By Anna Gay

Let’s begin with the obvious: Parenting is hard. Thank goodness for school, right? Parents everywhere breathe a collective sigh of relief on the first day of school after a long summer of raising our feral children. But what happens when school is hard, too? What happens when you get near-daily phone calls from your child’s teacher (or counselor or principal) about how your kid is bouncing off the walls or is making the classroom unsafe for other students or isn’t progressing academically or socially?

First and most importantly, don’t panic. Secondly, don’t be offended or defensive. The fact of the matter is that our kids spend more of their waking hours at school than they do with us. As well as we think we know our kids, teachers see more of them. They are invested in the academic, social, physical, and emotional growth of our children—just as much as we are. So if you get a phone call from your child’s teacher asking for a parent conference, trust that they are alerting you to something legitimately concerning potential educational ramifications.

How does it work?

Usually, a teacher or counselor will recommend an evaluation to determine if your child has a learning difference or other condition that might be affecting age-appropriate intellectual, social, emotional, or behavioral development. Parents now have a choice to make: they may take this recommendation to an outside provider—a pediatrician or perhaps a pediatric neurologist— which usually costs, but may get done quicker. Another option is that they can have the testing done through the school at no extra cost, but results are typically available in a couple of months (or more, depending on how backed up the school district is with these initial evaluations). It’s not a fast process for families whose budgets don’t allow for a few hundred dollars in unexpected medical testing—which opens up a whole ‘nother conversation about medical inequity—but if done through the school, parents can expect the process to be dependable and comprehensive. 

The school will rally together a variety of specialists whose sole responsibility is to observe and diagnose children. In addition to parent input (and depending on the nature of the school’s observations) the school might seek observational input from a licensed specialist in school psychology, a speech-language pathologist, a dyslexia interventionist, the school nurse, counselor, and various teachers who have taught your child. Following this full evaluation, the committee will come together to determine whether your child qualifies for an IAP (individualized accommodation plan, better known as a 504 plan) or an IEP (individualized education plan, better known as special education). 

What’s the difference? 

A “504 Plan” comes from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973. Essentially, it means that a child with any condition that affects their ability to learn is entitled to an individualized plan for how the school will provide support for the child to be able to learn alongside their peers. In order to “level the playing field” for a child with a learning difference, accommodations may be made to the learning environment or to the child’s schoolwork. Section 504 covers a variety of conditions, from anxiety to ADHD to broken legs. Parents can ask for changes to the plan at any time, but generally, the school will meet with you annually for an update, or every 3 years for a reevaluation to determine if accommodations are still needed. Here are some of the most common accommodations that schools recommend, or parents ask for:

  • Preferential seating- Your kid can sit wherever it is best for them to learn.
  • Extra time for assignments or assessments, at the campus or state level.
  • Checks for understanding- The teacher will check in one-on-one with your kid for comprehension.
  • Check for completion- For the kids who just “don’t see” the questions.
  • Notes and assignment resources provided ahead of time, before the rest of the class gets it.
  • Small group testing- Maybe your kid tests better with fewer kids in the room to distract them.
  • No points deducted for spelling- A lifesaver for dyslexic students!
  • Chunking assignments- Instead of an essay or project being due all at once, which can be overwhelming, it might be submitted piece by piece.
  • Open book/notes- Some students have memory issues.
  • Use of a computer to type assignments instead of writing by hand.

Special education falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA for short) and is federal law. The child must qualify for at least one of 13 specific disabilities covered by the law. Special education is a little pickier about what conditions qualify because unlike Section 504, the school gets federal funding for each student who requires an IEP. In fact, schools are expressly prohibited from using IDEA funding for anything else but special education students. A child who qualifies as needing special education can get all the accommodations listed above and more, specifically tailored to their educational needs. 

That’s great for other kids, but my kid is just fine.

Remember earlier, when I said not to be offended or defensive? This is especially important if the school is recommending special education placement. It is true that the parent has the ultimate say-so on whether their child receives services or not. However, the decision to qualify a student for an IEP is not made lightly. In fact, quite a lot of people, time, and resources are involved in making that decision. As a high school educator of 17 years, I have seen many students needlessly struggle through school because their parents think they know what special education is. I urge parents to put aside their stigmatized views or traumatic memories of what special education used to look like. Gone are the days of separating and isolating children from their peers; gone are the days of labeling kids as “slow,” and fortunately, gone are the days of children feeling less than their peers because of a designation that doesn’t even follow them into college or the workplace. Again, the ultimate goal is to level the playing field for kids with disabilities.

At the end of the day, all children are different and have different needs. If you believe that “it takes a village,” let the village help.

For more details on the distinctions between 504 and Special Education, head over to this article at