When Special Ed is Special-er

The question about IEPs and 504 accomodations comes up frequently with regard to gifted learners, so I’m going to address it here. Gifted kids can have other conditions as well, so just because your child’s gifted doesn’t mean him/her has no educational issues that may require intervention.

To oversimplify in a pretty accurate way, Special Education services are for children who need the CURRICULUM altered in order to succeed to the best of their ability. They may need less work, fewer questions, extended time, more help from an adult, one-on-one assistance, or a test read orally to them (and on and one – the possibilities are nearly endless). A 504 accommodation is for children who need their ACCESS to the curriculum altered in some way in order to succeed. They may be in a wheelchair and need access to an elevator. They may be deaf and need to be seated in the front row (or with a good ear toward the teacher). They may have ADHD and need to be allowed to stand next to a desk or have a teacher initial homework assignments in a planner each day to verify they were written down fully and completely.

I’ll explain a little more.

First, an IEP is specifically a special education tool/instrument. A child who does not qualify or who has not qualified for special education services will not have an IEP. Typically (and this is a broad, general statement), students qualify for special education when they have some disability that creates a discrepancy between their ability and their performance. For example, a child may have a language processing disorder that prevents him/her from reading as well as his/her ability would indicate. We’re looking at a gap that special education services tries to bridge.

A child who is functioning fine in school in the way that schools look at it (progressing in appropriate grades, earning passing marks, etc.), will often not receive SPED (special education) services. That is not to say that they do not have some type of disability, but something else is going on (strong coping strategies, extremely high core ability that masks the disability, etc.) that affects the dynamic and makes the student’s success in school possible in spite of the disability and without extra services.

The law specifically states that the disability must “adversely affect” the child’s education to be covered by the law. That doesn’t mean the child has to be failing. Want to read the law? Here is all the official information.

If a state includes GT under SPED, those children would also have an IEP, but most states do NOT do this. Some states that do call them “ALPs” (Advanced Learning Plans). Examples of disabilities that may result in an IEP include everything from autism to blindness. Typically, you cannot get an IEP without some kind of diagnosis. This is not because the school is being mean. This is the way it works.

A 504 accommodation is different. They are not interchangeable. “504” refers to the section of the Americans with Disabilities Act that covers public school children (among others)and ensures “equal access” to education. If a child is covered under this, he/she will NOT be required to have an IEP. There are fewer procedural safeguards under Section 504 than under IDEA. A student can be covered under both, but this causes a lot of extra headaches and is not typical.

Sometimes the difference is clear cut. A child with asthma but no other disability may need a 504 accommodation to allow him/her to leave the classroom to get a breathing treatment or excuse him/her from outside activity on poor air quality days. A child with Down Syndrome will need an IEP because the curriculum itself must be modified. However, sometimes it’s not so clear cut. What about ADD? What about dyslexia?

Here’s the general rule.

If a child has a disability that adversely affects educational performance, that child is eligible for special education services under IDEA. All children who eligible for special education services under IDEA are protected under Section 504 (but the converse is not true).

If a child has a disability that does not adversely affect educational performance, that child is not eligible for special education services under IDEA, but is usually entitled to protections under Section 504.

If a child’s needs are being accommodated in the school without the formality of an IEP or 504 accommodation, that is okay, too.

May I share some things I’ve learned over the years as a parent and administrator?

1. Advocacy and pain in the butt are not the same. Alienating school personnel is never helpful, and, ironically, the less helpful the school personnel, the more true this is. No matter how wrongly you feel you are being treated, being a jerk is never the answer in the long run.

2. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is your friend if you feel your child’s rights are being violated. Believe me, just the acronym terrifies administrators. An entire office can be brought to a grinding halt by anOCRcomplaint. They mean business. If you really feel that you have reached the end of negotiation, that’s the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency agency.

3. Don’t fix the blame. Fix the problem. If you’ve been treated badly in the past, get a massage, drink a cup of Sleepytime tea, eat a lot of really dark chocolate, pull up your big girl panties, and go back with a smile on your face and hope in your heart. It’s not personal. Truly, it’s not. They just want to do their jobs. Trust me, it is not easier for the school to have a kid not happy, not succeeding, or a parent breathing down your neck. Try to tease apart what the people are doing from what the result you want is. Guess what? If your child gets an IEP or a 504, the same people you’re mad at will be the team that writes those plans. Come in with cookies and a can-do attitude. It’s not bribery; it’s building a bond.

(photo by Glenn Pebley @sxc.hu)

 4. Have a plan. Don’t just go in saying, “What are you going to do for my kid?” Say, “Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think the child’s responsibility is, here’s what my responsibility is, and here are some things I was thinking could be done at school to help.” When a parent has a list of three or four reasonable strategies, they are likely to be accepted far more easily than a parent who dumps the whole problem of a kid’s not succeeding on the lap of the school. It is a rare student whose lack of success is due entirely to the school  This is a group situation, and it requires a group solution.

Educational professionals did not go into the business to make your life miserable. They are (for the most part) trying very hard to do a lot with very little. Cut them some slack. Cut yourself some slack. I’m not saying don’t get your child’s needs met (see #2 above!!!).

For more information about this topic, visit the site of the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the 2e newsletter.


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