There are many options for students to receive additional support and services in school. Parents are encouraged to discuss their child's needs with the school. Collaboration between parents and schools can help build a good relationship and tends to be far more helpful for the child. It may be possible for a child to receive unofficial accommodations (such as the child being seated closer to the teacher to improve on-task behavior) without the need of a formal plan. However, sometimes a child needs more support, which may include an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan. These terms and the processes involved in them can be confusing for parents. It can also be challenging for a school to explain these services to parents.
Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and a Section 504 Plans are both formal plans to help a child receive additional support and accommodation in school. They both offer protection for the child as well. Both require the child to have an identified disabling condition, and the disability must affect the child's ability to function in the school environment. This article provides a brief primer on these two options for students, but it is not exhaustive and cannot accurately capture the variations in each state's, district's, or school's implementation. It is important that parents consult with their schools to learn more about the processes involved in developing these plans.
Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
An IEP is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is designed to ensure that all students receive an appropriate education regardless of a disability. I usually explain to parents that an IEP is basically a more substantial support system. It will involve more paperwork, more meetings, and can provide more protections for the child. IDEA is federally-mandated and partially federally funded. The funds supplied may not actually be sufficient to cover all of needs of students within a school (the notion that schools "profit" by identifying disabilities is not unsupported by evidence). A student may receive an IEP for any of 13 categories of disability. Some of these are fairly obvious and easy to understand (e.g., blindness, deafness, autism, learning disabilities...), while other disabilities tend to get lumped into the category of "Other Health Impairment" (or "OHI"). OHI includes medical disabilities that may have an educational impact, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Another category, Emotional Disturbance, can be harder to understand, but essentially includes any persistent, severe emotional disturbance that impacts the student's ability to function in the school (such as severe depression or anxiety). Students with severe behavioral problems may not be covered under an IEP.
An IEP includes identification of the primary (and secondary) disability, a set of goals for the student (e.g., significant improvement in academic skills) and a set of accommodations and services that will be put in place to help the student achieve the goals. All of this is established at a meeting with the parents and school representatives. Parents play an important role in setting and agreeing to goals and, if parents are not satisfied with the goals and accommodations, then they can refuse to sign the IEP and enter Due Process. However, whenever possible, the parents and the school should reach an agreement to help the child receive the support they need and to help maintain a collaborative relationship between school and home. It is important that parents ask questions when unsure about something, to prevent later disagreements or frustration. The meetings can be intimidating for parents, which is also why it is important that they take their time in reading through and understanding all of the materials and decisions involved. The school psychologist is an advocate for the child and an important resource for parents to make use of.
ADA - Section 504 Plan
A Section 504 Plan is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is intended to ensure that all individuals with disabilities receive free and appropriate accommodations. Because of this, Section 504 Plans can serve a very broad range of situations, including temporary medical disability (for example, a broken leg). Any medical condition that may impact the child's ability to function in the school environment and school activities may receive accommodation under Section 504. As mentioned, this may include temporary medical conditions, but also long-term or persistent medical needs, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Section 504 Plans are typically "lighter" than an IEP in that they may not have as long of a duration, may require fewer meetings and less paperwork, and may not provide as extensive accommodations. Nevertheless, Section 504 Plans can be very valuable for students.
Section 504 is federally-mandated by law, but does not receive the financial support that may be available under an IEP. More intensive accommodations and needs are usually served under an IEP instead of a Section 504 Plan. However, it is possible to have both a Section 504 Plan and an IEP at the same time.
Parents are often concerned about their child being "labeled" by receiving services. This is a valid concern, though not always as likely as parents may fear. There are two broad types of services students may receive: pull-out and inclusion. Pull-out services involve the student being removed from the classroom or school activities for a period of time to receive services to meet their educational goals. Pull-out may range from very brief (e.g., 15 minutes) to very long (e.g., entire day in a self-contained classroom). Schools generally try to minimize the amount of pull-out time, partially because it has been found that students tend to develop better socially and are better adjusted if they are in the classroom with their peers. As a result, schools have increasingly relied on inclusion services, which keep the student in the regular classroom, but with additional supports or modifications to assignments or activities. Inclusion classrooms may feature two or more teachers to help tend to the individual needs of students receiving services. These teachers often help all of the students in the classroom, though, which helps reduce any stigma from receiving special education services.
Students and teachers are often unaware of the specific needs or category under which a student is receiving services. That information is considered "privileged", so only those who need to know about it are granted access. Nevertheless, it is likely that students will be able to identify differences between them and their peers, regardless of measures taken to prevent it. Students are very sensitive to differences, and even if a student received no accommodations for a disability, their peers will likely be aware of a difference anyway. Therefore, it is usually best to ensure that the student is receiving whatever services are most helpful, regardless of the potential for stigma. The benefits typically outweigh the costs.