This show is designed to help empower you to advocate for your child with special needs throughout the school experience. Today, we’re talking about the initial steps and what to expect when you’ve got a kid with learning needs who doesn’t yet have any services or support at school.
If you’re listening and thinking maybe you’re further in the journey, I’d encourage you to stick with the show. Chances are the next few minutes will give you some background and perspective to help you moving forward, no matter where you’re starting!
Let’s dive in: the initial process of getting support through a 504 plan or IEP can start at any time in the school year and at any student age. Referrals can come from different sources and can be for many reasons. A few things all situations will share, however are that the process will involve a few meetings and any concern that you share must impact your child’s education in order for the team to consider developing supports.
Educational impact will be a guidepost for you. Every time you share a challenge that your child has, try to think of your sharing ending with “…and that impairs his/her education by…” The law is written to compel schools to address needs that impact a child's education. In 504 terms, the impairment for which accommodations would be allowed must “significantly impair life functions” in order to be considered.
This may seem obvious or maybe even easy, but given the nuanced and invisible challenges of many disabilities, establishing that an impairment indicates the need for a 504 or IEP can be challenging. I’ve worked with several families who just push themselves and their children to exhaustion to scrape by with passing grades. Then, those same passing grades are used as justification for why the school will not create a 504 plan. “You’re doing fine, so clearly you don’t need help,” is something I’ve heard all too often, when that “doing fine” comes at the cost of hours of homework at night and on the weekends.
A good starting point is to create a chart to list on one side what you know or suspect is impacting your child and on the other side how that impacts their education. (It can be as simple as two columns with a basic heading of “Areas of weakness from disability and impact on school/tests/homework”)
For example, “Difficulty attending to lessons” can be part of ADHD, autism, or learning disabilities. That’s the weakness column. In the impact column, you may list “decreased opportunities to engage with lessons; difficulty taking notes; teacher reprimands resulting in time out of classroom, etc.” Come with these thoughts organized, and the team will have a chance to appreciate just how hard your child is working, as well as the need to accommodate and consider services for your child.
Let’s say you’ve clarified the picture of your child’s disability-related needs and their impact on your child’s education. Awesome! Next step is to request a meeting at school. You can choose whether to request an SST, 504, or request assessment for an IEP. Here’s how you can tell what you need.
An SST is a student study team. It may go by a number of different names, but if the school replies with an offer of a meeting that’s not a 504 or IEP, it’s likely an SST-type meeting. These meetings are often the first in the process. It’s where you meet with teachers, the school psychologist, and possibly an administrator to talk about your child’s school experience. Sometimes the schools will call these meetings after assessments show limited progress or your child has behavioral concerns. You can ask for an SST at any time, and the school will likely put you on the schedule. Although the Child Find laws in the IDEA (the Federal Special Education Laws) compels schools to find and evaluate children with disabilities, Child Find does not mandate much around timelines or formats for SST meetings.
At an SST, you can expect the team to talk about your child’s strengths and challenges. Afterwards, they’ll propose next steps. Sometimes next steps are classroom accommodations or small group, temporary intervention groups. If they choose to try strategies like these, chances are the team will ask to meet again in 6-8 weeks to review progress. If your child’s needs have been met through the intervention, you’ll likely not be contacted again, since the school will determine your child “responded to interventions,” which can be an indicator that a learning disability is not suspected. Note, I said it can be. Don’t think you’ve exhausted options if your child shows some growth with a little help at school.
Maybe you already have a diagnosis? In this case, a 504 plan meeting or an initial IEP may be your request. Let’s talk about the 504. 504 plans fall under Civil Rights law. The idea is the school can provide accommodations to help your child access education. Most 504 plans do not offer services, but instead, offer changes in how your child receives and produces educational experiences. Unfortunately, the law is not specific in how many days the school has to respond, so if you request a meeting, you can expect to wait 5 up to 30 days. It’s okay to follow up, though; sometimes schools get busy and need a friendly nudge.
At a 504 meeting, you can expect a similar opening discussion of strengths and challenges. The team will seek to understand how your child’s disability impacts their education. Unfortunately, this is where we can encounter school resistance. If the school isn’t convinced that your child’s disability impacts them at school “enough,” then the team may suggest that a 504 is not necessary. You can contest this, in writing, and provide documentation of the need through doctor’s reports, test scores, and observations like how long homework takes. Be extra prepared if your child has an invisible disability, like autism, ADHD, or a learning disability—something that’s within their brains but not always apparent.
The last kind of meeting you may start with on your journey is a sort of a Pre- IEP meeting. This is usually because you’ve requested your child be assessed for an IEP. At the first meeting before an IEP is officially written, the team may convene to either deny assessment or to create an assessment plan. (Often these are called SSTs, too, but they route into IEP assessments, rather than just trying interventions at school). If the team denies assessment, you can contest in writing. It may take more time and documentation, but getting an initial “no” here does not end the process for you.
In an assessment plan meeting, the team will identify the areas of suspected disability. This is where you will emphasize the concerns for your child, so the team can look into their impact at school. You love your kid, but this is not the time to sugar coat a thing. Lay it all out there and emphasize the areas you want them to assess. An assessment plan will generally cover: academic achievement, intellectual development, health, communication, motor skills, adaptive behaviors, and social-emotional areas.
A good way to prepare for signing an assessment plan is to document your concerns relative to the areas they will assess. I’ve got a quick Doc for you here, in the resources. If you already have an IEP, this Doc can also help you to organize your thoughts before any IEP…annuals or triennials, too! IEPs are where we enter the Federally mandated IDEA laws. There are strict timelines for the process once you’ve signed an assessment plan. The team will have 60 days to assess and then review findings with you, once the assessment plan is signed. However, remember to take the plan home and look it over with fresh eyes before you sign. Even if that means the timeline starts a day or two later; it’s worth it to be sure the plan covers everything!
So, at least 3 types of meetings on the menu. How do you know which is right?
An SST is a good thing to request if you’re just getting started, you suspect your child has a disability, or you just got a diagnosis. Oftentimes, the school team will set up a 504 or IEP from there, if that’s the route that’s best.
If you’ve got a diagnosis and recognize that your child needs accommodations, ask for a 504 plan meeting.
If you think or know your child has a disability that impacts their education, but the school hasn’t assessed them yet, request an assessment in writing. That will lead to a meeting to discuss assessment, starting you on the IEP path.
I have example emails and letters here under the resources section. And, if you’re still a little bit unsure how to proceed, try this: Email (always communicate in writing) a trusted teacher with the school psychologist in the CC. Explain your concerns and ask for a response. That will get the ball rolling to get the right plan for your child!
I’m honored to be part of your journey! If you’d like information about individual advocacy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! The families I support are getting results and feeling less stressed; I’d love to give that to you, too!
Talk with you soon!