Many symptoms of ADHD, such as inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity, can make school more challenging for kids. However, there are ways schools can meet the needs of your child by providing special education services and accommodations.
Two federal laws require schools to create special plans for students who need special education help, including kids with ADHD. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires something called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for each special education student. A separate 1973 civil rights law also requires something called a 504 Plan for certain students.
An IEP is a contract that specifies what services and interventions a school will deliver to a child under special education. The IEP also defines goals for the student and how often the goals are measured. A 504 plan is not part of special education and is separate from an IEP. The plan is covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, whether they are public or private.
If you feel your kid could benefit from services but don’t know where to start, George J. DuPaul, Ph.D., professor of school psychology at Lehigh University, says it’s your legal right to request a special education eligibility evaluation from the school at any time.
“The school has to act on that request in a certain number of days, depending on the state guidelines. Parents also have the right to request a 504 plan,” DuPaul says.
Anastasia Kalamaros Skalski, Ph.D., director of professional policy and practice at the National Association of School Psychologists, suggests parents contact the school and ask to meet with the student support team. Often called a child study team, eligibility evaluation team, or MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports) problem-solving team, this group of school personnel might include the following:
- The school principal, who oversees the process
- A psychologist, who assesses the child’s abilities and behaviors
- A special education teacher, who assesses the child’s level of educational need
- A classroom teacher, who offers input on how the child is doing in the classroom
- Others might include a social worker or nurse
“This group will review the information provided by the parents, consider the current educational progress and needs of the student, and determine if the student’s needs warrant a formal evaluation for 504 accommodations or special education services,” says Skalski.
She says it’s important that parents work closely with the team during the evaluation process and share their opinions about the educational and developmental history of their child.
“[Parents] are the only ones that have the full picture of their child’s development since birth,” Skalski says. “As much as parents can contribute educational and health records, and their own perceptions of their child’s development over time, to help inform those things, the better able practitioners will be to identify [a] program for areas of concern.”
The Basics of an IEP
School districts set aside a certain amount of their budget to support kids with special needs. They also receive state and federal funds for these services. Therefore, the cost of services is covered under the IEP.“Because of this, there is a stringent process in terms of getting support for kids with ADHD; it’s formal and criteria have to be met,” says DuPaul. “Kids who get support are typically really struggling academically or behaviorally, relative to their peers, and what would be expected to accomplish based on their ability level.”DuPaul says most kids with ADHD who qualify for special education or IEPs qualify on the basis of having a learning disability or an emotional or behavioral disturbance in addition to their ADHD. However, he notes that children may also qualify based on having ADHD alone under what’s called “other health impaired,” or OHI. That’s a category that was originally created decades ago for students with physical conditions that impact educational functioning, such as Type 1 diabetes. In the early ’90s, the non-profit Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or CHADD, advocated getting ADHD included under the “other health impaired” category.Once an IEP is granted, the services that the school will provide for your child will depend on his or her needs. Services might include intensive support, such as being removed from the classroom to receive instruction from a special education teacher. “For example, if a student with ADHD is having significant problems with math, they may be in a regular class for most of the day, but go to special education class for math,” says DuPaul.
For less intense intervention, a special education teacher or tutor may come into the classroom for a portion of the day to help support your child. An IEP could also include monitoring a child.
“For instance, if a kid’s getting special education for years and improving, they may still have an IEP, but the special education teacher might assess their reading and math skills monthly to see if they need additional support,” explains DuPaul.
He says most children with ADHD don’t get removed from the classroom. Rather they have support brought in to help with subjects they are struggling with.
IEPs might include other services, such as:
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Speech and language therapy
What is a 504 Plan?
A 504 plan guarantees that students get access to a free and appropriate education even if they have limitations in major life areas.
“Interestingly, for 504 plans, a child doesn’t have to be diagnosed with ADHD; they can just be considered ADHD. In other words, exhibiting behaviors that look like ADHD could qualify a student for a 504 plan,” says DuPaul.
A plan can provide educational accommodations for kids with ADHD. However, unlike an IEP, the plan does not provide interventions. For example, the plan may ensure that a child with ADHD receives the following:
- Preferential seating near the teacher to prompt their attention
- Extra time to complete tests
- A less distracting environment in which to take tests
- A reduced workload for homework
- The ability for someone to take notes on the child’s behalf
Although accommodations might make sense on paper, DuPaul points out that the outcomes aren’t always known. For instance, if your child is distracted, having them work in a distraction-free environment seems like a good idea. “While a lot of accommodations that people put in 504 plans sound good, they may not be all that effective from a research perspective. Either they haven’t been studied or have been and have been found to not really make a difference,” he says.
He encourages parents to think outside the box when it comes to what could be included in a 504 plan.
“One of the classic 504 plan components that I [suggest] is something called a Daily Report Card — where we work with the teacher and parent to develop three or four behaviors or goals for the student in a school day,” DuPaul says.
Goals might include a student finishing their work, cooperating with others or staying in their seat. A checklist of the goals is given to the teacher, who uses it daily to indicate how well the child is doing.
“That report card is sent to parents with the intention of the parent providing a reward to the student for doing well — maybe they get extra time playing video games or more dessert. This works well for elementary and middle school aged kids with ADHD,” says DuPaul.
He believes having both an IEP and 504 plan can provide effective support for children.
What if the School Isn’t Doing Its Part?
Many times, a teacher will reach out to inform parents that their child is struggling in class. However, if you haven’t heard from the teacher, it’s OK to reach out to get an idea of how your kid is doing in the classroom. You can ask if your child is staying seated most of the time, paying attention to instruction, is frequently distracted, is speaking out without raising their hand or is rushing through their work.
“Those kinds of things would be helpful to know, so that the parent can match that up with their own experience of their child at home. Most kids with ADHD will exhibit these symptoms across settings,” says DuPaul.
If the teacher and support team at the school are not helping your child get the help he or she needs, you can seek out parent educational advocates in your area who are familiar with your school district, as well as IEPs and 504 plans. These advocates are often willing to attend school meetings with you and help you navigate the process. To find an advocate in your area, contact your state department of education.
“Ideally as a parent, you want to avoid an antagonistic relationship with the school. You want to go in as a partner,” says DuPaul. “So, the first choice is to work with the school. But if you’re experiencing road blocks, educational advocates can be helpful.”
National Association of School Psychologists. Position Statement: Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.