If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or any condition that impacts his/her school performance, it is very important to know what your options & rights are with regard to special education. There are 14 different categories of disability under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Most mental health related disorders fall in two categories – Other Health Impairment or Emotional Disturbance.
Under IDEA, children with disabilities must be taught in a regular (aka general education) classroom as much as possible with appropriate related aids and services. This is called the least restrictive environment (LRE). Removal from a regular (aka general education) environment should only occur when the severity of the disability prevents the child from learning even with aids and services provided. Many students who receive services under IDEA are not necessarily in special education classrooms; many stay in their regular classrooms with appropriate modifications and/or related services.
Special education eligibility is determined by a team made up of a child’s teacher(s), school psychologist(s), principal, parents and other appropriate school personnel. This team uses information from various sources including input & ideas from parents, notes from doctors (if available) and teachers, school progress reports & test results in order to create the most appropriate academic plan & accommodations for a child based on his/her disability classification and needs. There are two types of plans in special education – IEP (individualized education program) or 504 Plan. Below is a helpful site outlining the differences between the two.
So which plan is better for your child? It all depends on your child’s needs. In addition to having a disability, there must be conclusive information to support that your child’s disability creates an adverse impact on his/her educational performance and that specialized instruction is necessary for his/her success. Your child may have a disability but does not necessarily qualify for special education services or an IEP.
So when is an IEP the better option? Students who need more than just modifications to a regular classroom or education would need an IEP. My son has an IEP because the regular high school cannot provide the appropriate accommodations or services (ex: smaller school setting, frequent psychotherapy) he needs to be successful.
When is a 504 Plan the better option? A student does not have to be classified under one of the 14 categories of disability to be eligible for a 504 Plan. It can be a mental or physical disability that impacts a “major life function” and does not have to have an educational impact. This plan is a better option when the student is able to function successfully in a regular education environment with appropriate accommodations.
The IEP has strict legal requirements about who participates in creating an IEP. It is also very specific about setting academic goals and describing all of the services the school will provide in order to accomplish those goals. It is also very precise and process driven with regards to Parent Notices/Consent, annual reviews & changes, dispute resolutions, etc.
Whether you opt for an IEP or a 504 Plan, as a parent you must:
- be informed about your child’s diagnosis, its impact on his/her education and what can be done both at school and at home to help
- understand the IEP, 504 Plan and all State/Federal laws that protect children with disabilities
- ask frequent questions or seek guidance so that you completely understand the process, your rights and how these plans are intended to help your child; these plans are legal documents so you must know what you are consenting to
- keep open & regular communication with school administrators (child study team) and teachers to understand your child’s progress & issues; immediately schedule meetings with the team to address any concerns
- get everything in writing (ex: communications between you & schools, progress reports, executed copies of IEPs or 504 Plans) and keep them organized in one place for easy access
You are your child’s strongest advocate first and foremost. Play an active role in planning his/her special education. Make suggestions and speak up if you feel a goal, objective or accommodation is not appropriate. And maintain a good working relationship with schools because after all, this is a partnership and you need the schools to ensure that your child is receiving the best possible services.