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Oh, where to begin? Here is help to navigate school 504 plans and IEPs

Kris Hey-Orlando Sentinel • May 3, 2013 at 4:01 PM

We recently had state testing week, and my son is in third grade.

This means it was his first major standardized test, but he was calm and

prepared each morning. He was even getting up early and getting ready

without any prodding from me.

He’s growing up. It amazes me because just a few months ago he needed that prodding daily.

My advice to him about the tests was to try his best to focus, read

all the answers before choosing one, try to relax and just try to do his


Our son is on an individualized education plan (IEP) at school, so

the standardized test is more challenging for him than students not on a

plan. An IEP is a written plan for the special education of a child

with a disability, according to the Florida Department of Education.

My hope is I can help some of you just beginning or going through the 504 or IEP process for your child.

There are steps that happen before a child is eligible for an IEP

(and, believe me, it is not always easy. It took years in our case).

Other measures to help your child, such as a Section 504 plan must be

taken first. In a Section 504, according to the DOE, the plan describes

the accommodations that the school will provide to support the student’s


Some of the benefits 504s and IEPs provide can include everything

from special classroom seating (which can help with vision and hearing

issues), extra time and help from teachers on tests, including the FCAT,

having math word problems and other classwork read to the child if he

or she is unable to read on grade level, among other things.

I won’t get into the specific details of my son’s IEP, out of respect

for him and the teenager he will become — you know, one who might be

mortified knowing his school life is available on the Internet. That

said, I have already let you know he has learning disabilities and ADHD,

and we are not ashamed or secretive about it. He knows we love him just

as he is and constantly reinforce with him that many children learn

differently. His way of learning is his own special way, and it’s

nothing to be embarrassed about or to hide from others.

Here are a few points of advice, based on my five years of dealing

with 504s and an IEP, and after many, many talks with teacher friends,

local child advocates and other experts on learning disabilities and

special education.

1. FOLLOW YOUR INTUITION. You might be a parent

suspecting something is not quite right with your child’s school

performance or behavior. You might have a gut feeling; if you do, listen

to it. Maybe your son or daughter is mixing up letters or numbers,

having trouble focusing, having trouble reading, pronouncing simple

words incorrectly, writing illegibly, spacing written words oddly or is

hyperactive. It does not matter what grade your child is in at the time.

We first noticed a problem in kindergarten. Keep an eye on your

observations, inform your child’s teacher of your concern(s) immediately

and keep following up. Don’t ever feel like you are overreacting; you

know your child better than anyone else.


If you feel it’s time to get your child evaluated or your school

advises this might be a good idea, as it was in our case, take him or

her for a neuropsychological evaluation. This report is done outside of

the school, takes several hours for the child to complete over a few

sessions, but it can show ADHD, sensory processing disorders, learning

disabilities and so much more. You can find psychologists in your area

and many pediatricians can help you decide on the right person. Make

copies of your final report, bring that report with you to future

meetings with school officials. For me, that report was ammunition I had

to keep referring to over and over when school officials did not “see”

in my son what was said in the report. He started with a 504 for a few

years, and then his second-grade teacher eventually saw and believed all

the findings of our report. I will always be indebted to her and glad I

never gave up. She and other caring and observant teachers helped write

and convince the school he needed an IEP.

3. GET CONNECTED. Find people who can help you

figure out what to do and where to get help. There are Facebook groups,

teachers, special education and IEP advocates who all can help. Much of

the help is free, but some advocates do charge and will attend meetings

with you to help your child. Most parents have no idea where to begin to

get the special teaching their child needs and they simply just set up a

school meeting where all kinds of terms are used like “tiers” and

“interventions” that might fly right over your head. My best resource is

a friend, Lyman L. Dukes III, Ph.D., who is an associate dean with

University of South Florida’s College of Education and an Associate

Professor, Special Education, at USF in St. Petersburg, Fla. He also

authored “Preparing Students with Disabilities for College Success: A

Practical Guide for Transition” (Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company,

$37.95). He has helped me cope with my fear, realize this process is not

a death sentence for my son to attend college and strongly encouraged

me to always advocate for my son. He always answers my sometimes-frantic

questions, and I am thankful to have an expert as a friend.

4. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. I suggest learning all you can

about interventions, 504s and IEPs before you set up your first school

meeting. Read the links below. Write down your questions and take notes.

It really helps to be prepared because once that ball gets rolling you

are going to have a few meetings a year with at least four or five

school officials in the room. It can be intimidating, especially when

you don’t agree with what they might be saying. (No, your child does not


5. ADVOCATE. This is your child. There is no one

more important. You might need to get a little snippy at times with

school administration or teachers, but you are your child’s biggest

helper. These days I call it advocating, but there were days it really

felt like a battle to get the school system to hear me. I know my child.

I knew he needed more help than he was getting and he needed it from

teachers trained in teaching learning disabled children.

Now, more than three-quarters of the way into his first year on an

IEP, I can honestly say my son has made remarkable progress. Watching

him read and seeing great improvement overall brings tears to my eyes.



National Research Center on Learning Disabilities http://www.nrcld.org/

Learning Disabilities http://www.ldonline.org/

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