Does Your Child Qualify for Special-Education Accommodations?

IDEA regulations list ADHD as a qualifying condition, but not for all kids. Find out why an additional health issue, emotional disturbance, or developmental delay might change eligibility.

A boy with ADHD using writing strategies in class
Boy writing with teacher behind him

IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education in March, 1999, make it clear that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) is included in the list of conditions that could render a child eligible for special education services.

However, including ADHD does not automatically mean that all children with ADHD qualify for an Individual Education Plan or other provisions under IDEA. According to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), “ALL CHILDREN WITH ADHD CLEARLY ARE NOT ELIGIBLE under Part B to receive special education and related services — just as all children who have one or more of the other conditions listed under the “other health impairment” category are not necessarily eligible (e.g., children with a heart condition, asthma, diabetes, and rheumatic fever).” (The ALL CAPS wording is as it appears in the original document.)

While IDEA does offer help for eligible children with ADHD, not all children who have ADHD are eligible. Even a medical diagnosis of ADHD does not necessarily guarantee eligibility of services. To qualify, the ADHD must adversely affect a child’s educational performance.

ADHD has various levels of severity. For some students, it is completely debilitating, requiring extensive accommodations and other interventions. Other students are more successful at managing their ADHD and have little trouble in the regular classroom. Decisions about the need for special services and/or accommodations are supposed to be made on an individual basis, with considerations given to the specific needs of the individual student. That’s why the law is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — emphasis is placed on the individual student.

When would an ADHD student qualify for special services under IDEA?

A 1991 memorandum from the U. S. Department of Education to chief state school officers describes when a student might qualify for special education services under IDEA. According to the memo, children with ADHD may be eligible for services under the following categories, depending on their unique characteristics and identified educational needs:

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  • Other health impairment. Most children receiving special education services for ADHD alone will likely be classified as “Other Health Impaired,” since the regulations implementing IDEA now list ADHD as a condition that can make a child eligible under this category. Children with ADHD may meet eligibility criteria for the “other health impairment”; category when their “heightened alertness to environmental stimuli… results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment,” impairing school performance.
  • Specific learning disability. IDEA defines learning disability as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding and using language that impairs the ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Children with ADHD may be eligible for special education in this category if they have coexisting learning disabilities. However, in some cases, ADHD alone could generate the type of impairment that would cause a child to meet criteria under this category — especially the Inattentive Type, which has been linked to deficits in mathematics and sensory information processing. Minimal brain dysfunction, a condition listed under this category, was in fact the term for ADHD during most of the 1960s. Recent brain-imaging studies and current understanding about ADHD’s effect on executive functions (and hence on information processing) also underscore this category’s continued relevance.

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  • Emotional disturbance. Children with ADHD sometimes have coexisting emotional and mental disorders such as a mood disorder, behavior disorders, or anxiety disorders, that can adversely affect educational performance and make them eligible for special education services. Characteristics of emotional disturbance under Part B include (1) an unexplained inability to learn or to form and maintain satisfactory relationships with teachers and peers, (2) inappropriate behavior and feelings, (3) general mood disorder symptoms, and (4) physical symptoms or fears resulting from personal or school problems.
  • Developmental delay. IDEA offers a noncategorical option — developmental delay — for children aged 3 through 9 who exhibit delays in physical, cognitive, communication, emotional, social, or adaptive development. At the discretion of the state and local educational agencies, schools can use this option to serve children within the specified age range who need special education and related services because of such delays. Children with ADHD often seem immature for their age — lagging behind peers up to 30 percent — and have been found to score below average on tests used to identify developmental delays. These results are consistent with neurological findings that are leading researchers to view ADHD as neurodevelopmental disorder. Some functional areas in which delays are evident include socialization, communication, daily living, and self-control. Social failure is so prevalent with ADHD that it is considered to be characteristic of the disorder.

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Children who qualify for services under IDEA will be given an Individual Education Program (IEP). The IEP is written by a team of people, including parents, the special education teacher, any regular classroom teachers who work with the child, and other professionals. It should describe the child’s specific learning problems and how these problems are going to be dealt with, including goals and ways to measure progress.

Children with disabilities — including ADHD — who are determined not to be eligible for special education services under IDEA may still be protected and served under two other federal laws: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The Office for Civil Rights in the U. S. Department of Education enforces the provisions of Section 504 and Title II of the ADA with respect to school districts, while the Department of Education administers IDEA.