Advocating for your child: the 504 Plan


Apparently, parents can make their children sick just by willing it, according to some medical experts who have won the fight to keep a sick teenager away from her family. In this antagonistic climate, parents might feel timid about raising their voices and insisting on what they feel is right for their children. When you are in a room of educators, school psychologists, counselors and administrators and you know they are all wrong, you must fight the urge to run away. You might be the only voice advocating FOR your child.

I attend a 504 Plan meeting each year for one of my children (one meeting per year is required by law). I meet with his educational team in the fall during Parent-Teacher Conferences to assess how my son is doing so far in the new year, get input from teachers on issues they might be observing while I share input from the point of view of the parent, making suggestions and asking for accommodations. I use this conference to remind the teachers of my son’s 504 Plan. Typically my son has a new set of teachers that might not know him yet, and this is where I am able to introduce him to them and insert myself as a concerned, educated parent onto his educational team (although I am automatically a part, sometimes educators forget that fact). In the spring, his official 504 Plan meeting is held to assess how well the accommodations have worked and to establish next year’s accommodations, which is what this morning’s meeting addressed.

Getting to the point where I am now is not easy for most parents in most school systems. I am very, very lucky. But I also made some choices early on that are paying off now. I had to fight for testing: I told them that I had a professional consultant on standby should there be any resistance to ordering the necessary evaluations. They knew me from dealing with me in the high school; I had been through this with my daughter and I had hired that consultant (they knew I wasn’t bluffing). The results indicated processing issues, distractibility and executive functioning problems. A trip to my son’s physician resulted in an official diagnosis of ADHD establishing the need, under IDEA, for accommodations. A 504 Plan was then designed to ensure that my son was as successful in school as possible. This was back in 2nd grade.

The focus of this blog post, the reason I felt I must share some of my very personal stuff with the world today is because something happened this morning that could have harmed my son if I hadn’t been on the alert.

After the guidance counselor read my son’s teachers’ glowing reports to me, she remarked on how well my son was doing. And he is now an honor student, so, yes, he is doing very well.

Here is where my own experience and vigilance paid off: she suggested, in a quiet, non-confrontational way, that he is doing so well he might not need a 504 Plan anymore. I don’t know why I was prepared for such a suggestion but I was. She was so convincing that I might have been persuaded to go along. I wasn’t.

What does a 504 Plan do for my son and what would happen if it went away? It would mean that my son would no longer have documented accommodations for his ADHD and slow processing issues. His teachers would not be made aware at the beginning of each year that he needs to be gently redirected, requires help organizing projects, and definitely needs additional time for tests and extensive projects. He would no longer get those simple, yet vital accommodations, the very accommodations that have brought him to the place where he is now an honor student.

What made me so vigilant? In working on a piece for my college newspaper on student access to mental health services, I had just interviewed the disabilities counselor at my college about what services she offers to struggling students. She showed me her intake form and explained how important a current 504 Plan (from high school) and established diagnosis were to her ability to institute immediate services and accommodations for a struggling student.

If I hadn’t just conducted that interview two days ago, I might have just said this morning in that meeting, “That is great news! Yes, we can discontinue my son’s 504 Plan.”

I realized after that interview that I needed to insist on continuing my son’s 504 Plan all the way through high school so that when he starts college it is extant and up to date.

This is huge. This could be life-changing for a student who struggles with mild learning disabilities or slow processing. My son is not mentally retarded and does not have a low IQ; he just processes slower than the average kid. When he is finished processing, though, he has dug deep and come up with some profound thoughts on the topic he had been considering. He is a critical thinker. He is not flippant about issues, knowledge, or the beliefs and biases of others. He is developing his own world view and he is taking this very seriously. He is also a talented storyteller and writer. All of this is occurring because he has a safe learning environment, one where he isn’t criticized or alienated from the learning experience. He is welcomed in because his teachers are aware of his learning style and his need for extra time. This is very, very important.

Bottom line: do not let your child’s 504 Plan expire. Keep it current and hold the administration and teachers to its orders. I have only had to remind one teacher about my son’s accommodations, and she very quickly adjusted her approach to how she interacted with my son.

The 504 Plan is a legally-binding educational plan under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Schools jump through hoops to honor them because if they fail to do so they put their federal funding at risk. No school district wants to endanger their funding. If a child needs special education they are also given an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Sometimes children have only an IEP in place. A 504 Plan can have an IEP attached to it. My son doesn’t need special education, just simple accommodations. A diabetic child can have a 504 Plan in place, so there are a variety of reasons for such plans.

For those who poo-poo the idea of ADHD or learning disabilities as being a serious issue, this kid, this honor student, struggled to learn to read. He had difficulty with school all the way through 4th grade. In 5th grade a transformation began. He no longer needed reading lab, became an independent reader and then just took off. He is not a sprinter. He is a marathon runner, and we all know it. He is not a mental regurgitator like most students (because that is how our educational system is set up — tell kids some facts and how to interpret them, then ask them to tell us back what they were just told).

I was prepared this morning to be asked if we should consider discontinuing my son’s 504 Plan. I almost feel like it was a premonition, fate, God or whatever. But I was completely prepared for that question and was able to articulate my reasons for keeping the 504 Plan in place.

I explained to the counselor, and my son’s language arts teacher (who is my son’s favorite teacher), that I had decided that I wanted to keep his 504 Plan in place to aid him in transitioning from middle school to high school in a little over a year, and then how important it was that he have that 504 Plan when he began college, to aid him in that major transition as well. They both admitted that they hadn’t considered that aspect of the 504 Plan. I further pointed out how important it was that each of his teachers understood my son’s need for the very simple accommodations he currently has in place. Without them, he might just get lost or a teacher might think he was a lazy student or disinterested, both of which are far from the truth. Without that 504 Plan my son’s educational experience could be negative instead of positive like it is now.

As parents, we are our children’s advocates. Ultimately, by advocating for our children we teach them to advocate for themselves which was one of the goals that I set for him at last year’s 504 Plan meeting. I wanted my son to initiate more interaction with his teachers, taking more responsibility for his accommodations. He is learning to self-advocate. Several teachers reported success in that area this year, to my delight.

Carefully consider the ramifications of discontinuing your child’s 504 Plan before allowing it. That 504 Plan might be especially important if you move and your child attends a different school, and will definitely make the transition to high school and college a lot easier.

504 Plans really do work.

2 responses »

  1. Thanks for sharing michele! I may not have children in school…but as for myself I take away that its important to fight for important things in life. Whether its for children or yourself. Boy you sure have a voice in life now and I know thats what your teaching your children. Your a great mom michele…and a great friend. Again thanks for always sharing…its always good reading too. 🙂 kat


    • I am glad that I can help even one person to either advocate for themselves or advocate for another. And I always appreciate the encouragement you give me. You are a good friend, too, in many ways. Love, you, Kathy.


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