but it’s not a quick solution. After the new evaluation is scheduled and conducted, you must request another IEP meeting to consider its findings and suggest appropriate changes to the IEP or 504. If you decide to go this route, ask your pediatrician to refer you to someone who conducts neuropsychological assessments in your community. Sometimes local colleges do them.
Problem #5: New behaviors are impacting learning, but they not addressed in the IEP or 504.
Sometimes behaviors emerge that interfere with learning. Excessive tardiness, physical aggression, swearing at the teacher, or destroying school property are examples of oppositional behavior that impedes a child’s ability to learn — and impacts his classmates negatively, too.
Emotional difficulties like test anxiety may also impact learning. To help understand and remedy problematic behavior, the school can conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) that can be added to the current IEP as a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). An FBA is usually something administered and paid for by the school. A BIP is a summary of the FBA and clearly defines the problematic behaviors and sets up a plan for remediating them. School staff then work together to teach the student new, more appropriate behaviors. The BIP also includes a way to measure progress.
Problem #6. My teenager with ADHD has an IEP, but the teacher tells me he refuses to pursue or accept his accommodations. What can I do?
This scenario is common with older students who may be sensitive to the stigma associated with ADHD and learning differences. They may refuse extended time or pullout services and other supports because they don’t want to stand out as “different.” Many teenagers just want to be accepted by their peers and to blend in. Being pulled out of class for support may be embarrassing and uncomfortable. You can try explaining that in a segmented high school setting (or a school that has a rotating block schedule) few students notice who’s where at what time. Of course that explanation doesn’t always satisfy them — especially when it comes from mom or dad.
Have a conversation with your child and find out what’s going on. They may not be clear on all the accommodations to which they’re entitled, how to access them, or how they can help. Some teens consider extra time on tests “cheating,” for example.
Make sure your child understands what having ADHD means and let them know that, while it should never be used as an excuse, it probably explains why certain things are so difficult, or why they might have to work harder than other kids to get the same results. If they still refuse help, seek advice from a therapist or ADHD coach.
Problem #7: After evaluating my middle-school student, the school said she doesn’t need a plan because her grades are Cs or better. We disagree. Can we force the school to provide accommodations?
Students are entitled to an “appropriate” education according to the IDEA. If your child’s education were a car, “appropriate” would mean it runs with the basics — four wheels, some doors, an engine, a steering wheel. It’s not a high-end Porsche, but it will get you where you need to go. We all want our children to get the best education possible, so herein lies the problem: the school district’s definition of “appropriate” does not match yours.
Seek a “second opinion” — an IEE — from an evaluator not connected with the school. IEEs are often expensive, but if your child was evaluated by the school within the last year, you may be able to get the school district to pay for it. (I explain the lengthy process of getting your school to reimburse your IEE in this blog on the Yellin Center’s website.)
Some parents choose to enlist the help of an advocate or attorney to force the district to provide your child with an IEP — also a costly and time-consuming option. This action requires careful consideration because taking legal action against the district may create other issues for your family moving forward. Some parents put their child in a private school for just those reasons, which is not available to everybody and shouldn’t have to be the solution.
Problem #8. We’d like a one-on-one aide for our child, but the school says it doesn’t have enough funding for it. What can we do?
The school cannot refuse a needed accommodation simply because of budget constraints. End of story.
With regard to a one-on-one aide, there are no rules that guide when a child needs or requires one. Medically fragile children or those with significant physical impairments may require an adult to be with them at all times, and these are examples of situations where this arrangement may be warranted. Apart from that, one-on-one aides are not a common support. Most children should be getting the education they need if they’re in an appropriate classroom with a co-teacher, paraprofessional, or special-education teacher in the classroom.
If your child truly needs an aide, refusing to supply one due to budgetary restraints is not acceptable. If they can’t afford a one-on-one aide, the district should consider the cost of tuition for this child in a private school with smaller classes and more supervision.
Remember, the standard isn’t what’s perfect. The standard is what’s appropriate. If a one-n-one aide is what’s appropriate for your child’s needs, the school doesn’t get to pick and choose. Controversial matters can be brought before a state hearing officer to weigh the facts, hear from witnesses, and make a binding determination.
Problem #9. IEP assessments take months to carry out, but my child needs help now. Can the school put accommodations in place now without a formal plan?
Yes, the school can put immediate accommodations in place without having a 504 Plan. For example, if the school feels your child would benefit from extended time on most tests, they can give it while they’re working on putting formal plans in place.
The information in this article was sourced in part from the ADDitude webinar titled “The Parent’s Guide to Evaluating and Troubleshooting Your Child’s IEP or 504” with Susan Yellin, Esquire, which aired on October 16, 2019.
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Updated on August 10, 2020