By: Maura L. Johnson, LCSW, PMH-C
When it comes to academics and learning styles, no two students are exactly the same. While many students find their rhythm within the parameters of grade-level expectations, there are also many that struggle under them. As a teen and young adult, I often struggled with the rigid expectations surrounding standardized testing. The strict time constraints, background noise and awareness of my peers’ speed of completion was often a stressful experience during testing. As a student of the late 90s, I believed these were issues beyond my control to change. However, there are available supports and contingencies to support learners of varying abilities and styles.
Most of us are familiar with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in the early childhood years through high school. In Pennsylvania, whether the parent/guardian requests the IEP orally or in writing, the school must provide the Permission to Evaluate (PTE) form to the parents/guardians within 10 calendar days of request. After this form is completed, the school has 60 calendar days (minus summer months) to complete the evaluation and issue an Evaluation Report (ER). Following this, the school must provide the ER to the parents/guardians at least 10 days prior to the IEP meeting. A meeting invitation is sent to the family, with one or both parents/guardians needing to attend. If the child is determined to be eligible for special education services, an IEP meeting occurs with the team of school professionals to develop the plan. This is a methodical, multi-step process that works to support a variety of special education needs, including Gifted Education (a GIEP).
For those students who may benefit from additional support but maybe not to the level of an IEP, a 504 Plan is another option. A 504 Plan includes accommodations that will help the student succeed in the classroom and follow curriculum—but without changing the curriculum itself (Source: Excpetionallives.org). These accommodations might include contingencies such as specific seating in the classroom, permission for breaks during class and/or receiving extra time/separate space for exams. The law requires that students with disabilities receive their education in the least restrictive environment (LRE), like the mainstream classroom, alongside their peers. If needs can be accommodated through a 504 Plan, this will often be a less-involved process that can support the child through their school career.
So how do you go about obtaining a 504 Plan? The first step is gathering documentation of the presenting concerns, including your observations, medical documents (pediatrician, licensed therapist, etc.), schoolwork/report cards and any private evaluations can be helpful. Then contact your school to determine who their assigned 504 coordinator is (this may also be their IEP coordinator) and how to reach them. Once this is determined, you can send a written request for a 504 plan to this individual. Explain in detail what concerns you and your child have and how accommodations may provide the best opportunity for them to succeed. You will then go through an evaluation process where your observations, medical records and school records will be reviewed to determine eligibility. You will then meet with the school to determine the next steps and create the 504 Plan. While a written plan is not necessarily required, most schools will create one and have it on file for all involved staff. If you are unsure whether your child would be better served by an IEP or a 504, you can go through the IEP process to determine which is more appropriate.
As a therapist, I have assisted in numerous 504 Plan meetings to best support my clients. I’ve witnessed many students find success through simple changes to their day that best supported their needs. If you believe this could be a positive step in your child’s educational journey, do not hesitate to contact your school district. Please know these accommodations may also be available for SAT testing and other standardized testing. Some students struggle with time constraints, despite being adept at understanding and completing the material. Resources exist to improve our odds of success. Wishing everyone a wonderful 2023/2024 school year!