Least Restrictive Environment, IEPs and 504 Plans: Navigating School Accommodation Options
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Knowing that a child is struggling is heartbreaking and frustrating for parents. In today's blog, Dr. Ghilain reviews the differences between an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and a Section 504 Plan. These plans are implemented in the school setting to provide support to struggling learners.
Educating in the Least Restrictive Environment
A child's full-time job is to be a student. When struggles arise "on the job", procedures are put in place to assist the child and help him or her get back on track. If a teacher or parent notices a child struggling, often the first step is RTI, or Response to Intervention. The teacher may provide extra support or document strategies that he/she uses to support the child. If the child has difficulties despite these interventions, a few options are available.
A child has the right to be educated in a setting that promotes success and maximizes his or her potential. Often, identifying the right "fit" between classroom setting and child is the first step. There are many classroom settings available.
Self-contained classrooms are a wonderful option for children with disabilities who may learn best with less peer distraction and more teacher support. In these classrooms, children with special needs are educated separately from typically-developing peers, in order to provide extra support and structure. However, this level of support may be inappropriate for children with milder challenges.
Education law states that children need to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment or LRE. LRE states that for those that may need a little more support, but do not require removal from the mainstream classroom (mainstream meaning general education classroom), an inclusion-based classroom setting may be most appropriate. This means a child is included in the classroom with other typically-developing peers, but still receives support or modifications to material presented. For example, the child with a fine motor disability may receive a copy of teacher's notes so he or she does not have to write every single word from the board. Or, a child with ADHD may be seated closer to the teacher's desk so that a gentle reminder can be given when his or her attention begins to wander.
So why is the LRE sought out? This maximizes the amount of time a child is kept in mainstream classrooms, allowing for ongoing opportunities to socialize and interact with peers. While the academic aspects of school are important (math, science, language arts), we know that children also are learning to navigate friendships, and thus maximizing time with peers is equally as important.
Individualized Education Program (IEP) vs. Section 504 Plan
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a legally-mandated document that sets forth specific classroom instructions and curriculum modifications required to help a child succeed. This document is reviewed and updated yearly, with supplemental testing occurring every three years to monitor a child's progress. There are 13 eligibility designations currently used when an IEP is put in place, such as "Specific Learning Disability" or "Other Health Impairment". An IEP typically outlines the amount of time a child is in a mainstream classroom (e.g., only for specials such as gym or music), and the percentage of time the child may receive pull-out or resource room instruction.
When a child does not require modifications to the curriculum, but would benefit from additional support in the classroom setting, often a Section 504 Plan is recommended. The 504 plan is used for children who may need preferential seating in a classroom or extra time on tests or assignments, but who otherwise does not need to leave the classroom or receive supplemental instruction. Children who may benefit from a word bank or copies of teacher notes/handouts may benefit from the use of this type of plan.
While every child is unique, there are many plans and programs to help a child succeed!